Commissioned by New Orleans Opera to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary
of the Louisiana Purchase
Set in New Orleans at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this opera juxtaposes the events surrounding the Louisiana Purchase with the dramatic life of Micaela lmonester, the Baroness de Pontalba. As Napoleon prepares to sell the territory of Louisiana to the Americans, Micaela embarks on an ill-advised marriage to the financially irresponsible Celestin de Pontalba. She moves to France where her relationship with her husband’s family grows steadily worse until her deranged father-in-law attempts to kill her before committing suicide himself. Although she escapes to return to her beloved New Orleans, her compassion leads her eventually to return to care for her now mentally enfeebled husband.
BRIEF PROGRAMME NOTE
This opera was inspired by the biography of the Baroness de Pontalba by Christina Vella, as well as by the events surrounding the Louisiana Purchase. However for operatic reasons many liberties have been taken with the story of the Pontalba family. Hopefully as far as the opera is concerned Si non è vero, è ben trovato! And as Voltaire once said “there is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility....”
Prologue and Scene 1
1851: Micaela remembers the reception in New Orleans so many years ago when she first met her husband, Celestin de Pontalba. 1803: The scene transforms into that soiree given by Micaela's widowed mother, Louise. The young Micaela entertains the guests with a Spanish love song, and the young Celestin is enchanted. His father, the Baron de Pontalba, suddenly enters bringing the news of the intended transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France. This evokes divided reactions. The Baron de Pontalba, who is French, is pleased, since his business affairs suffered disastrously under the Spanish administration. Aside, Micaela and Celestin speak of love and agree to meet again.
At the Pontalba home, the family discusses the repercussions of Celestin's possible engagement to Micaela. Mme. Pontalba does not approve, sensing that Micaela may not be very malleable. The Baron sees the possibility of a very good match, since Micaela's wealth will certainly offset the huge losses the family has had to bear. Pontalba has to leave immediately for France to renew business interests and exhorts his wife to negotiate the dowry very carefully. He exits with his wife. Celestin is outraged by the blatant calculation of his parents and sings of his sincere love for Micaela.
Despite Louise's warning about a too hasty marriage, Micaela stands firm. The love between Celestin and Micaela seems to be going smoothly, the dowry - after much discussion and some acrimony - is negotiated, and all seems set for a long and happy marriage.
The streets of New Orleans are alive with the news of the sudden and unexpected sale of the entire Louisiana Territory to the Americans. People react differently, and the various factions begin to fight. They are calmed by the visionary words of Mr. Monroe. Meanwhile, Micaela faces a momentous choice. Should she marry and go with Celestin to live in France, separating her from all she has known and loved, and in particular from the numerous building projects started by her father? She makes her choice to marry Celestin and follow him to France. They sing of true love against the mounting jubilation of the crowd celebrating a new America.
Micaela, now in France, exchanges letters with her mother. Louise tells of her excitement of being part of a new country that is vast and unified. Micaela describes a worsening financial situation and Celestin's inexplicably sullen and angry behaviour. Louise then writes that she must restore the buildings on Jackson Square damaged in the great fire and the challenge that this represents. Micaela replies excitedly that she will come home to help her mother. But Louise is advised by her attorney, Mr. Monroe, that "on no account should Micaela come back there without her husband's permission": Micaela's reaction to this news is one of despair.
Micaela is distracted by a moment of enjoyment with her children, then she presses Celestin to accompany her on a visit to America. He very reluctantly reveals that because he ran up enormous debts in New Orleans, his family forced him to sign a note giving them the control of all their money, including the dowry that she had brought. Celestin warns her that his father can be dangerous when he is opposed, and he is sure to oppose any idea of a journey to America. Micaela is outraged and responds defiantly that she is not afraid.
Mr. Dupin, Pontalba's lawyer, brings the news of the death of Micaela's mother. He can protect the Pontalbas, but Celestin must be persuaded to sign a document that he has brought with him before the news is generally known. Pontalba summons his son, who reluctantly signs the document. Micaela announces to the family that she and Celestin are planning a visit to America. Pontalba is furious, and his rage knows no bounds when Micaela accuses him of stealing the money from her dowry. Tensions mount when Madame Pontalba reminds her husband that Micaela could very well sue him in America, where the laws are different, and they could lose everything. Pontalba now accuses his son of dividing his family. "A family that lies and cheats!" says Celestin as he suddenly snatches the document from his father's hand and exits quickly. Pontalba, facing rebellion within his own family, realizes he must take decisive action.
Micaela is hurriedly packing. Pontalba, in a wild action, attempts to murder his daughter-in-law, and she is severely wounded. Madame Pontalba is aghast at this violence. She accuses her husband of ruining the family's honour. Pontalba realizes he has lost the support of his wife and his son. He cannot bear the shame. A moment later we hear the sound of a distant gun shot. Pontalba has killed himself.
Micaela is slowly recovering, and despite protests from Celestin and his mother, leaves for New Orleans. Mr. Monroe advises her that the American courts have ruled that her inheritance is hers absolutely. Her mother has protected her against the grasping Pontalba family. Micaela can now realize her family's dream to revitalize her beautiful city.
Scene IV and Epilogue
Micaela is welcomed and celebrated by the Mayor and the people of New Orleans. Micaela tells Mr. Monroe that now that the buildings are completed, she must return to France to care for Celestin. When she is reunited with him, we gradually understand that Celestin is mentally enfeebled. The opera thus ends on a note of joy and celebration, and at the same time one of sadness and personal sacrifice.