Drama in one act with a prelude and a postlude.
Libretto in French by Marc Henry (the pseudonym of Achille d’Ailly-Vaucheret) (as Les Yeux morts); German translation by Hans Heinz Ewers.
First performed at Dresden Court Opera on 5 March 1916.
The action is set in Jerusalem at the time of Christ.
In the Prelude, country workers are returning home late on a summer evening. A reaper stops to chat with a shepherd, he has a feeling of longing and does not want the company of his fellow reapers. The shepherd is content with his life, but when his boy arrives with the flock and confesses that one lamb is missing, the shepherd too is filled with sadness and he sets out to find the lost lamb.
The opera itself begins with great excitement in Jerusalem because the news has gone around that the prophet who has been going around performing so many miracles is expected to arrive in the city. Outside the house of the Roman ambassador Arcesius, a group of Jewish women are drawing water from a well and one of them, Ruth, tells Arcesius’s slave woman Arsinoe about the miracle worker. The women leave, and Arcesius and his wife Myrtocle come out onto the verandah of the villa, Myrtocle is very beautiful but blind, and Arcesius is deformed and ugly. He leads her with great tenderness and she sings of how she has a dream that one day her sight will be restored and she will be able to see the beautiful world around her, especially her husband, whom she imagines to be very handsome. She reminds him of how he found her, poor and blind from birth, in Corinth, and of how he once told her the story of Cupid and Psyche, and how Psyche, forbidden to look upon her husband, crept into their room one night with a lamp – only to find that he had disappeared.
Their reverie is broken by the arrival of Galba, a Roman officer and Arcesius’s friend. He has come to tell him that the governor, Pontius Pilate, has called a meeting to discuss how the Romans should handle the arrival in Jerusalem of the man Jesus from Nazareth, whom their agents have reported is a dangerous agitator. Arcesius bids a tender farewell to his wife and leaves.
Myrtocle is now visited by Ktesiphar, an Egyptian quack who has sold her medicines to cure her blindness before. He offers her another potion and she agrees to buy it only if he agrees to be held under arrest in the villa and, if the potion does not work for Myrtocle, to be blinded himself so that he can experience the potion first-hand. He sensibly declines and leaves. Myrtocle sighs that she will never be cured, and Arsinoe diffidently tells her about Jesus and his miracles.
Suddenly, there is a commotion outside – a crowd is gathering because Jesus is coming towards the villa. Sick people jostle one another to get to the front of the crowd and Myrtocle joins them. The crowd turns nasty – she is Greek and married to a Roman, and Jesus has only come to cure Jews. But one of Jesus’s friends, Mary of Magdala, tells them all that Jesus, like a good shepherd, has time for all his sheep, whoever they are. Jesus approaches riding on a donkey and Arsinoe, with Mary’s help, leads Myrtocle towards him. As the crowd watch expectantly, Jesus touches her eyes, and her sight is restored: Jesus tells her that before the night is out, she will have cause to curse him for what he has given her.
Myrtocle, overjoyed, rushes into the villa and asks for a mirror: she sees how lovely she is and sets about adorning herself for the return of her husband. Arcesius arrives home with Galba, but Galba has secretly loved Myrtocle for a very long time, and he chooses this moment to say goodbye to his old friend for ever, because he cannot bear to continue to see her knowing that she can never be his. But before he can leave, Arsinoe bustles in looking for the mirror that Myrtocle was using. Arcesius quizzes her about why his wife needs a mirror and when he learns about the miracle he is horrified. Afraid that his wife will now be able to see how ugly he is, he hides behind the well outside the villa. Myrtocle comes out and sees Galba: he is a very good-looking man and she assumes that he is her husband. As she approaches Galba, he is too astonished to speak, but he is overcome by his love for her and takes her in a passionate embrace.
From his hiding place, Arcesius is mortified by what he is seeing, and without thinking he rushes out and strangles Galba. Both he and Myrtocle recoil in horror and as he rushes out Myrtocle calls for help; Arsinoe arrives and tells her the truth. Myrtocle now curses the man who restored her sight but has now destroyed her happiness: she knows now that her dream was a lie, and that she is just like Psyche with her lamp who only wanted to see her husband, but unlike Psyche, what she has found instead is a monster.
Arsinoe encourages her to believe that she has not lost everything, and Myrtocle remembers Jesus telling people to give up their own happiness to give happiness to others. She destroys her sight by staring into the sun and when Arcesius comes back, Myrtocle, now blind again, tells him that with her briefly restored sight, she saw Jesus and Arsinoe and Galba – and Galba’s murderer, but she never saw her husband. Restored to her world of dreamed beauty, she lets Arcesius lead her, trembling, back into the villa.
In the Postlude, the shepherd returns to his flock with the little lamb which had been lost, and the opera ends with a reprise of Mary of Magdala’s music: ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my little sheep that was lost’.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
- The life and operas of Eugène D’Albert
- The background to the writing of Die toten Augen
- The stories of several others of D’Albert’s principal operas available free
© Roger Witts 2011