Opéra-comique in 1 act
Libretto : François-Benoit Hoffman, after De Dea Syria (attributed to Lucan)
First performed : Théatre Favart, Paris, 3 May 1792
- SÉLEUCUS, King of Syria (taille = baritenor)
- ANTIOCHUS, his son (haute-contre)
- STRATONICE, promised to Séleucus (soprano)
- ERASISTRATE, doctor (baritone)
Setting: Damascus, in the King’s Palace, in Antiochus’s room
Synopsis, based on Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, Paris, 2003
Antiochus, son of Séleucus, king of Syria, is ill, and the doctors fear for his life. The chorus prays in vain for him. Alone, he entrusts the heavens with the secret of his suffering: he loves a woman whom he dare not name. Despairing, the king summons a doctor, the wise Erasistrate, and asks him to cure Antiochus, so he can attend his father’s marriage to the princess Stratonice. At her name, the young man’s pains redouble. Erasistrate examines him, and concludes that the illness is moral rather than physical, but cannot draw the secret out of his patient. While taking his pulse, he notices a sudden acceleration – when Stratonice enters the room. Having cleared up this mystery, he nevertheless chooses to dissimulate, telling Séleucus that only the gods can save Antiochus’s life. Séleucus departs, while the doctor asks Stratonice to talk to the prince. This risky tête-à-tête leads the two youngsters to the brink of a mutual declaration that the doctor’s untimely return interrupts. It’s in his presence that Antiochus learns Stratonice’s sweet confession. Having thus diagnosed a happily shared love, Erasistrate undertakes his therapy. After calling on Venus for support, he shares some of the mystery with the king: his son suffers from a fatal passion for a young and beautiful woman whom the prince saw in the court, and is none other than … the doctor’s wife! Séleucus beseeches the doctor to divorce his wife, promising him all the treasures of the world. The doctor feigns indignation: ordering a husband to give up his wife! You yourself, my lord, would you make such a sacrifice? Séleucus has understood Erasistrate’s plot, and the mystery. Summoning Stratonice, he asks her if she ever loved another. She promises absolute fidelity … after the marriage. As for Antiochus, he submits obediently to his ruler’s wish. It’s too much for a father’s heart: the marriage will take place, but Stratonice will marry the king’s only son.
Méhul, almost forgotten now, was the leading French composer during the Revolution, and a favorite of Napoleon’s. He composed the Chant du Départ, the “the brother of the Marseillaise”, and Wagner and Berlioz both admired his music.
Stratonice was his third opera, and a success. It attained 200 performances during Méhul’s lifetime, while Cherubini thought it his best work: “Stratonice lacks nothing; it is a work of genius. Méhul’s masterpiece.”
There is little passion in Stratonice, but it is a touching, high-minded work. It’s rare to find an opera in which everyone is good. Opera characters are usually selfish or obsessive; they are, as Peter Conrad argues, pure Id. Méhul’s opera shows characters willing to sacrifice their happiness and their lives for others. Antiochus loves his father Séleucus’s betrothed, but would rather die than admit it, or ruin his father’s happiness; Stratonice loves him, but is honor bound to love her husband-to-be; and Séleucus chooses the love of a father over the love of a spouse.
It’s a very eighteenth century attitude: reason and benevolence triumphing over self-interest and passion. In its depiction of a king who chooses the good of others over his own happiness, and the general forgiveness with which the opera ends, could Stratonice be hoping that the monarchy and the Revolution could be reconciled? The opera was performed in May 1792, nearly a year after Louis XVI and his family had tried to flee France; the National Convention condemned the king to death six months after Méhul’s opera, in January 1793. Méhul himself composed an openly monarchist Jeunesse de Henri IV, meant to be performed in 1792, but unperformable at the time (Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, 2010).
Antiochus has an excellent aria at the start, where he resolves to take his feelings to the tomb; and there is an impressive ensemble that starts as a duet, becomes a trio, and then a quartet. Surprisingly, Stratonice, although the title role, has no aria of her own; she takes part in the ensembles in the middle and at the end of the opera.
The recommended recording is William Christie’s 1996 recording starring Yann Beuron (Antiochus), Étienne Lescroart (Séleucus), Karl Daymond (Erasistrate) and Patricia Petibon (Stratonice).