LE POSTILLON DE LONJUMEAU
Opéra Comique en 3 actes
By Adolphe Adam
Libretto : Adolphe de Leuven & Léon Brunswick
First performed : Théâtre Royal de l’Opéra-Comique (salle de la Bourse), 13 October 1836
For plot synopsis, roles, musical structure, and contemporary reviews, see here.
We’re so used to a diet of Norse gods, metaphysical love deaths, and consumptive heroines that we’ve forgotten that in its day opera was often the equivalent of the mid-century musical: popular entertainment with a hit song.
Adolphe Adam’s Postillon de Lonjumeau, a light opera about a coachman turned opera star, is a case in point.
The coachman Chappelou leaves his bride Madeleine on his wedding day to become a tenor at the Paris Opéra, and live the life of a grand seigneur. The action picks up ten years later. Chappelou, now calling himself Saint-Phar, is a star, and Madeleine, calling herself Mme de Latour, has inherited a fortune from an aunt. Chappelou marries Mme de Latour, without knowing he’s marrying his first wife in disguise; he also thinks the marriage is a sham. He realizes that he’s committed bigamy, and worries that he’s going to be hanged – but, as always in this sort of opera, he’s reunited with his wife—both of them.
And here’s the hit song, sung by Nicolai Gedda:
That may be why the opera has largely vanished, bar the occasional German resurrection. The plot’s too frivolous for most opera houses, but the aria is too demanding for most amateur or provincial companies – and why would a tenor who can sing high Ds bother with the opera when he could sing something sturdier?
The music’s light, but it’s also lightweight. I prefer the music Adam wrote later in his career: le Toréador, a little one-act gem, with its clever variations on “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” (aka “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”), or Le farfadet with its windmill scene (“Hou, hou, hou!”). It’s also not as good as some of the opéras-comiques of the time; it lacks Auber’s fizz and wit (Fra Diavolo, Le cheval de bronze) or Boieldieu’s tunefulness (La dame blanche).
Verdi and Puccini would seize on the idea of a woman abandoned by her husband and plotting revenge for ten years, and milk it for dramatic effect. But there’s little sense of emotion here. To demand psychological realism, though, is to miss the point. This is frothy fun, to be enjoyed as such.
The recommended recording is Jules Gressier’s 1952 recording for the RTF, starring Henri Legay and Janine Micheau. It’s an authentically French performance, in the old style.
I’m not so fond of Thomas Fulton’s 1985 Monte Carlo recording starring John Aler and June Anderson; it’s not French enough. You can hear some of the highlights below: