Comédie in 3 acts, in prose
Music: André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry
Libretto: Michel-Jean Sedaine
First performed: Opéra-Comique (Hôtel de Bourgogne), Paris, 4 March 1773
Have you an hour to spare? You could do worse than listen to Grétry’s charming Magnifique.
In his day, the Liégeois musician was the most performed Francophone composer in the world. Today, Grétry is seldom played; a pity, because what I’ve heard is exquisite. Clear, natural, tuneful, with piquant orchestration, a sense of character, and plenty of charm. His opéras-comiques are “light” music, perhaps, but it’s the lightness of skill.
Mozart knew and admired his operas, and we can hear his influence in The Marriage of Figaro. Berlioz praised Grétry’s “innocence full of delicacy”, and was moved by a Romance from his best-known opera today, Richard Coeur-de-Lion. “It’s delicious! … The whole thing has a finesse, a truth, an inspiration and a judgement which are ravishing.” (letter to Theodore Ritter, 23 May 1856)
By 1773, Grétry had already established himself in Paris, with several hits, including Le huron (1768), based on Voltaire, and Zémire et Azor(1771), a retelling of Beauty and the Beast.
For his next opera, he adapted a La Fontaine poem about a Florentine gallant, le Magnifique, who seduces a married woman, despite her husband’s vigilance. To satisfy morality, the wife became a girl whose guardian wants to marry her, rather like Rosina in the Barber of Seville.
Horace, a wealthy Florentine, and his servant Laurence have been kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery. Horace leaves behind a daughter, Clémentine, and Laurence a wife, Alix, her governess. Aldobrandin has brought up Clémentine, and wants to marry her. She, on the other hand, is in love with the rich and handsome Octave, nicknamed “le Magnifique”. Aldobrandin closely guards Clémentine, but Octave manages to gain an audience with her. She, though, has promised her guardian not to speak – but when Octave asks her to marry him, she drops a rose: “Yes”. Horace and Laurence return to Florence, and reveal that Aldobrandin had them kidnapped. Father and daughter, husband and wife, are all reunited, and the lovers can marry.
“The tale,” the librettist Michel-Jean Sedaine wrote, “seemed to me suitable to the opéra-comique genre; it promised situations over which the music could linger, and I sought to profit from it.”
And those situations were exactly what Grétry wanted from Sedaine.
Grétry’s collaboration with Sedaine was a break for each man from their usual partners, the writer Marmontel and the composer Monsigny. All of Paris was eager to see the results of the new partnership – except for Marmontel and Monsigny’s partisans, who objected to seeing Sedaine work for Grétry, and Grétry team up with Sedaine. The disgruntled fans tried to wreck the performance.
In the event, however, “Le Magnifique was not a brilliant success,” Grétry wrote in his Mémoires, “but rather what one calls a succès d’estime, and it remained in the theatre.”
The opera was thought a touch too long, but pleasing. “The music,” one critic wrote, “is excellent; it sustains and augments the reputation of Grétry, a fertile genius who can compose in any genre, and who knows how to give with such success an intelligible language to his song, and gracious and picturesque shapes to his composition.” (quoted in Regoir, 1883)
The writer and gossip Louis Petit de Bachaumont, however, reproached the opera for too great an abundance of harmonic riches, which fatigued the listener, and not enough variety.
The work was performed before Louis XV and his court, and staged in Paris as late as 1814.
The only recording (Naxos, 2012) offers the musical highlights, without the dialogue. I can’t comment on its merits as an opera; the plot seems light, but the music is delightful.
The best-known piece is the overture, a pantomime that shows a group of slaves – among them Horace and Laurence – passing the house. Bachaumont thought it the best part of the work, “full of art, taste and symphony. A drumroll gives the signal, and appeared a happy novelty.”
The highlight of the opera was the Trio de la rose, “Clémentine, mettez-vous là”. Curzon (1907) called it “both a comic scene full of charm and surprise, and an eminently expressive and picturesque musical composition”. More than one enthusiast went expressly to see this nearly 20-minute scene.
Clémentine has four fine ariettes: “Pourquoi donc ce Magnifique,” where she wonders why she finds Octave more attractive than the tutor who brought her up; the delicate “Quelle contrainte!”, where she rues her inability to speak to Octave; “Ah! que je me sens coupable”, which expresses her shame and confusion at dropping the rose; and the joyful “Jour heureux!”, where she looks forward to seeing her father.
She also takes part in three good duets: “C’est lui,” where Alix is excited at having seen her husband;
“Ma chère enfant,” where she resists Aldobrandin’s advances, telling him she’s too young (16 to his 40!); and “Je ne sais pourquoi je pleure”, with Alix.
Fabio, Aldobrandin’s henchman, also has an amusing “grotesque” aria where he praises Octave’s horse.
Only one recording: Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Octave); Elizabeth Calleo (Clémentine); Marguerite Krull (Alix); Jeffrey Thompson (Aldobrandin); Karim Sulayman (Fabio); Douglas Williams (Laurence); and Randall Scarlata (Fabio), with the Opera Lafayette Orchestra conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos 8.660305.
- Michel Brenet, Grétry: sa vie et ses oeuvres, 1884
- Henri de Curzon, Grétry: biographie critique, 1907
- Félix van Hulst, Grétry, 1842
- Édouard Georges Jacques Regoir, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry: célèbre compositeur belge, 1883