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Tartarin: The Opera That Never Was

Channelling Puccini

Much is made in The Heat of the Sun of a Puccini opera called Tartarin. This opera does not exist. Why mention it? My narrator, on the second page of the preface he calls the “Overture,” writes: “The opera, you will recall, is based on a novel by Alphonse Daudet. In the figure of Tartarin, the provincial braggart who is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza united in a single man, there is an allegory of the clash between fantasy and reality and the comedy that results from their irreconcilable claims.” Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) was, of course, a real-life French writer and Tartarin de Tarascon (1872) is among his most famous works.

Further references to Puccini operas, and in particular to Tartarin, crop up later in the narrative; this mysterious opera is even described at one point as the work Puccini completed between Tosca (1900) and The Girl of the Golden West (1910). In reality, the work the composer completed in that period was Madame Butterfly (1904); but that opera does not and cannot exist in the world of The Heat of the Sun – in which the events depicted in Madame Butterfly are fact, not fiction.

However, the notion of a Puccini opera based on Tartarin de Tarascon is not a fanciful one. Puccini, so his biographers tell us, really did begin work on such a project, but abandoned it in favour of Madame Butterfly. Learning this fact inspired me to seek out the Daudet novel – or perhaps, strictly speaking, novella – a farcical comedy which, on the face of it, is a story as unlike Madame Butterfly as it is possible to be. Yet, as one looks at both stories, intriguing similarities appear. Both deal with the theme of illusion versus reality. Both depict the lure of the foreign. Both offer rich possibilities for “exotic” staging, while being at the same time realistic (i.e., non-fantastical) and contemporary stories.

What would Puccini’s Tartarin have been like? We shall never know. (I am unaware of any surviving evidence.) But in an early draft of The Heat of the Sun, I described a performance in full. In due course, this had to be cut. It was self-indulgent and slowed the action. But for those who wish, like me, to speculate on the Puccini comic opera that never was, I offer here my – wholly imaginary – scenario for the work that might have premiered at La Scala in February, 1904, in place of Madame Butterfly. (I had better add that Puccini, in my view, made the right choice. Tartarin may well have been a delightful work, but it would never have been the world-shattering classic Madame Butterfly has become.)

 

TARTARIN

an opera by Giacomo Puccini
from the novel by Alphonse Daudet
(as channelled by D. R.)

Alphonse Daudet

Alphonse Daudet

ACT ONE

Scene One. The curtain rises on a capacious apartment adorned with swords and firearms. All the weapons of the world are here: carbines, rifles, blunderbusses, daggers of all nations, knuckle-dusters, clubs, lassoes. French windows open to a garden lush with exotic plants. This is Tartarin’s house in Tarascon, where the man who is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza rolled into one dreams of heroic adventure, yet never goes out to find it.

A hunting party, with Tartarin (tenor) in the lead, returns from a day in the field. Tartarin boasts of great exploits; the chorus takes up a drinking song; Tartarin launches into an aria about Africa and the lions he will shoot when he goes there one day. Is Tartarin a mere braggart? No, he is a romantic, a visionary, a man with a soul!

Detaching himself from the party comes Captain Barbassou (baritone), a good-natured cynic who enjoys ragging Tartarin. Soon, Barbassou’s ship will sail to Algeria. Will Tartarin not accompany him? The chorus takes up the challenge and Tartarin has no choice. He must make his dreams reality.

Scene Two. Swiftly the scene changes to the docks in Algiers, where a chorus of blackamoor porters sing of their joys and sorrows under the blazing African sun. Passengers, colonists clad in white, disembark from Barbassou’s ship; then comes Tartarin, a fantastical figure in Moorish dress, declaring he is here to hunt the lions. The passengers are astonished. Some laugh. Tartarin and Barbassou sing the celebrated duet in which the baritone undercuts the tenor’s soaring extravagances, revealing to the delighted crowds how Tartarin and his fellow hunters back in Tarascon have shot nothing more than the caps they hurl into the air. And why have the passengers not seen Tartarin before? The hero’s been seasick in his cabin, that’s why!

Affronted, Tartarin turns from Barbassou. But now, weaving across the docks, comes a veiled lady, trilling a romantic air. Tartarin gasps. All he can see of the lady is her eyes, but he is smitten all the same. Tartarin is in love! But swiftly, ecstasy gives way to despair. Already the lady is gone. How can he find her again? The case is hopeless; but all along a burly fellow has been playing cards at a café table by the quayside. Now he introduces himself: Prince Gregory of Montenegro (bass). Paying his respects to the great hunter, the prince offers to introduce him to the young beauty. Tartarin embraces a true friend. Oh, but shall he really know the joy of that lady’s embraces? Cue the great aria, “La bellezza in quegli occhi” – the beauty of those eyes.

 

French actor “Raimu” as Tartarin in Raymond Bernard’s film Tartarin de Tarascon (1934)

ACT TWO

Scene One. A Moorish house, all exotic tiles and cushions and draping silken scarves, with a glimpsed inner courtyard of palms and plashing fountains. Here Tartarin has lived for months, lolling in luxury with the lady Prince Gregory has found for him, whose name is Baya (soprano). Here are the prince and his hangers-on at a gambling party with Tartarin. Muezzins wail from a tower outside the window, but in Tartarin’s bower of bliss there is no end to pleasure. Why, Tartarin is a sultan! (By how much, now, has the fool been fleeced?)

But look, here’s Barbassou with news from home. In Tarascon only one question is on the lips of all: what has become of Tartarin? Where are the lion-skins he promised to send back? Tartarin realises he has betrayed his dream, while Barbassou appraises the slatternly soprano. And is this not, he suggests with a laugh, a certain lady he knows? Has he not seen her somewhere before? Prince Gregory, sensing trouble, offers to accompany Tartarin on his hunting expedition. Preparations are at once in train. Tartarin and Baya sing their great leave-taking duet, “Il mio amore puro, sarò sempre costante” – my pure love, I shall be constant always.

Scene Two. We find ourselves at a shabby wayside stop in the desert. Look at this broken-down stagecoach, once the pride of the road between Nimes and Tarascon, now a shabby slave of the “Algerian railway”! The chorus sings of the stagecoach’s ignominy as the broken-down vehicle circles round and round. When it stops, Tartarin, tumbling out in his finery, is deep in colloquy with a stranger who quizzes him about the hunting he has planned. Lions? The stranger scoffs. He humiliates Tartarin. But wait: here comes a lion, led by two blackamoors! Tartarin starts. Swiftly a crowd gathers about the lion and only with difficulty does Prince Gregory hold back Tartarin. Alas, the great hunter has a disappointment in store. This is a tame, blind lion, a sacred beast that accompanies brothers from a monastery as they travel North Africa, begging for alms.

A tame, blind lion! Tartarin is appalled. So noble a beast, reduced to this! But come, says Prince Gregory, we must purchase a camel. Tartarin, to a merry chorus, sways absurdly on the beast’s high hump. Night draws on. Tartarin declares he must lie in wait, waiting for his lion. “I’ll stay with you,” says Prince Gregory, but Tartarin, who must be a hero alone, ushers his friend away, only, for safe keeping, entrusting him with his pocketbook filled with banknotes.

Darkness. A long anticipation. Critics agree that the great night-watch scene, with its ominous minor chords, its entangling strange curlicues of melody, its subtly changing lighting, is one of Puccini’s masterstrokes. Here is Tartarin waiting, waiting . . . until at last, when it is almost morning, come the padding paws, the roar, and the lion is upon him! Tartarin fires.

What happens next happens as in a dream; but perhaps, in truth, Tartarin is waking from a dream. In rapid succession he learns that he has killed the blind monastery lion; that he is under arrest; that Prince Gregory has absconded with his pocketbook, leaving Tartarin alone in the desert. Broken, he sings his great lament, “Il mio sogno dei leoni è sopra” – my dream of the lions is over.

 

Poster for Raymond Bernard’s 1934 film

ACT THREE

Scene One. Back in the Moorish house, Barbassou revels with Tartarin’s mistress, the wily Baya, who, as it turned out, really was the girl he thought he had met before. And now Prince Gregory is there, too. Oh, but poor Tartarin! The prince sings of his friend’s heroic death. Baya weeps, abashed; even Barbassou is moved. But what’s this? At the door, a ragged stranger! A stranger on a camel? But no – it is Tartarin! Baya tries to cover the evidence of her debauches. There is no time. At once Tartarin is among them and knows he has been betrayed. He rushes at Prince Gregory. A fight, a fight! But Barbassou reconciles them. Isn’t it really rather funny, he asks? What is the world, after all, but a comedy? “Il mondo è una commedia,” sings the baritone, and gladly the others take up the chorus, but not before Tartarin has slipped away. Appearing in the minaret outside the window, he counterpoints the muezzins’ wails with a wail of his own, denouncing the dreams that have beguiled him for so long. Can this, then, be the end? Is Tartarin a changed man, sadder and wiser?

Scene Two. There is a last scene still to come. We are in a square with oleander trees, whitewashed little houses and a sturdy bridge in the background under a sky of cornflower blue. Tarascon! Dear Tarascon! This is Tartarin’s homecoming, but not the one he feared. Before making his way back from Algiers, Tartarin had sent home the skin of the monastery lion. The locals had been amazed. Already, legend has inflated his exploits. Tartarin, it is said, has slain ten, twenty – nay, a hundred lions! For if Tartarin has been disillusioned, Tarascon has not. The Tarasconers are as credulous as they ever were (of course, for they have never left Tarascon!). And look: has Tartarin forgotten already the lessons he has learned? Crossing the bridge, swaggering high on his camel, he arrives home to his victory parade. Groups of villagers sing and shout. There are bands, bells. How splendid a scene, so warm-hearted, radiant, rich and clamorous! Who could have doubted Tartarin of Tarascon? “Grandini, grandini, l’eroe di Algeri!” the chorus sing – hail, hail, the hero of Algeria!