Lyric tragedy in three acts.
Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano.
First performed in the Teatro San Carlo in Naples on 29 November 1840.
In the ancient Greek Olympic Games, poetry was one of the events. Outside the stadium at Olympus, the poetry event has just taken place and applause and loud cries of approval can be heard from the crowd inside, followed by booing and shouts. Alcander, the High Priest from the Temple of Apollo at Leucas, emerges, furious and dishevelled, and is met by Hippias, another priest and the Chief Augur, who asks what all the shouting is about and Alcander explains that the famous poetess Sappho has just read her poem about the fate of the lover Antigonus who was betrayed by Themistos and driven to forget his loss by leaping from the cliff on the island of Leucas into the sea; Sappho’s poem had called that rite barbarous and had blamed Alcander and his priests for perpetuating it. The crowd had loved her poem, but had then turned on Alcander and driven him from the stadium. Hippias is sympathetic, and Alcander pours out his hatred for Sappho before launching into a hymn of praise for the strange way that her voice touched him and her poetry moved him. Then voices are heard from inside the stadium hailing Sappho as the pride of all Greece and worthy to be among the Muses. Alcander’s shame and fury is rekindled and Hippias expresses his anger too. Alcander swears to have his revenge on the sacrilegious poet.
A young man named Phaon now joins them from the stadium, and he too is muttering that either Sappho has betrayed him or does not care about him. Alcander notices Phaon’s mood and realises that the young man represents a way in which he might be revenged on Sappho. He reminds Phaon that he (Alcander) once had two daughters – one was the victim of a mischance and is now lost to him, while the other, Clymene, has had her heart broken by Phaon. He ploughs on, asking Phaon how he has managed to become so bewitched by Sappho, who is being trailed throughout by her lover and fellow poet Alcaeus. Phaon is furious to hear this and Alcander arranges to meet him on the banks of the river Alphaeus to prove this accusation, and when Phaon gladly agrees, Alcander gloats.
Sappho herself now comes out of the Olympic stadium and asks Phaon why he left her in her moment of triumph. He ruefully replies that he has been superseded in her affections by another and that a great poetess such as her has no thought for a nobody like him. Sappho tells him that he is always in her thoughts and that even when her poetic genius takes her on heavenly flights, she longs to be on earth sharing her life with him. Phaon is unconvinced and sneeringly tells her that she is an expert in the use of cunning words: all the young men of Greece are at her feet and she is obviously more interested in her own ambition that in the love he has to offer. Sappho asks him if he really loves her still, but before he can reply, they are interrupted by the crowd bursting out from the stadium, one of whom is Lysimachus, an old man who is part of Sappho’s circle, who tells her that she must go back into the stadium to collect the laurel wreath from Alcaeus. She is overjoyed and starts to go, but remembers Phaon and turns to ask him to go with her. Phaon, insulted, tells her to go to his rival, and he swears revenge. Sappho tries to tell him that he has no rival, but he will not listen and tells her that he is off for ever, that he hates her, that the gods hate her and that he will only be happy when she is dead. Sappho responds that she has now wiped him from her heart as the crowd urge her to accept her Olympic crown and forget the man who scorns her – in a final attempt to appease him she throws herself at Phaon’s feet, but he walks away.
Three months have passed. In Alcander’s rooms in the Temple of Apollo on Leucas, Clymene is preparing for her marriage to Phaon, with whom she has now been reunited. Her maid, Dirce, and her other servants praise her beauty and she thanks them for their loyal support, even when Phaon had abandoned her previously. She remembers how sad this rejection had made her and her maids urge her to forget that unhappiness because Phaon has now returned to her. Clymene says that no god on Olympus could be as happy as she is.
A stranger arrives – it is Lysimachus, who says that he has with him an unhappy woman who wishes to speak with the chief priest. Clymene says that her father is not around, but that she will greet the supplicant, saying that a sacrifice before her marriage to Phaon will be a good thing. The woman comes forward – it is Sappho. She explains that she knows that she insulted the god with her poem and she has been tormented by it, so she has come to placate him with offerings. Clymene welcomes her and says that she will embrace her like the sister whom fate took from her; she tells Sappho that her father had taken her sister by boat to Samos for a religious ceremony but there was a storm and the ship was wrecked and her sister was lost. Sappho tells Clymene that she has been wandering Greece for three months searching for a lost love and the two girls share tender thoughts, with Sappho expressing her gratitude for Clymene’s support. The maids now tell Clymene to hurry to the altar of Apollo where her father is waiting for her; Sappho says that she would like to recite a poem of celebration for her new friend’s wedding but feels that she is not dressed for the occasion. Clymene tells her maids to choose the finest of her own dresses for her and Sappho wishes the happiest of marriages for Clymene.
Inside the temple, priests, priestesses and musicians prepare for the ceremony. Alcander enters in his official robes, then Phaon with his attendants, and finally Clymene with her entourage. The congregation urge Phaon and Clymene to swear eternal loyalty and they do; Alcander tells them that the gods accept their vow and declares that they are now married. The whole temple bursts into music as Alcander calls for the celebrations to begin, and Clymene announces that the fates have blessed the day because none other than Sappho is with them to contribute a song. Alcander and Phaon are both stunned by this news, and Sappho now enters, resplendently dressed and followed by Lysimachus bearing her lyre. Clymene asks Sappho to her welcome her new husband; Alcander gloats at this prospect of revenge and Phaon stands immobile and stupefied. Sappho, not realising that the wedding ceremony has already happened, sees him and cries, ‘My Phaon!’ and the crowd cries out in horror.
Sappho tells how she has searched for Phaon and tells him that he will never belong to another woman. Alcander revels in the situation but expresses great unease about the turn of events. Phaon now understands that Sappho was honest in her love for him but realises that it is too late to change things now and that he is condemned to a life of unhappiness. Clymene realises that Phaon has always loved someone else and that he has now wounded her heart twice. Lysimachus, Hippias, Dirce and the whole community comment on the ways of fate and wonder what on earth will happen next. Alcander curtly reminds Sappho that she is on holy territory and orders her to leave, and she announces that Phaon should follow her. To general uproar, Alcander orders Phaon to return to the marriage altar and the truth now dawns on Sappho – Phaon and Clymene are married. In despair, Sappho says that it is not a god who has brought this marriage about but a revenging fury, and she is driven out of the temple under a curse delivered by Alcander, Hippias and all the priests.
In a remote cliff-top spot by a cave near the priests’ quarters, Alcander presents Sappho as a penitent to the College of Augurs; she stands with her head bowed in a position of total humiliation. Lysimachus and others stand to one side and watch helplessly. Alcander formally asks the augurs to hear Sappho’s plea. She confesses her crime of sacrilege and begs to be relieved of the curse upon her by being allowed to leap from the cliff and leave her life in the hands of Apollo. Lysimachus is aghast as he watches the augurs enter the sacred cave to decide her fate. Sappho begs Alcander to be allowed to see Clymene once more before the sentence is carried out and he agrees, before ordering her to prostrate herself and pray. The augurs can be heard in prayer within the cave; they wait for an answer from Apollo. The howling of the wind is all the answer they need – Sappho must make the leap. As Sappho prays that her genius will release her unhappy soul, Alcander pleads with Apollo to forget the insult as the product of a broken mind and prays for a calm sea so that Sappho can be saved after she has jumped. The wind howls again.
Hippias leads the augurs out of the cave and declares that Apollo has spoken and that Sappho must jump. Clymene now arrives and Sappho asks that since they met as friends, so might they part as friends: she embraces Cylmene and kisses her forehead, then turns to Alcander and states that she is ready. He formally asks her to swear that she will jump as the god has commanded and she swears. Lysimachus is distraught and Clymene realises in horror what is about to happen.
The ritual begins: Sappho kneels and Hippias asks her the required questions. Her name? Sappho. Her country? Lesbos. Her father? Hypseus. Lysimachus in desperation interrupts the ceremony, saying that the sacred rite must not be polluted by lies, even innocent lies. He says Sappho is not, as she believes, from Lesbos, nor is she the daughter of Hyseus. He explains that he found her and brought her up in place of his grand-daughter who had died not long before. Clymene cries out in excitement, and Alcander asks Lysimachus when this happened. He replies that it was twenty years ago and that she had been washed up after a storm. Clymene clutches at her father as Alcander asks hesitantly whether the child had an amulet around her neck and Lysimachus confirms this, describing it as carved from Leucadian marble and dedicated to Apollo. Sappho still has it, and to Alcander’s mounting horror, produces it. Alcander recognises it, and confirms that Sappho is indeed his lost daughter Aspasia. Sappho, Alcander and Clymene embrace one another tenderly; Alcander is overjoyed and Clymene and Sappho declare that their sudden and unexpected happiness is a gift from the gods. But Hippias and the rest of the augurs declare that the sentence has been passed and that it is time to pray in the temple. Alcander pleads with them, but they declare that Sappho’s oath to the god cannot be revoked. Sappho insists that she does not want special treatment, says a tender goodbye to her new-found father, and asks to be taken to the altar. Alcander desperately tries to prevent this by offering a huge sacrifice and begging Apollo to acknowledge his tears, but the augurs are adamant, and to make matters worse, tell Alcander that since Sappho is his daughter, he can play no part in the ceremony. Alcander is distraught at having betrayed his own daughter and Sappho tries to comfort him by telling him that that the leap from the rock will end the terrible loss that she has felt from her unfortunate love. Clymene too cries that the gods who brought her the wedding she so desired are pitiless and have brought her only sorrow instead. Lysimachus swears that the Fates which will cut short Sappho’s life will also bring death to him. Unmoved by all this sorrow, Hippias and the augurs observe that when the gods speak, pity is dumb. Alcander stumbles off, followed by his attendants and Clymene; the augurs lead Sappho into the cave.
Inside the cave, Phaon welcomes the darkness and bewails the sorrow that the gods have inflicted on him, making him reject Sappho’s genuine love; all he can do now is weep. Hippias and the augurs join him and Hippias sends the augurs to tell Alcander that the sacrifice of steaming innards which he has made have been useless, Sappho cannot be absolved from her oath to make the leap. Hippias tells Phaon that Apollo’s decree will relieve Sappho of the love that is forbidden now, and Phaon says that for Sappho to die while he still lives is no consolation to him. Suddenly, he sees the solution – he will make the leap with Sappho and they can die together. But the augurs tell him that he cannot attend the final ritual and send him away.
Below the sacred cliff, on a slope covered in memorials to those who have made the leap and died, or lived, according to the wish of Apollo, the inhabitants of Leucas gather: the augurs lead in Sappho, dressed in a white robe and with her hair loose. Lysimachus follows, carrying her lyre and her Olympic victory wreath. The people say that if she shows fear or hesitates, all hope is lost; but Sappho is silent, and the crowd commend her for praying to Apollo. On the instruction to turn herself to the rising god, Sappho gazes at the summit of the cliff and wonders at the twist of fate which has reunited her with her father and her sister. She starts to climb, calling for Alcander’s blessing. Alcander, Clyment and Dirce arrive and at first Sappho in her ecstasy does not recognise them. Then she remembers that she promised to sing at Clymene’s wedding and asks for her lyre. As she begins to sing, she bids the waves crashing onto the rock to be silent, and the winds which deliver the words of the god to fall away, then she launches into a wedding hymn, singing in her delirium of festive music, a house decked with flowers and a procession of torches. Everyone is horror struck and a cloud passes in front of the rising sun. Phaon shakes off the attempts of Hippias to hold him back and he bursts onto the scene. Sappho is perturbed, but tells him that his place is now beside his wife. She starts to climb again, and Phaon tries to join her in order to die with her. Suddenly, a shrill sound rings out; Alcander and Clymene are horrified but, urged on by the priests and augurs to make the climb, Sappho throws herself at Alcander’s feet and places his hand on her head in a final blessing, then she leads Phaon to Clymene, who clutches him desperately. Sappho tells her to love Phaon always, as she herself has done, and to enjoy the love that she had been forbidden. All hope has left her and, escorted by the augurs, she climbs on towards the cliff-top to die, saying that not even the god can quench the flame of her love. Alcander falls to his knees, Clymene faints into Dirce’s arms, Phaon tries to throw himself into the sea but is restrained.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
The life and operas of Giovanni Pacini
The life and librettos of Salvatore Cammarano
The background to the writing of Saffo
The life of the Greek poetess Sappho …
… and other operas which tell versions of the story of Sappho
The stories of Gounod’s Sapho, Massenet’s Sappho and Morlacchi’s Saffo in Leucade.
… and many, many other operatic tales of love, betrayal, death and revenge
© Roger Witts 2007