Wilhelm Kienzl: Der Kuhreigen

Musical Drama in 3 Acts
Libretto by Richard Batka, after the Novella "Die kleine Blanchefleur" by Rudolf Hans Bartsch.
Music by Wilhelm Kienzl (1857-1941).
World premiere: Vienna, 1911.

Dramatis Personae





Mezzo Soprano:


Place and time: Paris and Versailles, 1792/93.

Act 1

Barrack square of Saint Honore' at Paris.

The Swiss soldiers drill under Sergeant Dursel even after their normal time of duty. After that, they sit silently at their table, while French Sergeant Favart and his comrades sing cheerful songs. Favart explains to his soldiers why the Swiss do not sing anymore. It has happened that these people, who love their home country above all, were possessed by an uncontrollable homesickness when the Kuhreigen was sung. Therefore they are forbidden on penalty of death to sing it. Now they rather do not sing at all. - A quarrel arises between Dursel and Favart because of the waitress Doris. Primus Thaller intervenes and berates his fellow countryman Dursel for whipping up feeling over a girl of this class. He thinks that the woman to move his own heart must be different. When commander Massimelle and his wife Blanchefleur walk through the camp, Primus feels his heart beat mightily.

Revolution arises amongst the French soldiers, and their officers are very much aware of it. They think, however, that the Swiss soldiers are loyal. Priums is still deeply moved by the sight of Blanchefleur. He begins to sing the "Kuhreigen" song, and his comrades join in, first quietly, then louder and louder [this is where the excerpt recorded by Fritz Wunderlich is taken from]. Nasty Favard calls the officer on duty. Primus, who deliberately calls himself the ringleader, is taken away to prison.

Act 2

Bedchamber of the king.

The courtly "lever" ceremony takes place. Massimelle presents the death sentence perpared for Primus for signature. Since Primus once defended Blanchefleur, the king leaves the right of reprieve to her. Blanchefleur is delighted about this and wants to get to know the uncouth Swiss man in person. Her husband sends the freed man to her. Outside the palace, the revolutionary crowd is already going wild. Blanchefleur, however, is not impressed by the revolutionary events and still wants to perform a pastoral play together with the cute young man. Primus cannot deny his love, but he does not want to throw himself away for an affair. Although Blanchefleur tells him that her heart is free, Primus feels that her husband stands in his way. To Blanchefleur's regret, he asks for his freedom and goes away.

Act 3

Dining hall at the palace of the Massimelles.

Revolutionary scene - sans-culottes, amongst them Favard, Doris and other prostitutes have invaded the palace. Blanchefleur is found and taken to prison. Primus, who has been appointed Captain, comes too late to rescue his beloved. When he hears that Massimelle's head has fallen under the guillotine, he has but one thought: Blanchefleur is free for him now. He rushes away to try to rescue her from the dungeon.

The great cellar room of the Temple.

Here are the prisoners who are destined to be executed. Blanchefleur is amongst them. The thoughtlessness of the age is showed by everything the prisoners do - they dance the minuet, and rush from the dance to the guillotine, when their names are called by the revolutionary soldier. Primus, who wants to rescue Blanchefleur, tells her that she is a widow and free to become his wife, which will save her from being executed. Blanchefleur is moved by his devotion, but she cannot overcome her feeling of difference in class. She does not want to live as a simple Madame Thaller. But she wants to dance with the young Swiss. Stunned, Thaller takes her hand, and they begin to dance the minuet. Blanchefleur's name is called. She takes her leave of the loyal friend. Primus, severely shaken, stays behind, while one of the Royalists shouts "Mesdames, Messieurs, the dance is going on..."

from "Melitz: Führer durch die Opern" (Berlin 1920), translated by Andreas Praefcke. Thanks to John Pieper for suggesting this page and revising the translation.

Word explanations:

Kuhreigen (also known as 'Kuhreihen')
Old song form of the shepherds in the Alpine countries which was sung for magic purposes.

Lever (a French word)
A morning ceremony, especially at absloutistic courts. While the monarch is still in bed or already dressing, he is visited by courtiers. It's a demonstration of favour towards the nobility, but at the same time a demonstration of power. As other noblemen used to copy everything the monarch did in those times, "levers" were also held at their palaces (see William Hogarth's " Marriage a la Mode" and Strauss/Hofmannsthal's "Der Rosenkavalier" Act I).

originally a revolutionary of the poorer class, later used to describe any revolutionary , esp. one having extreme republican sympathies (from the 18th c: from French, literally: without knee breeches, because the revolutionaries wore pantaloons or trousers rather then knee breeches)

Fritz Wunderlich Discography