Beyond 'Les Miz': Three Operas Based on Victor Hugo Novels

Email a Friend

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. The 1985 musical theater version of Les Misérables – aka "Les Miz" – was one of the longest running shows on Broadway. And this month will mark the release of the much anticipated film version starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. In this edition of Opera in Brief, F. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of Opera News magazine, takes us beyond Les Miz and introduces us to three operas based on the works of Victor Hugo.

“Victor Hugo’s life spanned a great change in French politics,” Driscoll reminded us. “He was born into an atmosphere of empire in the early 1800’s.” Across the course of his life he became less of a royalist and more of a free thinker. In terms of French culture he was “a cross between Charles Dickens and Norman Mailer — a great novelist who wrote books with incredibly vivid characters, but his politics always informed everything he did.”

“I don’t know why Victor Hugo is not read that much in the United States,” Driscoll continued. “I read more Dumas as a kid than Hugo.” And yet, Hugo’s writing has inspired over 1000 pieces of music – including more than 100 operas. “The trick in picking a book or play that is made into an opera,” he said, “is that you have to make sure that the characters can ‘sing’ - that they are passionate about something. And that’s something that the characters of Victor Hugo do whenever they’re put to music.”

1. La Esmeralda (1836)

La Esmeralda is based on Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The opera was composed by Louise Bertin who was from a well-to-do family that dominated a large part of French culture through its ownership and editorship of newspapers. Bertin was partially paralyzed from birth. She, therefore, identified in many ways with the opera’s most sympathetic character – Quasimodo, the hunchback who lives inside the cathedral.

Bertin worked directly with Victor Hugo on La Esmeralda. Hector Berlioz was also involved. Berlioz conducted the rehearsals and helped with the stage direction. He greatly admired Bertin’s talent. “But because of her gender, her family connection and the nature of French politics, Berlioz knew that she was never going to have the success she deserved.” Driscoll said. “The failure of this opera crushed Bertin and she never wrote another.”

Driscoll tells us that it’s significant that Quasimodo is a tenor role. “It gives him lightness and a youth,” he said. The "Bell Aria" is basically a monologue. Quasimodo sings about how happy he is to be home in the cathedral. This was an aria that Hugo and Bertin worked on a lot together. She wanted it to be light. But Hugo didn’t want it to be too happy because Quasimodo is essentially a tragic character. The hunchback reveals his mantra in the aria when he sings, "In my soul I am handsome."

Frederic Antoun (2008) singing ‘Air des cloches: Mon Dieu! J’aime’ (Quasimodo’s ‘Bell Aria’):

2. Lucrezia Borgia (1833)

Victor Hugo wrote a play about Lucrezia Borgia – the infamous Italian noblewoman who was the daughter of a Pope. Hugo was fascinated by this woman. “Legend says she was famously beautiful, sexual and evil,” Driscoll explained. “But if you look at the facts, she had eight children that we know of so I don’t know how she had much time to poison anybody!” Hugo’s play was adapted into an opera by Donizetti.

The woman who was most closely associated with the role of Lucrezia Borgia before World War II was Giannina Arangi-Lombardi. “In the years after the war, it was a very important role assumption for Monserrat Caballé,” said Driscoll. “Caballé recorded it and it was her Carnegie Hall debut. Lucrezia Borgia was also sung by Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland. More recently, Renée Fleming did a production in Washington that later moved on to San Francisco.”

Monserrat Caballé (1965) singing ‘Tranquillo ei posa….Com’ è bello!’:

Orsini is a pants role for mezzo-soprano or contralto in Lucrezia Borgia. Orsini’s primary contribution is a brindisi, or drinking song, in the last act. “He’s leading his pals in a celebration of life not knowing that the wine they’re drinking has been poisoned!” Driscoll exclaimed.

Sigrid Onégin was born in Sweden of French and German parents. Onégin was primarily a concert artist but did some operatic performing at Bayreuth and the Met. ‘She was an astonishing technician and probably more of a contralto than women who sing the role today” said Driscoll, “The voice has got incredible size, thrust and flexibility.”

Sigrid Onégin (1928) singing ‘Il segreto per esser felici’:

3. Rigoletto (1851)

Victor Hugo was consumed by politics. He wrote a play in 1832 called Le Roi s’amuse which purported to be about the 16th-century king Francis I. “But the play was perceived as a criticism of the current King of France – Louis-Philippe – who was not someone that Hugo liked very much,” Driscoll explains. “So the play was withdrawn by the censors after only one performance.”

Giuseppe Verdi, however, “was not a man to shy away from a controversial subject.” He wanted to make Hugo’s play into an opera. Le Roi s’amuse became the tragic opera Rigoletto and several of the characters transmuted. Instead of having a king, the licentious nobleman became the Duke of Mantua and the Duke’s court jester became the title character Rigoletto.

Hugo was in and out of France for political reasons for most of his life but finally returned in late middle age. “A couple of years before he died, he was able to see not only a revival of his play which was done for the first time in 50 years, but he also saw a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto which he said he thought was better than his play,” Driscoll told us. “Hugo’s favorite part of the opera was the quartet which has no equivalent in his original source material.”

Enrico Caruso, Flora Perini, Amelita Galli-Curci, Giuseppe DeLuca (1917) singing the Act III quartet, ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’:

Driscoll reports that the Duke’s aria "La donna è mobile" caused a sensation. “Verdi was loath to show the manuscript to anybody – including the tenor who was going to have to introduce it – because it was such a catchy tune. He didn’t want it whistled by everyone in the street before the show had opened. It is the hit tune from the opera and no one sings it better than Luciano Pavarotti!”

Luciano Pavarotti singing ‘La donna è mobile’: