Trágedie en musique, in 3 acts
Music & libretto: Albéric Magnard
First performed: Opéra-Comique (3e salle Favart), Paris, 15 December 1911, conducted by François Rühlmann
As the Roman emperor Titus, the darling of his people, lay dying of fever, he reproached himself for a crime. “Alas! why must I die so young? In all my life, there is only one deed which I regret.”
Magnard thought he knew what that deed was: he had abandoned the woman he loved, the Jewish princess Berenice.
“Be he emperor, be he god, when a man knows the delights of shared love,” the composer wrote in the Preface to the score, “let us not pity him if he destroys his happiness. He deserves the harshest punishment.”
Act I: Berenice awaits Titus at her villa outside Rome. Her nurse, Lia, warns her that while Titus as Caesar’s son may love her, Titus as Caesar will love her. Titus, though, promises Berenice that he will make her his empress. The praetorian prefect Mucianus tells Titus that his father, the emperor Vespasian, is dying. Titus hastens to his father’s bedside.
Act II: Dear me, Vespasian has become a god, and Titus an emperor. He has promised his dying father to separate from Berenice. Mucianus also advises him to dismiss the foreigner and marry a Roman. Titus, for reasons of state, yields, and tells Berenice that she must leave Rome. Love, though, is so strong that the emperor seems ready to reverse his decision. At this moment, cries and insults against Berenice echo around the palace. Titus orders the crowd dispersed, but is lenient towards them. Berenice understands his reasons; after a desperate threat to kill herself, she finally decides to return to the East. She only asks that Titus grant her a last meeting before the trireme takes her away. He agrees, but Mucianus tells him not to go to the appointment. The emperor submits; he will not keep his promise.
Act III: We are in the harbour at Ostia, Rome’s port. On her trireme, Berenice, accompanied by Lia, awaits Titus. He begs her not to leave him; she refuses. The emperor then proposes to run away with her; he encounters a new refusal. The moment of separation has come. The order to depart is given, and while the trireme moves away, Berenice evokes Venus in cutting her hair, and throws it into the sea. “May the abyss engulf with you all my happiness and all my youth!”
The son of the editor of Figaro, Magnard was destined for a career in the law, but decided to become a composer after attending performances of Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth in 1886.
He was an idealist: a Socialist, a Dreyfusard, and an early feminist. “Writing music,” Leon Botstein writes, “was at all times an ethical act. Beauty and justice, in his view, were aligned. Art needed to serve the cause of rectifying social injustice and promoting the truth.”
He died as he had lived, standing up for his beliefs, defending his burning cottage from German soldiers. Many of his scores were destroyed in the blaze, but he left behind a small body of symphonies, orchestral works, chamber works and song cycles.
Bérénice was Magnard’s second performed opera. His first, the one-act Yolande, staged in Brussels in 1892, and was a resounding failure, while Guercœur, his best-known work for the stage, gathered dust on his shelves until performed in 1932, long after the composer’s death.
“My score is written in the Wagnerian style,” Magnard wrote. “Devoid of the necessary genius to create a new lyrical form, I chose among the existing styles the one that best suited my classical tastes and my traditional musical culture. I only tried to get as close as possible to pure music. I reduced the recitative to very little, and I gave the declamation an often accentuated musical turn. The overture is symphonic, the duet that closes the first act is in concertante form. I used the fugue in Titus’s meditation, the sweet harmony of the octave canon in all the outpourings of love. Finally, I don’t hide the fact that the rhythm that accompanies Titus’s return in the third act has a little too much the appearance of a sonata finale. It is possible that my conception of dramatic music is false. I apologize in advance to our most authoritative aesthetes.”
Bérénice fared little better than his previous efforts, and was withdrawn after nine performances. The critics thought it was high-minded, but undramatic.
Fauré, in Figaro, wrote: “Here is a very remarkable work… The score of Bérénice presents qualities of imagination, an emotional power, a wealth of technical means, a solidity and dignity that never falters. Perhaps by that very pose, perhaps because of the relative immobility of the action, the score seems not exactly long, but slow, which is not exactly the same thing.”
Isidore de Lara, in Gil Blas, called it “a musician’s score for musicians” – but not one for the stage. “Bérénice is a work of great elevation of thought, written in a dramatic form by a purebred musician, but whose talent seems better adapted to the concert.” H.G., writing in the Nouvelle revue française, agreed; Magnard was an abstract musician, rather than a theatrical one, and that the opera suffered Wagner’s pernicious influence.
Other critics found the work tedious. The conservative critic Camille Bellaigue thought “the thick and heavy music crushed the subject and the heroine of the tender elegy”.
Magnard responded to the criticisms that the work lacked action. “In the twentieth century, as in the seventeenth,” he wrote, citing the precedent of Racine, “a theatrical action, simple, denuded of incidents, remains legitimate. I thought I had the right to write a play where the plot is reduced to a debate of conscience.”
Bérénice was resurrected in Marseilles in 2001, its first staging in nearly a century. It has since been performed in New York in 2011, conducted by Leon Botstein, who believes the opera is about the Dreyfus affair; and in Tours in 2014.
Bérénice may be an acquired taste: a high-minded, austere work, with little action, and no Big Tunes. It’s an attractive work, though, and a taste well worth acquiring.
Magnard called it Wagnerian; it’s through-composed, the musical interest often lies in the orchestra, and, as Phil’s Opera World suggests, it may be a response to Tristan. Structurally, it’s modelled on that opera opens with the soprano and her confidante; each act has a big duet; and it ends with a solo scene for the heroine. The idiom, though, is closer to Massenet or Saint-Saëns, with a typically French clarity and a sensuous line.
The score rarely draws attention to itself; it maintains a high level without anything leaping out. The nocturnal duet in Act I, Titus’s meditation in Act II, and the insulting chorus “Berenice-nice-nice” are all fine. Act III is the strongest, musically and dramatically; it has a fine semi-aria beginning with the phrase “Dans les jardins de la villa romaine”, and the moving scene where Berenice consigns her hair to the waves.
I wish, though, that the only complete recording (Gaetano Delogu, Marseille 2001) were better. Virginia Todisco, in the title role, and Marc Barrard as Titus sing and act well, but Todisco’s French pronunciation is erratic; and the sound is often distorted, so we lose orchestral warmth, and some of the details.