Saturday, November 5, 2011

Se vuol ballare: operatic histories of the French Revolution

Verily, Gentle Readers, opera follows me around, even into the fastnesses of the library. I have been spending the past week immersed in the historiography of the French Revolution, and uncovering some intriguing aspects of opera history in the process. The eighteenth-century opera house was a theater of political representation and an arena for political debate; the disappearance of the ancien regime glories of Lully and Rameau were precipitated more by changes in public mood than changes in musical taste. The public debates over the style of Gluck vs. that of Piccini were as heated as more overtly political disputes (if not quite at the level of the mid-century querelle des bouffons.) The 1774 premiere of Iphigenie en Aulide caused furor not only because of its style, but also because of its subject matter. (Go here to hear Clytemnestre defy the authority of a king and father.) Piccini's rococo dramas were immensely popular. His Italian style, however, was decried by those who wanted natural simplicity and national character in their music. Here an excerpt from Piccini's 1760 work "La Cecchina, ossia la buona figliuola:"

As seen in the above clip, the opera flirts with social transgression despite the subtitle: La Cecchina, a sweet-tempered maidservant, is in love with a marquis. Shall their union be prevented by class boundaries? Fortunately not... as she turns out to be the daughter of a baron. Rousseau himself penned a musical drama entitled Le Devin du Village, extolling sentiment and simplicity. Gretry, meanwhile, was quoted with inflammatory effect at a military banquet, where an aria from Richard Coeur-de-Lion ("O Richard, o mon roi") was sung in commiseration with Louis XVI at "the universe being arrayed against him." And so, indeed, it might have seemed to be. The much-touted changes in mentality which facilitated the social revolutions of the end of the century find eloquent utterance in Mozart. After years of defying tyranny in opera seria, Mozart has Figaro kick over the cart, with a little help from Beaumarchais:

Then, of course, there is the rich and varied afterlife of the revolution in operas which have taken inspiration from its events. Reading about the social ambitions of the bourgeoisie, I kept being distracted from vigorous debates by having this scene playing in my head:

Another topic, vigorously debated both by revolutionaries and their historians--what is the "true revolution" and who are its supporters?--is distilled into Dvořák's opera The Jacobin. Domestic and political tyrannies are thwarted in this all's-well-that-ends-well comedy. A crusty old count is prevented from appointing a Machiavellian successor when he finds out that his son has remained loyal to his native land, and, far from being a Jacobin as suspected, was associated with the Girondins who opposed the Terror. The work is rarely performed, but due to appear at the Barbican this coming February. In this joyous finale, sentiment is seen to be a prerequisite for social justice, exercised benevolently on behalf of the peasants, who get to marry whom they wish.

Poulenc is, as far as I know, the only composer to incorporate the guillotine in his score. Dialogues des Carmelites is perhaps the bleakest treatment of the revolution, where anticipating the final resurrection is an acknowledgement that a sinful humanity is incapable of creating a regenerated society. I love Robert Carsen's staging of the final scene, but be warned: it chokes me up without fail:

Luigi Illica's libretto for Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier is steeped in revolutionary references, from the opening scene where the fashionable gathering tuts over the fall of Necker to the final one where the gaoler comments on the debased assignats which make him so happy to take Maddalena's hard cash. Chenier (described as an "insolent and violent poet" in the archives of the Paris police) is the ideal citizen of much political writing in the late 1700s and since: patriotic, principled, and romantic. Domingo's very human account of the heroic "Un dì all'azzurro spazio" can't be embedded, but it's worth listening to here.

Finally, we have revisionist history with a vengeance: John Corigliano's 1991 opera The Ghosts of Versailles. Here, the inimitable Teresa Stratas is the posthumously-depressed Marie Antoinette, seeking consolation from--of all people--Beaumarchais:

My beloved Fidelio has been consciously omitted from this list; all that liberty and romanticism does have a very post-revolutionary flavor, but I don't find the theory that it's directly related to the Marquis and Marquise de Lafayette very convincing. Still, I suspect I have not nearly exhausted the revolutionary histories of the operatic repertoire, so if you have further favorites, Gentle Readers, or thoughts on the works presented, comment away!


  1. What about Gottfried von Einem's setting of Büchner's Dantons Tod? It's maybe a B-list opera but it's stirring stuff and very listenable. Lucille gets an excellent mad scene.

  2. Whoa, that Dialogues of the Carmelites video is chilling! What a powerful way to set the stage. And such eerie, eerie music.

    I agree that Fidelio is too full of liberty and Romanticism to belong to this list: it lacks the grittiness of Chernier and Dialogues. And interesting, I thought that the story itself was supposedly inspired by a couple in Toulouse, not by the Lafayettes. My copy of the Cambridge guide never mentions them. (Although I do kind of love the idea of it being a true story.)

  3. @Zerbinetta Ah, I knew I had to be guilty of some glaring omission! Oops. Thanks for the recommendation... having heard of the opera is the extent of my acquaintance with it (shame, shame) despite having encountered the play in my past as a German Lit major.

    @Christie I still haven't seen Dialogues live, but I do like that minimalist treatment better than a clutter of local color. Now that you and Z have commented I think I'm safe from Fidelio-related indignation. Rescue-from-tyranny narratives were a popular genre, of course, but I actually hadn't heard of a plausible single prototype. I have to say I like it as a parable.

  4. *hilarity alert*

    I'll tell you what gets me all teary and solemn whenever I hear it: the moment when everybody in Don Giovanni's party drops everything and starts belting out Viva la libertà! /h

    For the Vienna prima, the (subversive?) line was changed into "Viva la società". (!)

    En plus, it seems that a character yelling libertà or liberté in an opera of the second half of the 18th usually means more than the (usually melodramatic) context suggests. I've been paying close attention even since I caught another instance, in Rameau's Les Boréades.

  5. @DTO Ha! :D Yeah, I do realize the Don is a grievous omission, but Figaro is more fun, so he got posted instead. I didn't know that about the Vienna prima (at least... I feel as though Brophy or someone I've read must have mentioned it, but I don't remember.) Isn't it weird how, once you notice libertà/liberté in operas of that period, you start seeing it everywhere? Potentially controversial cultural statements! So exciting!

  6. I got that tidbit about Vienna libretto change in a book on politics in opera, a golden oldie from 1992 written by Anthony Arblaster and aptly titled Viva la libertà.


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