Countess Saldern-AhlimbCountess Saldern-Ahlimb

Opera: Die Parole

Raff's frustration with his attempts at writing opera is understandable. Of the six which he composed during his career, only two were staged, and neither were lasting successes. His first attempt, the grand opera König Alfred, received a few performances under Liszt's patronage in Weimar and a couple more in Wiesbaden; it was well received, but was then effectively forgotten. His other stage work to come before the public was his fourth attempt in the genre, the comedy Dame Kobold, which was well regarded after its modest run in Weimar, but again failed to make the repertoire. Perhaps closest to Raff's heart was his great five act music drama Samson, and its failure to to reach the stage, coupled the disappointment of König Alfred, seems to have persuaded Raff to turn away from dramatic subjects to the lighter fare which he used as the basis for his final four operas.

The first of these was Die Parole (The Watchword) WoO.29, which Raff composed in Wiesbaden in 1868 to his own libretto. He apparently based his book on a comedy by “Countess Ahlimb-Saldern”, who is thought to be the amateur dramatist Luise Caroline Wilhelmine, Countess Saldern-Ahlimb (1808-1876), also a Wiesbaden resident. Although the libretto was published in 1873 (under Raff's customary pseudonym of Arnold Börner), the opera itself has remained unperformed, and in manuscript. Although blandly described as an "Opera in Three Acts", Die Parole is a sprightly comedy. Its tale of wrongs righted and virtue rewarded is peopled with easily understood characters with clear motives; the contrast with the grandiose complexities of Samson couldn't be more telling. Perhaps Raff's libretto counted against it, but no record of any attempts by him to get it staged has so far been unearthed, so it isn't known how hard he tried, and what reaction he got to the score. The work lasts about 1¾ hours and has much attractive music, including one of Raff's most effective opera overtures, and a dance sequence in Act I. Unusually, the short opening scene is played out to the sound of just a snare drum.

The Prince (baritone); Jack, a wealthy farmer (bass); Will, a farmer (baritone); Karl, a soldier (tenor); Klaus, a farmer (tenor); Elsbeth, Wills’ daughter (soprano); Anna, Klaus’ bride (mezzo-soprano); An Officer (baritone).

Soldiers, Servants and Country Folk.

A village in a “princely domain” in the 18th century.


Listen to an audio extract [The excerpt is from near the beginning of the Overture 1:42]

Act 1
As the last ranks of an infantry detachment march past some open ground, Jack appears, wearing a prominent black wig. Gleefully he reveals that Karl’s return with the soldiers will bring the young man no joy, as his property is about to be sold at auction. Jack is sure that Karl’s betrothed, Elsbeth, will not want to share the disgrace, and will decide instead to become his own wife. Mockingly disdainful of the local farmers, he reveals that Karl had borrowed money from him, but has been unable to afford the high interest rate, prompting Jack to foreclose on Karl’s home. Will emerges from his garden and unsuccessfully tries to persuade Jack to help him save Karl’s farm, as Karl had inherited his debts from his father, but Jack refuses and congratulates himself on his own cleverness. He wants to marry again and has his sights set on Elsbeth, but Will says she is devoted to Karl. Jack retorts that if she married him, on their wedding day he would tear up Karl’s debt; as it is, if they marry she will share his ruin. They part angrily. Karl himself arrives, looking for Elsbeth and, not finding her, he voices his despair at the prospect of losing not only his parent’s farm, but also Elsbeth, as he will have to leave the village. He embraces her when she does appear, but then tells her that he is leaving and will have to return her ring, although he will always love her. Elsbeth urges him to have courage. She will take back her ring, but will remain true to him; they have loved each other since they were children, and she believes that they will soon be reunited forever. Attempting to restore his spirits, she reminds him that their childhood friends, Anna and Klaus, will be married that day, but Karl regrets that he cannot attend the festivities as he is on guard duty with the watch. As they leave, the wedding celebrations begin: soldiers sing and guests dance in Anna and Klaus’s honour. Jack, a little drunk, emerges from the inn and says that soon he’ll be married too, clapping Will on the shoulder and calling him “father”. The derision with which this is greeted by the guests provokes him to approach Elsbeth and, reminding her of his wealth, he proposes marriage. The crowd laugh as she sweetly declines, saying that she is unworthy, and he too clever and respectable. Jack angrily realises that she has made a fool of him and threatens her, but Elsbeth remains cheerful, believing in the power of love. As the happy celebration continues with dancing, Anna and Klaus blindfold Elsbeth and the guests surround her, giving her a spray of myrtle cut from Anna’s wreath. It signifies that she will be the next bride. The wedding continues amidst much jollity.

Act 2
That night, Karl is on guard duty outside the palace grounds, on the edge of the forest, musing miserably on the home and love that he will soon be leaving behind. No sooner has he entered his sentry box than the Prince appears from the forest, deep in thought. He is eager to improve the lot of his people, but is only too aware of the limits of his ability to do so. A clock strikes eleven and he hurries to the palace’s gate, only to be challenged by Karl. He identifies himself as the Prince, but Karl has never seen him before and so asks him for the day’s watchword. The Prince cannot remember it, so Karl arrests him, which the Prince accepts in good humour. Anxious to leave, he then tries to bribe his captor, which affronts the guard. Impressed by Karl’s honesty, he asks him about himself and learns of the debts inherited by Karl from his father, which will now cost him both his home, and Elsbeth. As Karl’s replacement arrives, the scene changes to the village square. Eight masked men appear, accompanied by Klaus, who is dressed as a woman. He has persuaded Elsbeth to allow him to play a joke on Jack: pretending to be her, Klaus has written to him, expressing remorse for humiliating him, and suggesting that they meet at midnight. The masked men hide in bushes as Jack approaches, eagerly anticipating his assignation with Elsbeth. He engages in a flirtatious conversation with Klaus (singing falsetto) which ends with imposter giving Jack a loud kiss and then scurrying off. As he starts to follow, Jack is set upon by the masked men, who force him to the ground, berate him for coveting someone else’s betrothed, remove his wig and run off with it themselves.

Act 3
In Will’s living room Elsbeth, alone, contrasts her public confidence with her private heartbreak. Her father enters and tells her he has heard good news: the auction of Will’s farm has been cancelled. He goes on to recount Karl’s encounter with the Prince the previous night, and says that they are commanded to go to the village square. Buoyed up by the turn of events, the pair leave. The scene changes to the village’s church square. Anna is already there, and is irritated by the attention which Klaus has been giving Elsbeth. She angrily complains to him when he arrives, but he assures her that he was only helping Elsbeth, and loves only Anna. Reconciled, they are joined by Elsbeth and Will, who quickly share their joy with the newly-arrived Karl, at the news of the cancelled auction. He, though, remains downcast because he has been dismissed from the regiment. They all share his consternation. Meanwhile a procession of youths, flaunting Jack’s wig on a pole, parade it around the square and stop outside its owner’s house, taunting him when he opens a window. Klaus reminds the disapproving crowd of Jack’s misdeeds towards Karl and Elsbeth, before the humiliated farmer at last reclaims his wig and can disappear into his house. Preceded by a detachment of soldiers, the Prince finally arrives in the square. He praises Karl’s honesty and courage, and appoints him Superintendent of his household. Confirming that he will settle their debts, he hopes that Karl and Elsbeth will soon marry. He asks for the day’s watchword and, when told that it is “People’s Happiness”, the he says that he will not forget it. The opera ends amidst general celebration.

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