Comic opera in one act.
Libretto by Louis Gallet based on the poem Namouna by Alfred de Musset.
First performed at the Opéra Comique in Paris on 22 May 1872
The scene is a lavish room in a palace in Cairo.
Haroun is a rich, self-indulgent and idle young man of noble birth who amuses himself by changing his mistress at each new moon, sending his manservant Splendiano down to the slave market in Cairo to top up the supply every month. As the curtain rises, Haroun is sitting at one of the windows of his palace musing on the beauty of the evening while a chorus of boatmen on the Nile below comment on the end of the working day and the prospect of an evening of love. Splendiano comments that like a seed in the earth, love buried in a man’s heart needs only a woman’s tears to bring it to life but Haroun responds that it would take an ocean of tears to rouse any spark of love in him. Splendiano has an ulterior motive for his comment, however, and he reminds Haroun that his current mistress, Djamileh, is indeed very beautiful. Again, Haroun replies that be that as it may, she has had her turn and that another beautiful girl will soon replace her – it is the unknown element of the regular changing of the mistress which pleases him.
It is the new moon, and Splendiano has to supply a new mistress. Haroun tells him to choose whoever he likes, it will make no difference to Haroun. Splendiano hints darkly that he has a plan and Haroun observes that he likes the wine which he is drinking, but as far as liking anything else is concerned, there is no chance.
Djamileh enters and Haroun sees that she is looking pale. Djamileh tells him that she has had a dream in which she and Haroun were floating in the sea and that Haroun was gradually being flung by the waves just beyond her reach. Haroun can see that she is falling in love with him and he suggests that they make the most of the next hour or so. Splendiano now reveals his plan under his breath – as soon as Djamileh has been cast aside, he will take her for himself. Haroun asks Djamileh whether her freedom will make her happy and she replies that all she wants is to be close to him.
Haroun asks Djamileh to sing for him and she sings a song about a handsome king and a lonely little girl who wants to love him. Haroun is amused, but tells her that they should enjoy the wine and the time that is left to them. He gives Djamileh a beautiful necklace (a gesture which Splendiano knows is a sign that Haroun is about to exchange her for the next girl) and although she acknowledges its beauty, she says that the hand which put it around her neck is even more precious to her.
A group of Haroun’s friends arrive for an evening of gambling with him, and they all comment on Djamileh’s beauty. Splendiano gets more and more excited at the prospect of having the cast-off Djamileh for himself.
As Haroun and his friends can be heard gambling in the next room, Djamileh observes that it is such a fine thread which separates happiness from misery.
A slave merchant arrives with a gaggle of prospective replacements; Haroun cannot be bothered to look at them and tells Splendiano to choose one. As the girls sing, Djamileh, wearing a veil, joins them. Haroun, not recognising her as Djamileh, starts to take notice of her and despite Splendiano’s protests sends the servant off to gamble on his behalf.
Haroun urges Djamileh not to be afraid, but she shrinks away from him and is reluctant to let him see her face. He observes that the girl whom she is replacing was much more forthcoming and that he really adored her. Djamileh asks why, if he adored her, he has discarded her. Haroun replies that he does not want to lose his freedom, but that when he said goodbye to the last girl, he really felt that he had lost something. As Haroun slowly realised that he is in love after all, Djamileh agonises over whether to reveal that it is her and that she has not left him. She reveals her face and Haroun callously tells her that she has returned in vain. Djamileh is heart-broken, but Haroun tells her that he did not mean it, he was just testing her love to make sure that it was genuine. With all their doubts gone, Haroun and Djamileh fall into one another’s arms and sing ecstatically of their love.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
- Georges Bizet’s life and his operas
- The life and librettos of Louis Gallet
- The background to Bizet’s Djamileh
- and many other aspects of Bizet’s operas
© Roger Witts 2009