La corte de Faraón

This material is © Christopher Webber, Blackheath, London, UK. Last updated September 6th 2004

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La corte de Faraón
by Vicente Lleó
libretto by Guillermo Perrín and Miguel de Palacios

® recommended recording

Vicente Lleó can only be described as a minor composer. Of his hundred or so works, only a handful have gained more than a fleeting foothold in the repertoire. He is remembered nowadays for just one, frivolous little operetta - and yet there are few pieces that have inspired such consistent pleasure and affection as La corte de Faraón (Teatro Eslava, Madrid, 21st January 1910.) In large measure this is down to the librettists' shrewd choice of subject. A blend of biblical pastiche, luscious vaudeville and Art Deco Egyptian chic, La corte del Faraón is one of their most sophisticated and audacious conceptions. The smuttiness of its double-entendres was so evident, indeed, that public performance of the work was banned by the Franco regime until as late as 1975!

'Yo soy el casto José'
Casto José

The music adds spice to this mixture. Grand triumphal choruses, sinuous woodwind orientalisms, a slaves' chorus, a stylistic distinction between public and private - all these cock a friendly snook at Verdi's Aida. But the scope of Lleó's pastiche is much broader. La Belle Helene, The Merry Widow and even Lohengrin are called in to ring the changes on the basic joke. And though Lleó is happy to draw on these models for grand oratory and private impropriety alike, his tunes are all perfectly originally, and perfectly seductive.

Scene 1. The Great Square of Memphis in Egypt. Celebrations are in full swing for the return of General Putifar (Potiphar), fresh from his triumph in the Syrian wars. Pharaoh himself, enthroned with his Queen and his Cupbearer, leads the crowd in their jubilant cries (Coro: "Viva Putifar!"). The High Priest presents Lotha, a lovely virgin from Thebes, who has been chosen by the Queen herself to become the wife of the General. Putifar enters to pompous trumpet fanfares, but is evidently disconcerted by the offer of a bride - a fact not unconnected with a delicate personal disablement he has suffered in the battle. His wife-to-be is ceremoniously handed over together with her slave, the Israelite Raquel. Everyone leaves to celebrate the wedding inside the Temple.

Ismael, a slave trader, is taking a fetching youth to market. This is José (Joseph), an Israelite sold into slavery by his own family - yes, it is he of the many-coloured coat. Putifar's slaves Selhá and Setí take pity on the boy, purchasing him to work in their master's kitchens. Putifar and Lotha reappear, fresh from the ceremony. He praises his wife's virtue in a noble solo and she replies in kind (Dúo: "Salve, Lotha"), but the scene is cut short by the two slaves and Raquel, who present their new purchase. Putifar is so impressed by José's nice manners and appearance that he takes the boy on as his own personal valet.

Scene 2. The Nuptial Chamber of Putifar's Palace. The ritual celebrations are in progress, Raquel sings and a group of slaves dance (Solo y Coro: "La luz de la luna".) José and Raquel then introduce three Theban Widows, who advise Lotha on her wifely duties and bawdily hint at the nuptial delights in store (Terceto: "Salud a la doncella".) José disarms his master and tactfully withdraws, leaving the newly weds together. Putifar - understandably given his lack of marital wherewithal - chooses to entertain his eager wife with a long narration about his military prowess and the virtue of single-breasted army uniforms, much to Lotha's frustration. Before anything more personal can happen a trumpet announces the dawning day - and the call to arms for Putifar. Buckling his armour on with relief, he hurriedly orders Lotha to amuse herself in his absence by conversing with "Casto (chaste) José."

Lotha takes full advantage of Putifar's advice. She and Raquel have already wetted their appetites seeing the boy bathing naked, and her fascination with José's beautiful eyes rapidly reaches a point beyond which the pure-minded youth is unwilling to go. At the start of their climactic Duo: "Yo soy el casto José" he fends off her attentions as best he can, explaining that he is more used to playing with sheep than with women, but in the end resistance is useless and he is forced to run, leaving his mantle in Lotha's hands. She cries out, and when Selhá and Setí rush in she accuses José of attempting to ravish her - as the dropped mantle conclusively proves.

Scene 3. Pharaoh's Palace. Pharaoh is in his wife's arms, sleeping off his customary drunken stupor. She is being vaguely entertained by a languid chorus of Babylonian Gypsy Slaves, one of whom, Sul, leads them in a saucy cabaret song - nobody, it seems, can improve on Babylonian love-making techniques (Canción: "¡Ay, Ba...¡Ay Ba!".) Lotha runs in asking for justice, Selhá and Setí dragging José behind. The Queen hears her version of events, but somehow José's sweet nature - and firm physique - cause Her Majesty to take a more lenient view of the matter. Surely her husband will intervene? Pharaoh, grumpy at being disturbed, wants nothing to do with the business and stomps off to continue his snooze in the gardens below. The Queen takes charge, and after staging a reconstruction of the supposed violation decides to take José off Lotha's hands and reform him herself. Putifar's Wife is not best pleased at this Regal justice, and an argument ensues (Terceto: "Para juzgar".) José, almost pulled in half by the two tigresses, has no way to save his honour but to dive through a nearby window into the gardens below.

Scene 4. The Royal Gardens. José has landed on top of the Pharaoh who, thus rudely awakened from a strange dream, gives the alarm. Taking advantage of the situation, José offers to interpret the dream for him. The Cupbearer backs him up, providing Pharaoh with evidence that José's reputation as a mage is second to none. José evokes a magic vision for Pharaoh of three beautiful Spanish women dancing a voluptuous fandango (Escena y Danza: "Vi entre sueños tres mujeres".) Charmed, the monarch shows his gratitude by making José his Viceroy, and vows to keep him always by his side.

Scene 5. The entrance to the Temple of Apis, the Bull God - which looks strangely like a modern Spanish bullring. In a final scene of great brevity but considerable pomp, "Casto José" kneels before the Pharaoh, and is invested with all the dignity of Viceroy, to the jubilant cries of the crowd prostrating itself before the image of the Sacred Bull.

La corte de Faraón - a little piece of musicological trivia
(thanks to René González, of Tampa, Florida, USA)

"A bit of trivia that you may enjoy from La Corte...
The flute trill we hear in the overture, again in the triumphal chorus, and once more before the "Salve Lota" was explained to me ages ago by an old man who worked at the Centro Asturiano here in Tampa, which was our first theatrical home. It seems that castrators in the rural parts of Spain would sound their fifes with this tune, to let farmers know that they were in the region helping make "oxen" by castrating bulls. Lleó used this to signal to Madrid audiences that something was "amiss" with Putifar! Quite subtle, but not lost on the saavy audiences attending zarzuelas in Madrid - many of whom came from the provinces."

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