- Opéra comique in 3 acts
- Composer: Adolphe Adam
- Libretto: Adolphe de Leuven (actually Adolphe Count Ribbing) and Léon-Lévy Brunswick (actually Léon Lévy)
- First performed: Théâtre Royal de l’Opéra-Comique (salle de la Bourse), 13 October 1836, conducted by Narcisse Girard
|CHAPELOU, postillon, then first singer of the Opéra, called SAINT-PHAR||Tenor||Jean-Baptiste Chollet|
|BIJU, wheelwright, then chorus member of the Opéra, called ALCINDOR||Baritone||François-Louis Henri|
|LE MARQUIS DE CORCY, organiser of the royal spectacles||Tenor||Edmond-Jules Delaunay-Ricquier|
|BOURDON, chorus member of the Opéra||Bass|
|MADELEINE, innkeeper, then MADAME DE LATOUR||Soprano||Geneviève-Aimé-Zoë Prévost|
|ROSE, Madame de Latour’s chambermaid||Soprano||Mme Roy|
|An Exempt – Soldiers of the Constabulary – Neighbours and Friends of Madame de Latour – Servants|
SETTING: Act I: The village of Lonjumeau, at the post office inn, during the reign of Louis XV (1756). Acts II and III: Ten years later, at Madame de Latour’s home, at Fontainebleau.
Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, a light opera about a coachman turned opera star, was Adolphe Adam’s most famous opera, performed more than 500 times in Paris by the end of the 19th century, more than 800 times in Berlin, and it remained in the repertoires of the French and German provincial theatres. Above all, Piotr Kaminski wrote, Le Postillon has an immortal tenor aria, crowned by a high D.
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.
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.
The plot’s too frivolous for most opera houses, and the hit 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? That may be why the opera has largely vanished, bar the occasional German resurrection.
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 have seized on the idea of a woman abandoned by her husband and plotting revenge for ten years, and milked 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.
Synopsis based on Art Lyrique Français website and Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, Paris, 2003
ACT I: The public square in Lonjumeau
Chapelou the postilion is about to marry the innkeeper Madeleine. A witch, however, promised him a brilliant future the next day, while a hunchback hinted to Madeleine that she could do better than marry a simple postilion. They both pretend to make fun of such nonsense. Chapelou, in high spirits, sings a virtuoso ballad…
heard by the Marquis de Corcy, director of the Paris Opéra, whose stagecoach has fallen into a nearby ravine. Impressed by the postilion’s beautiful voice, he interrupts the ceremony, and offers him a position as a tenor with the Opéra. Chapelou accepts and accompanies the Marquis to Paris without even bidding farewell to his wife.
ACT II: Mme de Latour’s reception room at Fontainebleau, ten years later
Chapelou, under the pseudonym of Saint-Phar, has become a famous tenor. His friend Biju, the village blacksmith, has become head chorister. Madeleine, too, has been lucky; she inherited an immense fortune, and adopted the name of Madame de Latour. Still, she still loves the postilion. The Marquis has fallen in love with Madame de Latour, and Chapelou is obliged to sing a song the Marquis composed in her honour. Unaware that she is his wife, he pays court to her. She agrees to grant him his hand, to the Marquis’s irritation.
ACT III: The bridal chamber
Because he is already married, Chapelou hires an actor to play the priest at the “wedding”. Madeleine, though, has guessed the intrigue, and substituted a real priest. Learning this, the Marquis prevents Biju from telling his friend. Finally torn from the Marquis’s clutches, Biju suggests flight, but it’s too late: under her former clothes, which reveal the whole truth to Chapelou, Madeleine accuses him of bigamy, a crime punishable by death. In the dark, she terrorises her husband with her voice, acting both the peasant woman and the aristocrat, while the Marquis summons the police to arrest the scoundrel. Always loving and loyal, Madeleine nevertheless ends by admitting her plot, and falls into the arms of her postilion.
Listen to: 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.
Watch: Michael Spyres (Chapelou / Saint-Phar) and Florie Valiquette (Madeleine / Mme de Latour), Opéra-Comique, 2019, conducted by Sébastien Rouland. Medici TV.