La dame blanche  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

La dame blanche (The White Lady) is an opéra comique in three acts by the French composer François-Adrien Boïeldieu (1775-1834). The libretto was written by Eugène Scribe and is based on episodes from no less than five of the works by Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, including his novels The Monastery, Guy Mannering, and The Abbot. The opera has typical elements of the Romantic in its Gothic mode, including an exotic Scottish locale, a lost heir, a mysterious castle, a hidden fortune, and a ghost, in this case benevolent. The work was one of the first attempts to introduce the fantastic into opera, and is a model for works such as Meyerbeer's Robert le diable and Gounod's Faust. The opera's musical style also heavily influenced later operas like Lucia di Lammermoor, I puritani and La jolie fille de Perth.


Performance history

La dame blanche was first performed in Paris on 10 December 1825 at the Théâtre Feydeau by the Opéra-Comique opera company. It was a major success and became a standby of the 19th-century operatic repertory in France and Germany. By 1862, the Opéra-Comique had given more than a 1,000 performances of the opera. The popularity of the opera began to diminish towards the very end of the 19th-century and performances since have been rare. The opera was recently revived in Paris in 1996 by conductor Marc Minkowski. A few different recording of the opera have been made (see below).

Musical analysis

Boieldieu’s enjoyable score is highly expressive and full of striking numbers. Of particular note are Jenny’s ballad, Brown’s entrance aria and, the music sung by Anna, which is highly florid and preceded by harp arpeggios whenever the White Lady appears. The central dramatic focus of the opera is the auction scene, an ensemble in the Italian style, which has an high intensity not equalled or surpassed by any other opéra comique of that period, either by Boieldieu or his contemporaries. The aria from the opera that is most often performed today in recital is the tenor aria, “Viens, gentille dame” (“Come, Gentle Lady”). The opera also interestingly makes use of Scottish folk tunes.


Setting: Scotland, 1753

The Count and Countess Avenel have both died in exile, leaving the fate of their castle and estate to their wicked and dihonest steward, Gaveston. The property is supposed to go to the Avenel's son, Julien, but he is missing. Dickson, a tenant farmer on the land of the late Count, and his spouse Jenny are about to celebrate the baptism of their infant son when they realize that they do not have a godfather. A youthful officer in the English army, Georges Brown, offers to take the position. Dickson informs Brown that the castle is going to be auctioned by Gaveston, who hopes to buy it and the title for himself. Jenny sings the Ballad of The White Lady ("D’ici voyez ce beau domaine"), the "White Lady" being the protecting spirit of the Avenels. Dickson receives a correspondence from the White Lady beckoning him to the castle. As he is too scared to obey, Brown goes in his place.

Meanwhile, Anna, an orphan raised by the Avenels, tells the elderly housekeeper Marguerite how she cared for an injured soldier who reminded her of Julien, who was her childhood sweetheart. Gaveston proclaims his plans for the auction the next morning. Brown appears, searching shelter for the night. Left alone, he sings a cavatina, "Viens, gentille dame". Anna enters, disguised as The White Lady, in a white veil. She recognizes Brown as the soldier she took care of in Hanover. Tomorrow he must obey her implicitly. Brown agrees to do so.

The following morning the auction occurs. Dickson, on behalf of the Avenel tenants, bets in opposition to Gaveston but quickly hits his limit. Encouraged by Anna, Brown places a bid in the auction and soon outbids the steward, buying the castle for 500, 000 francs. However, Dickson does not have the money and if he doesn't pay before midday he will be thrown into prison.

Anna and Marguerite look for the statue of the White Lady in which is stashed the wealth of the Avenels. Brown has the curious feeling that he remembers the castle. Meanwhile, Gaveston receives the news that George Brown is in fact the missing Julien Avenel, although Brown does not know it. Anna overhears the news and sets a plan in motion. At the strike of 12 noon, the White Lady appears with a treasure-chest. Thwarted, Gaveston tears off her veil in rage to expose Anna, who then reveals Brown's true identity as Julien. Julien and Anna are happily reunited.

Selected recordings

  • 1962 - Michel Sénéchal (Georges Brown), Françoise Louvay (Anna), Jane Berbié (Jenny), André Doniat (Dickson), Adrien Legros (Gaveston), Geneviève Baudoz (Marguerite) - Orchestre symphonique et Choeur de Paris, Pierre Stoll (conductor) - (Accord)
  • 1964 - Nicolai Gedda, Mimi Aarden, Sophia Van Sant, Guus Hoekman, Erna Spoorenberg, Henk Drissen and Franz Vroons with Jean Fournet conducting the Hilversum Radio Chorus and Hilversum Radio Orchestra. There are two issues of this version: Melodram catalog #: 50033 - Opera D'Oro catalog #: 1364

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