Alison Jones's Opera Plot Summaries.

Jacques Offenbach:

A plot summary from Opera~Opera -- Australasia's independent monthly newspaper of the musical theatre, established in 1978.

Mar 82

The palace of the king Fe-Ni-Han

There is a conference between the king Fe-Ni-Han and his supporters, the beautiful Fe-An-Ich-Ton and the mandarin Ke-Ki-Ka-Ko on the one hand; and, on the other, Ko-Ko-Ri-Ko, the chief of the conspirators against the throne, and his followers. As this meeting is conducted in nonsense syllables, nothing comes of it and the conspirators and the king leave.

Fe-An-Ich-Ton and Ke-Ki-Ka-Ko, each unaware of the presence of the other and thinking themselves alone and unobserved begin to read - one a French novel, the other an edition of the French newspaper, Le Figaro. Suddenly each becomes aware of the other and they discover that both not only speak French, but they are French. He has arrived in Che-Ni-Or as a result of a shipwreck and she in the course of a tour of Asia as a singer. Both were then conscripted by Fe-Ni-Han and forced to serve at his court. They sing nostalgically of the joys of Paris; and, remembering its polkas, waltzes and cancan, burst into a few dance steps. They are overheard by the conspirators, who chase them.

The king reflects sadly on his difficult situation, under constant pressure from Ko-Ko-Ri-Ko and his band with their rousing revolutionary song, the Ba-Ta-Clan (an oriental version of the ra-ta-plans found in many operas). Once he had only to utter the word Raca and all enemies dispersed, but now the word seems to have lost its magic power.

Ko-Ko-Ri-Ko appears, demanding death for the traitors Fe-An-Ich-Ton and Ke-Ki-Ka-Ko in a vigorous tirade of pig-Italian (French words with Italian endings) describing the various methods of execution. The terrified Fe-Ni-Han is forced to join him in a duet of of death and vengeance. The Ba-Ta-Clan is heard in the distance and Fe-Ni-Han rouses himself to fight with Ko-Ko-Ri-Ko .

The conspirators drag in their captives Fe-An-Ich-Ton and Ke-Ki-Ka-Ko and prepare for their execution. Fe-Ni-Han is powerless to intervene. Bravely, Fe-An-Ich-Ton and Ke-Ki-Ka-Ko strike up the refrain from one of their catchy Parisian songs and Fe-Ni-Han joyfully claims them as fellow-countrymen. This gives him the courage to halt the execution and dismiss Ko-Ko-Ri-Ko and his conspirators.

The three happily conjugate the verb to be French - je suis français, il est, elle, est, nous sommes ... Fe-Ni-Han explains that he had drifted to this island and been made king against his will. His troubles stem from his ignorance of the language, which has already caused him to have inadvertently executed some of his small number of subjects, thinking they were criminals when they were really high and important personages.

He concludes that the only way to save Fe-An-Ich-Ton and Ke-Ki-Ka-Ko from death is for the latter to succeed Fe-Ni-Han on the throne (he himself will return to France). But Ke-Ki-Ka-Ko refuses. He threatens to join the conspirators and prepares to summon them by singing the Ba-Ta-Clan. But Fe-Ni-Han finds the song so stirring that he is obliged to join in as well, so all three begin the Ba-Ta-Clan. Ko-Ko-Ri-Ko and the conspirators duly appear so the three decide to sing Marcel's theme song (the hymn A Mighty Fortress) from Les Huguenots to bolster their courage in the face of death.

They are stopped in mid-trio by a letter from Ko-Ko-Ri-Ko. He too is French and out of fellow feeling for his countrymen he will let them escape if Fe-Ni-Han will resign the throne to him. They gladly accept his offer and all ends happily.

Jacques Offenbach:
La Belle Hélène

A plot summary from Opera~Opera -- Australasia's independent monthly newspaper of the musical theatre, established in 1978.

Dec 87


A public square in Sparta

The people are making offerings to Jupiter - offerings which Calchas, the high priest, finds inadequate compared with days gone by.

Helen, wife of Menelaus, discreetly asks Calchas if he has heard anything about the young shepherd who, as a reward for giving Venus the prize for beauty in a contest with two other goddesses, has been offered the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Calchas, while agreeing that she is obviously the woman in question, has no further details. Helen laments the fact that her destiny seems to be leading her yet again into a difficult spot and goes into the temple.

Calchas prevents Orestes, son of Agamemnon, and his girlfriends from following her and is about to give short shrift to a shepherd who asks his help, when a message from Venus, brought by a dove, makes it clear that this is the shepherd (in fact Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy) who has been promised the love of Helen. Paris tells Calchas about the contest on Mt Ida, in which he awarded the prize to Venus, over Minerva and Juno. Helen appears and is as struck by the handsome shepherd as he is by her beauty.

The kings of Greece, led by Agamemnon, appear to conduct a contest of intelligence. The kings fail dismally and Paris guesses the answer, and then reveals his true identity. He expresses to Calchas his wish that Menelaus was elsewhere and Calchas invents a decree of Jupiter ordering Menelaus to Crete.


Helen's private apartment in the palace

Helen is determined not to see Paris and invokes Venus, asking why the gods insist on trying out their experiments on her family, remembering the episode of her mother Leda and Jupiter in the guise of a swan. She then agrees to see Paris, but her attitude is so uncompromising that he tells her she must not after all be the most beautiful woman in the world, since she is not offering the love he has been promised.

The kings play the game of goose with Calchas, who cheats and wins. Helen prepares for sleep, telling Calchas that she would like to dream of Paris. Paris, who has decided to employ trickery, appears, and Helen greets him as a dream figure; but their blissful dream interlude is interrupted by the unexpected return of Menelaus, who calls in the kings and proclaims his discovery. Helen reproves Menelaus for being so indiscreet as not to give notice of his return; the kings order Paris to leave and he declares that he will be back.


The beach at Nauplia, Sparta

Helen and Menelaus are quarrelling and Venus seems to have put a curse on the country, as husbands are leaving wives and wives leaving husbands at an alarming rate. Calchas and Agamemnon tell Menelaus that, as it is he who has offended Venus, it is his duty to make amends - by giving up Helen. Menelaus tells them he has sent for the high priest of Venus. A ship arrives bearing the high priest of Venus - Paris in disguise - who announces that Helen has to travel with him to the island of Cythera to sacrifice to the goddess. Helen is at first unwilling, but when he reveals his identity to her in an aside, decides to surrender to her destiny. As they sail away, Paris reveals his identity to Menelaus, telling him that Helen is now his.

Jacques Offenbach:
Les Contes d'Hoffmann

A plot summary from Opera~Opera -- Australasia's independent monthly newspaper of the musical theatre, established in 1978.

Sep 96


Luther's tavern

Hoffmann's muse hopes that he will forget his love for the singer Stella and devote himself henceforth to poetry.

Councillor Lindorf intercepts a letter from Stella to Hoffmann, promising him an assignation after the evening's performance of Don Giovanni, in which she is appearing, and enclosing her key. Taking possession of the letter and key, Lindorf announces that it will be he, not Hoffmann, who uses it later. He says he will also take Hoffmann's place in the lady's affections: he may be old and unattractive, but he is still vigorous and he can compel through fear.

The first act of Don Giovanni ends and students pour into the tavern, followed shortly by Hoffmann and his friend Nicklausse. Hoffmann is out of sorts and offers to cheer himself up and entertain the company by singing a song about the dwarf Kleinzach. In the midst of his account of the dwarf's physical peculiarities, however, he breaks off into a rhapsody about Stella's charms. His friends bring him back to earth and he finishes the song.

He notices Lindorf and accuses him of being his evil genius. Lindorf taunts him with being in love, and his friends avert a quarrel by praising their mistresses. Expressing his contempt for these ladies, Hoffmann promises to tell the stories of his own three loves.


The reception room in the house of the inventor Spalanzani

Spalanzani and his servant Cochenille are preparing for a ball to present Spalanzani's "daughter" Olympia to the world. Hoffmann, Spalanzani's pupil, arrives early and the inventor withdraws to leave Hoffmann alone with Olympia, who is sitting motionless behind a curtain. Finding him in rapt admiration of Olympia, Nicklausse hints broadly that he is in love with a doll, but Hoffmann refuses to listen. Coppélius, in search of Spalanzani, finds Hoffmann and sells him a pair of rosy spectacles through which Olympia appears more beautiful (and lifelike) than ever. He then confronts Spalanzani with a demand for payment for the eyes he made for Olympia and, to get rid of him, Spalanzani gives him a cheque on the firm of Elias, of whose bankruptcy he has just learnt. Olympia sings a brilliant song to entertain the guests, who go to supper, except for Hoffmann, who declares his love to Olympia, accidentally pressing a switch which causes her to run away.

Coppélius returns, furious at having been cheated, and hides in Olympia's bower. The guests reappear, the waltz begins and Hoffmann dances with Olympia, who whirls faster and faster until he falls and breaks his glasses. Cochenille manages to shepherd Olympia into her room, but sounds of smashing precede the appearance of Coppélius waving the broken pieces of the doll. All laugh at the deluded Hoffmann, who now realises that his love was an automaton.


A palace overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice

Nicklausse and the courtesan Giulietta sing the barcarolle. Schlemil, Giulietta's discarded lover, broods over Hoffmann's apparent success with Giulietta. Hoffmann derides the notion that he might fall in love with such a woman, but is overheard by her protector Dapertutto, who prepares to ensnare him.

He uses a huge diamond to entice Giulietta to obtain for him not the shadow (as in the case of Schlemil) but the reflection of Hoffmann. The jealous Schlemil challenges Hoffmann to a duel, but is killed when Dapertutto gives Hoffmann supernatural assistance. Nicklausse warns Hoffmann that he must flee, but he is now infatuated with Giulietta and refuses. Giulietta promises to follow him, but persuades him to leave his reflection with her. Dapertutto decides to remove Nicklausse by poisoning him, but it is Giulietta who drinks the poison. Her jester, Pitichinaccio, seizes the diamond.


Crespel's house

As she sings to her own accompaniment on the piano, Antonia remembers happier days with Hoffmann, from whom her father has separated her, fearing that he may encourage her desire to sing. He begs her not to sing any more, and she obeys sadly. Unknown to Antonia, her father fears her resemblance to her mother, a famous singer who had died of a chest complaint exacerbated by singing. He goes out, telling his deaf servant to admit no one.

Frantz takes the opportunity to try his hand, unsuccessfully, at singing and dancing. His incomprehension of his master's orders causes him to admit Hoffmann and Nicklausse, and Hoffmann and Antonia have an ecstatic reunion. When she sings for him, he notes the signs of fever, and she tells him that her father has forbidden her to sing. Crespel returns, and Hoffmann hides and observes the visit of Dr Miracle: once more Frantz's deafness has prevented Crespel from keeping out an unwelcome visitor.

Believing that Dr Miracle killed his wife, and fearing his influence on Antonia, Crespel refuses to let him examine her, but Dr Miracle proceeds to examine her in absentia and when he orders her to sing, her voice can be heard from her room. Crespel rejects his medicines in horror and finally gets rid of him. Hoffmann now understands the nature of Antonia's malady and begs her to sing no more and she agrees reluctantly, as he leaves to avoid her father.

Dr Miracle appears behind Antonia, enticing her with the delights of a career as a singer and accusing Hoffmann of wanting to bury her in domesticity. When he summons up the voice of her mother which seems to be urging her to sing, she joins in an outpouring of song, collapses and dies.


Luther's tavern

Hoffmann is completely drunk and when his muse appears, he promises to be hers alone. When Stella comes to find him, he rejects her, and at the suggestion of Nicklausse, she leaves on the arm of Lindorf.

Jacques Offenbach:

A plot summary from Opera~Opera -- Australasia's independent monthly newspaper of the musical theatre, established in 1978.

Jul 93

This is the version produced by the Australian Opera in 1993. Nick Enright's adaptation changes the setting from Lima, Peru to the mythical South American republic of Costa Banana. He has also made some changes to details of the plot.


Night. A town square in the republic of Costa Banana, in front of a club, The Three Muchachas

Served by the three muchachas, the citizens of Costa Banana are celebrating the birthday of their Head of State, General de Ribeira, drinking at his expense. In disguise Colonel Panatellas and Don Pedro check that the people are enjoying themselves, followed by the General himself, also incognito (but recognised by all), taking pleasure in wandering around his capital and eyeing off the female population. Outside the club, the street singers Pericole and Piquillo quarrel about their choice of repertoire - she wants to start with a Country and Western number, he wants to make a statement. He wins and they embark on a song decrying the Spanish conquistadors and celebrating their republic. This does not go over well, so Pericole brings on the Country and Western song, in which the girl resists the overtures of her aspiring lover - until he produces a gold nugget.

This is more successful, but the crowd is drawn away by a troupe of performing dogs. The singers are starving and Piquillo goes off in search of an audience while Pericole falls asleep, where she is found by the susceptible General, who is smitten by her charms.

At first she resists his invitation to become one of the ladies-in-waiting to his (dead) wife, but the promise of supper overcomes her scruples and she writes a letter of regretful and loving farewell to Piquillo and leaves it with the three muchachas as she goes off to eat. Because the "lady-in-waiting" must be married, Panatellas and Don Pedro are sent to find a husband for Pericole. They prevent Piquillo, who is distraught at Pericole's parting letter, from killing himself and get him so drunk that he agrees to be the bridegroom. They also find two notaries. Pericole is also drunk, but refuses to be married, changing her mind when she sees the bridegroom.

Piquillo, however, does not recognise her and tells her that he is sure to be unfaithful as his heart is another's. They are married and escorted off to separate rooms.


The General's palace The ladies-in-waiting quiz Panatellas and Don Pedro about the most recent addition to their number and when Piquillo, severely hung over, appears, they turn their attention to him; but he knows less about his new wife than they do. The courtiers deride him as yet another complaisant husband.

He is obliged to present his wife to the General and then leave. He agrees reluctantly, but when he sees Pericole, dressed in finery and dripping with diamonds, he ignores her attempts to warn him to be prudent and insultingly presents her to the General as beautiful but faithless. He is sentenced to imprisonment in the dungeon reserved for recalcitrant husbands.


Scene 1. The dungeon

Panatellas and Don Pedro escort Piquillo to the dungeon, express their admiration for his courage and astonishment at his stupidity (no other husband in recent years has refused the role assigned to him), and leave him. Pericole makes her way to the dungeon and manages to convince Piquillo that she loves only him.

The General appears, disguised as a jailer, and Pericole tries to bribe him with his own diamonds to free Piquillo; but when he learns that she intends to leave the palace with her lover, he orders his guards to chain them both to the walls and leaves, telling Pericole that if she changes her mind she has only to sing and he will come to her. An old prisoner emerges through the floor - he has been tunnelling his way out with his Swiss army knife for the 12 years he has been imprisoned. He frees Pericole and Piquillo, and Pericole lures the General back with her song. The two men tie him up and all three escape.

Scene 2. The town square

The three prisoners are on the run, fruitlessly pursued by soldiers under Panatellas and Don Pedro, but when the general appears, they give themselves up. Pericole and Piquillo tell their story in song, then kneel and beg for pardon. Refusing Pericole's offer to return the diamonds, the general pardons them, but as the Old Prisoner doesn't remember his name (and neither does the General), he cannot be pardoned and is returned to prison, a prospect he faces with equanimity and his Swiss army knife.

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