La muette de Portici

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La muette de Portici (The Dumb Girl of Portici, or The Mute Girl of Portici) originally called Masaniello, ou La muette de Portici, is an opera in five acts by Daniel Auber, with a libretto by Germain Delavigne, revised by Eugène Scribe. The work has an important place in musical history, as it is generally regarded as the earliest French grand opera.


The opera was first given at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opéra on 29 February 1828.[1] The role of Masaniello was taken by the famous tenor Adolphe Nourrit and Princess Elvire was sung by Laure Cinti-Damoreau. The dancer Lise Noblet played the mute title role, a part later taken by other dancers such as Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler, also the actress Harriet Smithson (the future wife of Hector Berlioz). Alphonse was created by Alexis Dupont, who was Lise Noblet's brother-in-law. The conductor at the premiere was François Habeneck.[2]

La muette was innovative in a number of ways. First, it marked the introduction into opera of mime and gesture as an integral part of an opera plot (although these formats were familiar to Parisian audiences from ballet and mélodrame).[3] Its historic setting, liberal political implications, use of popular melodies, handling of large orchestra and chorus and spectacular stage effects immediately marked it as different from preceding types of opera, in retrospect earning it the title of the first of the genre of 'Grand Opera'. The journal Pandore commented after the premiere

"for a long time, enlightened critics have thought that alongside the old tragédie lyrique it was possible to have a more realistic and natural drama which might suit the dignity of this theatre."[4]

The new genre was consolidated by Rossini's Guillaume Tell (1829) and Meyerbeer's Robert le diable (1831).

La muette was revived in Paris immediately after the French July Revolution of 1830. Later, at a performance of this opera at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels on 25 August 1830, a riot broke out during the patriotic and revolutionary duet "Amour sacré de la patrie" that became the signal for the Belgian Revolution, which led to Belgian independence.[5] Richard Wagner remarked, in his 1871 Reminiscences of Auber, that the opera

"whose very representation had brought [revolutions] about, was recognised as an obvious precursor of the July Revolution, and seldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event."[6]


Role Voice type Premiere Cast, 29 February 1828
(Conductor: François Habeneck)
Alphonse, son of the Viceroy of Naples tenor Alexis Dupont
Elvire, his fiancée soprano Laure Cinti-Damoreau
Masaniello, a fisherman tenor Adolphe Nourrit
Fenella, his sister dancer Lise Noblet
Pietro, friend of Masaniello bass Henri-Bernard Dabadie
Borella, friend of Masaniello bass Ferdinand Prévôt
Moreno, friend of Masaniello bass Charles-Louis Pouilley[7]
Lorenzo, confidant of Alphonse tenor Jean-Étienne-Auguste Massol
Selva, officer bass Ferdinand Prévôt
Lady in waiting to Elvire soprano Larotte


The opera is loosely based on the historical uprising of Masaniello against Spanish rule in Naples in 1647.

Act 1[edit]

We witness the wedding of Alfonso, son of the Viceroy of Naples, with the Spanish Princess Elvira. Alfonso, who has seduced Fenella, the Neapolitan Masaniello's mute sister and abandoned her, is tormented by doubts and remorse, fearing that she has committed suicide. During the festival Fenella rushes in to seek protection from the Viceroy, who has kept her a prisoner for the past month. She has escaped from her prison and narrates the story of her seduction by gestures, showing a scarf which her lover gave her. Elvira promises to protect her and proceeds to the altar, Fenella vainly trying to follow. In the chapel Fenella recognizes her seducer in the bridegroom of the Princess. When the newly married couple come out of the church, Elvira presents Fenella to her husband and discovers from the mute girl's gestures, that he was her faithless lover. Fenella flees, leaving Alfonso and Elvira in sorrow and despair.

Act 2[edit]

The fishermen, who have been brooding in silence over the tyranny of their foes, begin to assemble. Pietro, Masaniello's friend, has sought for Fenella in vain, but at length she appears of her own accord and confesses her wrongs. Masaniello is infuriated and swears to have revenge, but Fenella, who still loves Alfonso, does not mention his name. Then Masaniello calls the fishermen to arms and they swear perdition to the enemy of their country.

Act 3[edit]

The Naples marketplace

People go to and fro, selling and buying, all the while concealing their purpose under a show of merriment and carelessness. Selva, the officer of the Viceroy's body-guard, from whom Fenella has escaped, discovers her and the attempt to rearrest her is the sign for a general revolt, in which the people are victorious.

Act 4[edit]

Fenella comes to her brother's dwelling and describes the horrors, which are taking place in the town. The relation fills his noble soul with sorrow and disgust. When Fenella has retired to rest, Pietro enters with comrades and tries to excite Masaniello to further deeds, but he only wants liberty and shrinks from murder and cruelties.

They tell him that Alfonso has escaped and that they are resolved to overtake and kill him. Fenella, who hears all, decides to save her lover. At this moment Alfonso begs at her door for a hiding-place. He enters with Elvira, and Fenella, though at first disposed to avenge herself on her rival, pardons her for Alfonso's sake. Masaniello, reentering, assures the strangers of his protection and even when Pietro denounces Alfonso as the Viceroy's son, he holds his promise sacred. Pietro with his fellow-conspirators leaves him full of rage and hatred.

Meanwhile the magistrate of the city presents Masaniello with the Royal crown and he is proclaimed King of Naples.

Act 5[edit]

Before the Viceroy's palace

In a gathering of fishermen, Pietro confides to Moreno that he has administered poison to Masaniello, in order to punish him for his treason, and that the King of one day will soon die. While he speaks, Borella rushes in to tell of a fresh troop of soldiers, marching against the people with Alfonso at their head. Knowing that Masaniello alone can save them, the fishermen entreat him to take the command of them once more and Masaniello, though deadly ill and half bereft of his reason, complies with their request. The combat takes place, while an eruption of Vesuvius is going on. Masaniello falls in the act of saving Elvira's life. On hearing these terrible tidings Fanella rushes to the terrace, from which she leaps into the abyss beneath, while the fugitive noblemen take again possession of the city.[8]


La Muette de Portici played a major role in establishing the genre of grand opera. Many of its elements – the five-act structure, the obligatory ballet sequence, the use of spectacular stage effects, the focus on romantic passions against a background of historical troubles – would become the standard features of the form for the rest of the 19th century. Grand opera would play a far more important role in the subsequent career of the librettist than that of the composer. Auber went on to write three more works in the genre: Le Dieu et la bayadère (1830), Gustave III (1833) and Le lac des fées (1839). But their fame would be eclipsed by the grand operas for which Scribe provided the libretti: Meyerbeer's Robert le diable (1831) and Les Huguenots (1836) and Halévy's La Juive (1835). Nevertheless, Auber's pioneering work caught the attention of the young Richard Wagner, who was eager to create a new form of music drama. He noted that in La Muette, "arias and duets in the wonted sense were scarcely to be detected any more, and certainly, with the exception of a single prima-donna aria in the first act, did not strike one at all as such; in each instance it was the ensemble of the whole act that riveted attention and carried one away...".[9]

It also played a large role in the founding of the Kingdom of Belgium. The riots that led to the independence started after hearing the opera, with its nationalistic view.




  1. ^ Herbert Schneider: La Muette de Portici Grove Music Online, accessed 10 April 2007.
  2. ^ Parouty
  3. ^ Hibberd (2003), 154
  4. ^ cited in Hibberd (203), 150
  5. ^ Parker, p. ?
  6. ^ Wagner (1966) 53
  7. ^ Tamvaco 2000, p. 87, lists Pouilley in the bass role of Moreno. In his index on p. 1286, Tamvaco gives this singer's full name as Charles-Louis Pouilley but classifies him as a tenor. Gourret 1982, p. 60, confirms that the singer Pouilley was a bass, and also mentions that he joined the company in 1809. Tomvaco also mentions that the company employed a soprano, Mme Pouilley, who was his wife. Casaglia in the Amadeus Almanac lists this singer as Beltrame Pouilley, possibly an error.
  8. ^ Charles Annesley (1902) The Standard Operaglass, Low, Marston & Co., Ltd., London
  9. ^ Parker, pp. 143–145


  • Amadeus Almanac
  • Gourret, Jean (1982). Dictionnaire des chanteurs de l'Opéra de Paris. Paris: Albatros. View formats and editions at WorldCat.
  • Hibberd, Sarah, "La Muette and her context", in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera (Ed.) David Charlton, Cambridge, 2003.
  • Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
  • Parker, Roger, The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, OUP, 1994
  • Parouty, Michel, Booklet notes to the Fulton recording
  • Schneider, Herbert, Muette de Portici, La in 'The New Grove Dictionary of Opera', (Ed.) Stanley Sadie (London, 1992) ISBN 0-333-73432-7
  • Tamvaco, Jean-Louis (2000). Les Cancans de l'Opéra. Chroniques de l'Académie Royale de Musique et du théâtre, à Paris sous les deux restorations (2 volumes, in French). Paris: CNRS Editions. ISBN 978-2-271-05685-6.
  • Wagner, Richard (trans: W. Ashton Ellis), Prose Works, Vol. 5, New York, 1966
  • Warrack, John and West, Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera New York: OUP: 1992 ISBN 0-19-869164-5

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