Tragédie lyrique in 5 acts
Composer: Antonio Salieri
Libretto: François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet and Louis-Théodore de Tschudi, after Ranieri de’ Calzabigi
First performed: Théâtre de l’Opéra (salle de la Porte Saint-Martin), Paris, 26 April 1784, conducted by Jean-Baptiste Rey
Les Danaïdes, Salieri’s twentieth opera, was one of his greatest successes: a serious work based on the Greek legend of fifty murderous brides for fifty brothers, a story treated by Æschylus in the Danaid Tetralogy (all lost except Ἱκέτιδες, The Suppliants).
The libretto was originally intended for Gluck, and was presented for the first 12 performances as his work, with some assistance by Salieri. The young Italian was known at the time for his comic operas, and it was feared that the Parisian press would turn hostile. When the opera had secured its success, Gluck announced that the score was entirely Salieri’s.
“The music belongs,” wrote Félix Clément, “to the grand manner of the creator of dramatic opera. The expression is always strong, fast, and true.”
Salieri’s reputation was established. More commissions for Paris followed, including Tarare and Les Horaces. Les Danaïdes was widely performed throughout Europe, and performed more than 120 times up to the 1820s in Paris, where the teenaged Berlioz saw it.
The pomp and brilliance of the spectacle, the massive sonority of orchestra and chorus, the inspired pathos of Mme Branchu and her extraordinary voice, the rugged grandeur of Dérivis, Hypermnestre’s aria, in which I discerned, imitated by Salieri, all the characteristics of Gluck’s style as I had conceived it from the pieces from his Orphée in my father’s library, and finally the tremendous bacchanal and the sad voluptuous ballet music that Spontini added to his old compatriot’s score, disturbed and exalted me to an attempt that I will not attempt to describe […] I hardly slept that night, and the next day’s anatomy lesson suffered accordingly. I sang Danaus’ aria “The kindly strokes of destiny” as I sawed my subject’s skull; and when Robert, impatient at my humming “Descend into the sea-nymph’s breast” when I should have been consulting Bichat’s chapter on nerve-tissue, exclaimed, “Oh come on, we’re not getting anywhere, in three days our subject will have gone bad – eighteen francs down the drain; you really must be sensible!”, I replied with the hymn to Nemesis, “Goddess insatiable for blood”, and the scalpel fell from his hand.
Like many of Salieri’s operas, it vanished from the repertoire, but has been performed occasionally in the last quarter-century, most recently conducted by Christophe Rousset in 2015.
Rousset praised the work for its ambitious combination of through-composed, orchestral writing with Italian vocality. “We approach this post-Baroque aesthetic with the feeling of discovery and astonishment which orchestras at the time must have felt when engaging with this new and revolutionary style. Les Danaïdes is certainly one of the great masterpieces.”
(translation of Les Talens Lyriques, 2013/2014)
A temple by the shore. Danaüs and Lyncée, the son of his late brother and enemy Égyptus, swear to live in harmony and bury their quarrel.
Lyncée and his brothers agree to each marry one of Danaüs’s fifty sisters, their cousins the Danaïdes. Lyncée and Hypermnestre, who love each other tenderly, are thus promised to each other.
An underground part of the Palace, consecrated to Nemesis.
Danaüs reveals his secret intentions: he exhorts his daughters to avenge their father, who was driven from his throne by his brother Égyptus, and to murder his sons, their husbands. The marriage vows are only a cruel trap; the wives will take advantage of the night to stab Lyncée and his brothers to death. The Danaïdes swear obedience to their father…
…but Hypermnestre alone refuses to commit the dreadful crime.
Danaüs tries to convince his daughter, threatening blood and death if she renounces vengeance.
The wedding is held, but the alliance is tarnished by Hypermnestre’s attitude, torn between love for Lyncée and fear of her father. Her blood is frozen in horror at the idea of the impending murder, and which she is about to reveal to Lyncée.
Hypermnestre leaves, and Danaüs reassures Lyncée by assuring him that this is only a whim.
Hypermnestre tries in vain to sway her father and spare Lyncée.
But her tears only infuriate Danaüs. Hypermnestre then convinces her lover to flee the palace. He feels betrayed by his love; and Hypermnestre reveals too late the tragedy that is about to take place.
Hearing the signal of the murder and his brothers’ cries, he decides to join them, to rescue them or to perish.
Hypermnestre, who had fainted, wakes up alone. Her father comes to inquire about the death of Lyncée. When his daughter confesses that she saved him, Danaüs is furious.
The Danaïdes, having committed their crime, appear, holding bloody daggers. In chorus, they sing their hatred of the survivor; and it is by pursuing him that they will die.
The palace is besieged by the revolting subjects, who have joined Lyncée. Danaüs wants to kill Hypermnestre to ease his torment, but Pélagus, his eldest son, kills him. Hell opens to engulf the Danaïdes and Danaüs, who appears chained to a rock, his entrails devoured by a vulture. The Furies promise them an eternity of suffering…
Salieri was a mediocre composer who poisoned Mozart. That’s one of the things everybody “knows”. Back in 2016, a newly discovered Mozart and Salieri collaboration got its first Australian performance. One old dear was astonished. Weren’t they enemies? Wasn’t Salieri a “bad” composer, both musically and morally?
She’d seen Amadeus.
Shaffer (and, before him, Pushkin) have done a lot of damage to poor old Salieri’s reputation. A lie, as Terry Pratchett wrote, can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.
One of the things this blog is for is to listen with a fresh ear – whether it’s tipping sacred cows, or rediscovering obscure works. Nobody would want to be without, say, Verdi or Mozart…
…but history also sometimes gets things wrong. There are many great composers and operas who have been overshadowed by the warhorses, and whose works are just as beautiful or powerful, and can still move or please an audience.
Les Danaïdes is one of those neglected masterpieces: a gripping opera, which gives its heroine a difficult choice between her father and her lover; either decision will lead to death for someone.
The score is bold and imaginative, from the stormy, turbulent, string-heavy overture to the tableau of the Danaides in Hell. The young Berlioz was blown away, and one can hear echoes of the final scene in La damnation de Faust. In between, there are massive choruses, great arias for the soprano, and a handful for her father and her lover.
It’s not Mozart, but it’s a triumph in a genre Mozart never tackled.
If this is mediocrity, let’s have more of it.