Épisode lyrique in two acts.
Libretto by Jules Claretie and Henri Cain after La Cigarette, a short story by Jules Claretie.
First performed at Covent Garden, London, 20 June 1894

The action takes place in the village square of a small village outside Bilbao during the second Carlist war (more of a local Catalonian rebellion that a full-scale civil war), in the Spring of 1874.  Rebel forces, supporters of Carlos, a pretender to the Spanish throne, under the command of Zuccaraga, have seized the city of Bilbao and the defeated government troops led by General Garrido are in retreat.  They have stopped for the night in a small village: Garrido has hastily raised fortifications, commandeered a garrison building and posted guards; exhausted soldiers bring in the wounded and the dead.  Cannon fire and gunshots can be heard in the distance.  A small group of women pray in silence in front of a shrine to the Virgin.

Act 1
Garrido congratulates his officers on fighting bravely, but is furious that the enemy forces have retaken Bilbao – he curses the enemy general, Zuccaraga, and says that he wishes that he could meet him face to face, because with Zuccaraga dead, Bilbao would fall and there would be peace.  The death of this one man would save the lives of so many.  He signals some of his officers to join him and goes into the garrison.  Several officers remain in the square, one of them is Ramon.  A young woman approaches him, this is Anita, a girl from Navarre, who is in love with Araquil, a sergeant, but she has not seen him return from the fighting.  Nervously, she asks Ramon if he knows Araquil, and if he has seen him recently.  Ramon replies that he cannot give her any news, and Anita takes out from her skirt pocket a little statuette and launches into a prayer to the Virgin Mary for Araquil’s safety.  A group of soldiers returning from the front enter the square and the villagers crowd around them, including Anita.  At the very end of the file of soldiers, Araquil arrives, and Anita greets him ecstatically.  She tells him that she prayed for his safety and he replies that even in the heat of battle he was thinking of her and that her little statuette of the Virgin was protecting him.

As they tell one another how much they love each other, an older man arrives and greets Araquil.  It is his father Remigio, and just as he tells Araquil how happy he is to see him safe, he turns angrily on Anita and asks her why she is always hanging around.  Anita replies that she loves Araquil, but Remigio tells her that the son of a respected landowner cannot have anything to do with a girl of no breeding.  Araquil remonstrates with his father and Anita tells of how she and Araquil first met two years previously.  Remigio is obdurate and sharply tells Anita that when she can produce a dowry for Araquil as big as the one he is preparing for his son, then he might take her seriously.  Anita asks how much a dowry should be and Remigio tells her two thousand douros.  This is an impossible figure for her and she breaks down.  Araquil begs his father to accept her, but Remigio merely says that she is out of her mind and than his word cannot be changed.

Garrido now comes out of the garrison building and, seeing Araquil and recognising him as a member of the troop that had been protecting the retreat, asks him about the recent battle.  Araquil replies that they fought bravely and that all the officers were killed – the last one to die told him to take charge.  Garrido thanks him and instantly promotes him to lieutenant.  Remigio proudly salutes his son, but Anita comments sadly to herself that now Araquil is being drawn even further from her.

Remigio takes Araquil away, and Anita is left weeping in the square.  Garrido too muses sadly on the officers who have been killed.  Anita overhears Ramon reporting to Garrido about even more deaths and Garrido repeating his wish that Zuccaraga could be killed, saying that he would give a fortune to the man who will do it.  Nervously, Anita asks if he would pay two thousand douros to have Zuccaraga dead, as long as he promises never to tell anyone about their agreement.  Surprised, Garrido agrees and Anita rushes off.  Garrido gives orders to strengthen the defences of the village.

Araquil now enters and sings passionately about his love for Anita.  Ramon, idly smoking a cigarette, listens and then observes that if Araquil is singing about the pretty girl from Navarre with the black hair and the bright eyes, then he wouldn’t trust her an inch.  Araquil asks why, and Ramon tells him that some wounded soldiers who have been brought in reported seeing a girl of that description asking the way to the Carlist camp and saying that she needed to get to Zuccaraga tonight.  Araquil assumes that Ramon is implying that she is a spy, but Ramon adds that Zuccaraga is said to be very gallant, so that perhaps her visit was for something very different from spying.  Araquil, distraught, leaves.

The tension is broken when a sergeant, Bustamente, and a group of soldiers who have liberated some wine to drink with their rations of broth (puchero) and beans (garbanzos) sing soldiers’ songs until, eventually, Ramon tells them that it is time for sleep.

Act 2
After an interlude depicting the dawn breaking, the soldiers are preparing themselves for the battle.  Anita, dishevelled and covered in blood, approaches Garrido and demands her two thousand douros reward.  Garrido does not believe that she has earned it as they had agreed, but she describes how she allowed herself to be questioned by Zuccaraga and then stabbed him to death; she has raced back through the night, dodging the bullets of the rebel troops.  A distant church bell tolls and Garrido realises that Anita is telling him the truth.  He gives her the reward and swears that he will never reveal the truth about what she has done.

Delirious with happiness, Anita sings that there is nothing now that can prevent Araquil from marrying her, but her happiness is cut short when Araquil himself is carried in, mortally wounded.  He tells her that she is the cause of his death, because he tried to follow her through the night to prevent her from selling herself to the enemy leader.  Anita is horrified, and when the tolling of the distant bell starts up again, people begin to gather, including Remigio who says that the bell can only mean one thing – that Zuccaraga has been killed.  Araquil, close to death, realises the truth and as his senses fade, he thinks that the bell is ringing for him and Anita.  He dies, and Anita grabs the little statue of the virgin from her pocket and curses it, throwing it to the ground.  Then, as she loses her mind, she picks it up again, kisses it and thanks it for protecting her, for helping her to win the dowry and for making it possible for her to be with Araquil.  The crowd fall back in horror as she cradles Araquil’s head and laughs dementedly.


Related OperaStory articles can be found on 

  • Massenet’s life and operas
  • Jules Claretie and his contribution to opera
  • Henri Cain and his librettos
  • The circumstances surrounding the writing of La Navarraise
  • The stew (puchero) and beans (garbanzos) which the soldiers eat in Massenet’s La Navarraise
  • Amontillado, which the soldiers find but which Sergeant Bustamente tells them is a wine only for officers
  • Jules Claretie’s original story, and why it is entitled La Cigarette

©  Roger Witts 2008