After experiencing the inability of his first opera König Alfred to gain a place in the repertoire, and the disappointment of failing to get his Wagnerian music drama Samson staged, Raff turned away from serious subjects for his operas. The heldentenor Ludwig Schnoor von Carolsfeld (1836-1865), who created Wagner's Tristan and was to have been Raff's Samson, had suggested to the composer in 1865 the idea of adapting as a libretto the famous play La Dama Duende, by the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681). For his next effort in the operatic field, though, Raff wrote Die Parole (The Watchword) in 1868. Although not specifically called a comic opera, it was a much lighter affair than its predecessors, but it too was nevers staged. Undeterred, Raff tried again the following year, and this time took up Schnoor's earlier suggestion of basing a work on Calderón's comedy. The Comic Opera in Three Acts Dame Kobold (Phantom Lady) Op.154 was the result.
Raff himself had penned the books of his two previous operatic forays, but to transform the 1629 Spanish play into a workmanlike German libretto he turned to a Swiss acquaintance. Paul Reber (1835-1908) was a well known architect specialising in churches, but he was also a highly-regarded amateur dramatist.
The work was dedicated to one of Raff's royal supporters, the Grand Duchess Sophie of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, and was premiered under Eduard Lassen's baton at the Weimar Court Theatre on 9 April 1870. It was a resounding success, and for a time Raff's operatic star was in the ascendant. His stock rose higher still when his Third Symphony, Im Walde, was premiered in the same theatre just eight days later, and caused an immediate and enduring sensation. Although the public and most critics enjoyed Dame Kobold, Raff's mentor Liszt didn't share the opinion of the Weimar audience, criticising what he called its "hotchpotch of styles". His former companion Princess Caroline Sayn von Wittgenstein, who had known and was wary of Raff when they were in Liszt's household in Weimar in the 1850s, reacted to a friend's report of Dame Kobold by writing that it "astonishes me greatly. Raff light on his feet and a sparkle in his eye - who would have thought it!?"
Despite the initial success it garnered in Weimar and elsewhere, Dame Kobold too failed to establish itself in the repertoire. Only the Overture was published in full score (by Bote & Bock in 1870), with the vocal score of the whole work coming out the next year. Reber's libretto was published by Schellenberg in 1870. It was Raff's stage swan song. Although he wrote two further operas: Bendetto Marcello and Die Eifersüchtigen, his daughter Helene reported that they were written as relaxation and for his own amusement, with no realistic prospect of performance. They remained unperformed and unpublished. Not of note either work was heard for well over 100 years.
Don Juan (baritone); Donna Angela, his sister (soprano); Beatrice, her chambermaid (soprano); Don Manuel (tenor); Rodrigo, his servant (bass).
Litter-bearers, Gypsies and Servants.
Madrid in 1600s.
The street outside Don Juan's house. Don Manuel and Rodrigo are searching for Don Juan's house in Madrid. Manuel recalls how he saved Juan's life when they were in the army. He remained a soldier, but Juan returned to the city and the court. The city, which Manuel hasn't visited for 15 years, is celebrating the baptism of the Spanish heir. A veiled lady appears and she begs Manuel to hide her from a pursuer. Attracted to her, he obliges and they hide as Rodrigo attempts to divert the man, who brushes him aside. At this Manuel upbraids the stranger, they draw swords and fight. Manuel is slightly wounded, but then he recognises his assailant as Juan, and they embrace. The quarrel is forgotten and they enter Juan's nearby house. In Donna Angela's empty room there, Juan muses that he must protect her honour. He saw her talking to some foreigners, but she ran off. He reveals that, to help him supervise her, there is a secret door into her room and, hearing Angela and Beatrice approach, he leaves by that door. Beatrice sees him "disappear" through the wall, and tells Angela of her discovery. Her mistress recognises that it is part of Juan's well-meaning surveillance of her. Left alone, she recalls her marriage, to a man whom she did not love but of whom her brother approved. She is lonely, and intrigued by the man who has just helped her evade Juan. Beatrice returns with the news that Manuel and Rodrigo are now Juan's guests. Angela is anxious to see the wounded Manuel, so her maid suggests that she writes him a note and, as the secret door connects with his room, that they use it to leave it for him there. Angela writes a note and Beatrice uses the door. Juan enters and greets Angela. He reminds her that, now she is a widow, only he can safeguard her honour unless she agrees to marry someone of his choice. If she cannot do that, then she must enter a convent. Once he leaves, Beatrice returns through the secret door to hear Angela bemoaning her fate. To lighten her spirits she opens the windows to better hear the crowd in the street outside, celebrating the baptism of the prince.
Manuel's room in Don Juan's house. His wound treated, Manuel enters his room with Rodrigo but, although they had locked the room, they find his possessions strewn around. Rodrigo suspects supernatural forces once he finds that coals have replaced gold coins in his bag. They are unaware of the secret door. Manuel finds a letter lying on his bed and, despite Rodrigo's ever more desperate warnings that it is the work of a phantom, he reads it. It is from "Your Lady", offering to care for her wounded rescuer. Rodrigo vehemently confirms that the room was never left unlocked or unguarded and repeats that it is the work of a phantom, but Manuel cannot believe that the beautiful lady in the street was a demon, and writes her a letter in reply before they go out to the room's vestibule. Angela enters through the secret door, and hides in an alcove, enjoying the adventure. Intent on ambushing the phantom, Manuel returns and sits in darkness, whilst Rodrigo guards the door outside. Finding Manuel's letter, Angela lights a candle to read it and Manuel sees her. He is struck by her beauty, and she confesses her love for him but, despite his entreaties, she does not deny that she's a phantom or reveal her identity, and writes him another note predicting that they will meet later that night. She vanishes through the secret door. Manuel tells the fearful Rodrigo of this development, before settling down to sleep, but is awoken by his terrified servant with the news that he has seen four black devils outside, carrying a chariot of fire on their shoulders. Four hooded men enter, bearing a litter from which Beatrice emerges, inviting Manuel to go with her to meet his lady. As Rodrigo falls to his knees in terror, the blindfolded Manuel eagerly joins Beatrice in the litter and is carried away.
Angela's room and Manuel's room in Don Juan's house. Beatrice leads Manuel into Angela's room and leaves him there. He removes his blindfold and, when he calls for the "Phantom Lady", Angela appears behind him. Beatrice re-enters, calling her "Highness", and announces that gypsies have arrived to sing and dance for her. Manuel, thinking her royalty, falls to his knees. After the gypsies' performance (a ballet sequence) Beatrice sees Juan coming and Angela hurriedly hides Manuel in the cabinet which houses the secret door between their rooms. Juan tells her that he intends to choose her husband. He demands to know whose litter is outside and angrily sends away the gypsies, who have carried on playing. Rodrigo enters his master's unlit room, and senses a presence; Manuel has unwittingly opened the secret door into it. Fearfully, the servant challenges the inisible presence and, after some confusion, they recognise each other in the dark. Manuel realises that he is in his own room, but does not understand how. With Juan gone, Beatrice tries to get Manuel back from his hiding place in the cabinet, only to pull Rodrigo through into Angela's room by mistake. Thinking he is back in the presence of a phantom, he begs for mercy while Beatrice apologises for her mistake. A moment later Juan returns and Angela realises that the subterfuge has run its course. Beatrice and Rodrigo leave by the secret door, which is left open. Juan accuses the abject Angela of treachery. Through the secret door, in his own room Manuel hears Juan and protests. Juan enters Manuel's unlit room through the open door, and in the darkness they start fighting. Servants arrive with lights and Juan and Manuel recognise each other. Mollified, Juan suddenly announces that he had decided on Angela's new husband: his old friend Manuel. She rejoices and Manuel is delighted. Beatrice admits to Rodrigo that his stolen coins funded the litter and the gypsies, but they agree to get on as their employers are to be married. The opera ends amidst general celebration.