Opéra-comique in 1 act
Libretto : François-Benoit Hoffman, after De Dea Syria (attributed to Lucan)
First performed : Théatre Favart, Paris, 3 May 1792
Reception: Méhul’s third opera. A success – 200 performances during Méhul’s lifetime. Cherubini thought it Méhul’s best work: “Stratonice lacks nothing; it is a work of genius. Méhul’s masterpiece.”
For more information about the opera, including roles and numbers, see the dossier.
For 19th century criticism, see here.
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.
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).
The recommended recording is William Christie’s 1996 recording starring Yann Beuron (Antiochus), Étienne Lescroart (Séleucus), Karl Daymond (Erasistrate) and Patricia Petibon (Stratonice).
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 complete opera is on YouTube, beginning here: