Tragédie lyrique en 3 actes
Composer: Gaspare Spontini
Libretto : MM. Michel Dieulafoy, Eugène Briffaut, after Voltaire’s play (1761)
First performed : Théâtre de l’Opéra, Paris, 22 December 1819, conducted by Rudolphe Kreutzer. Revised Berlin, May 1821.
The failure of Spontini’s opera about the death of Alexander the Great left the composer vowing never to write for Paris again. Revised by E.T.A. Hoffmann with a happy ending, it was a smash hit in Germany. And Hector Berlioz thought it sublime. But does it deserve Spontini-ous applause?
- OLYMPIE, daughter of Alexander the Great (soprano): Alexandrine-Caroline Branchu
- STATIRA, widow of Alexander the Great (soprano): Louise-Marie Augustine Albert
- CASSANDRE, prince of Macedonia (tenor): Louis Nourrit
- ANTIGONE, an Asian king (bass): Prosper Dérivis
- HIEROPHANT (bass): Bonel
- HERMAS (bass)
SETTING: Ephesus, 15 years after the death of Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great died 15 years ago, murdered. Two princes – Cassandre, from Macedonia, and Antigone, from Asia – were suspected of the crime. Cassandre is a tenor, so he’s the goodie; Antigone is a baritone, so he’s the baddie. They’ve also been fighting for years, and both men are also in love with the slave girl Aménais, who is really Alexander’s daughter Olympie.
The two princes sign a peace treaty at the temple of Diana.
Cassandre wants to marry Aménais.
The priestess Arzane must bless the union – but she is really Alexander’s widow Statira, and she thinks Cassandre killed her husband. She interrupts the ceremony, and accuses him of the murder.
“Arzane” tells the Hierophant that she is really Statira, searching for her lost daughter Olympie. Mother and daughter are reconciled. Olympie tries to defend Cassandre, who saved her from death – but Statira saw him on the fatal night, brandishing a bloody sword.
She refuses to listen to his explanation that he arrived too late to protect the victims – and gives her daughter to Antigone.
Olympie is torn between love and duty. She learns that Cassandre has escaped from prison and mustered his forces. Statira orders her to marry Antigone before the battle, but she cannot. Nor can she resolve to join her lover.
Antigone is wounded in the battle. Approaching the altar of the gods, he is repelled by a thunderbolt. Dying, he confesses his crimes – leaving Cassandre, now cleared, free to marry Olympie.
(The original version ended with the deaths of both Statira and Olympie.)
“C’est un ouvrage sublime, en tout point digne de l’auteur de la Vestale,” said Berlioz – almost alone among his countrymen in admiring the opera.
Its failure seemed preordained. The Liberals were hostile; they thought one line was a gibe at an anti-monarchist. The critics were hostile; Spontini had to defend himself in the newspapers, and lost confidence. He revised the work several times during rehearsals, incurring copying fees of some 15,000 Fr. The singers fell ill.
When it finally did reach the stage, it was coldly greeted, and scraped through either twelve or six performances.
Spontini withdrew the opera, vowing never to compose for Paris again.
The assassination of the Duc de Berry, youngest son of Charles X, was the final straw; when he was murdered on the steps of the Opéra by a Bonapartist, the Académie royale de musique (a.k.a. the Opera House) was closed down.
The opera fared more happily in Berlin, where Spontini was musical director to the king of Prussia (as Meyerbeer would later be). E.T.A. Hoffmann translated and revised the opera, and replaced the original tragic ending (double suicide of Olympie and Statira) with a marriage. The work was a definite success, and Spontini was known in Germany as “the author of Olympie”, just as Paris called him “the composer of la Vestale”.
The French, it seemed, were content to let him be that and only that; even a revival in 1827 died. The Parisians thought it old-fashioned compared to Rossini’s music – much to the indignation of both Spontini and his fan Berlioz.
Passé though the Parisians found it, it’s the most modern of the three Spontini operas I’ve heard, and the one most deserving of a resurrection today. (I haven’t yet heard Agnes von Hohenstaufen, which he considered his masterpiece.)
It’s opera as we know it: a human drama played out against historical high politics, and neither a static, sub-Gluckian Classical piece, nor empty pageantry.
The story is conventional: a royal power struggle, with rival princes competing for both throne and wife; and the characters are all royalty, or priests. It has, in fact, almost the same plot and dramatis personae as Rossini’s Semiramide, also based on a Voltaire play. (Similarities include an Ancient Near East setting; Assur/Antigone, Cassandre/Arsace, Azema/Olympie, Semiramide/Statira, Nino/Alexander.)
But there’s more urgency, and more drama, than in the other Spontini operas I’ve heard. It has a proper villain, a heroic bel canto tenor, his lover, and her mother (a great role). It has a fire that La vestale lacks (ironically, given its divine case of Spontini-ous combustion).
It’s a spectacle opera; there are choruses, and processions, while the tenor rides on an elephant – but Spontini has made his love of the grandiose serve the opera’s drama and music.
There’s much to enjoy in the score. There are many intimate, beautiful passages, such as the duets for Cassandre and Olympie in Acts I and III, and the tender duet for the reunited mother and daughter in Act II.
Berlioz raved about the religious march; the chorus of priests of Diana; and the extraordinary scene and aria where Statira, sobbing with indignation, reproaches the Hierophant for choosing Alexander’s assassin as his son-in-law.
The opera’s monumental architecture, too, must surely have wowed Berlioz, with its extended numbers, enormous choral forces, and striking orchestral effects.
The overture sounds like an artillery barrage reimagined by Beethoven, while the two act finales are electrifying. The first looks back in part to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, while the second looks forward to Auber’s Muette de Portici.
It sums up Spontini’s historical place: a classical composer who was also the father of French grand opéra.
The recording of choice is Jérémie Rhorer’s 2016 Amsterdam recording, featuring Karina Gauvin (Olympie), Juliette Mars (Statira), Mathias Vidal (Cassandre), and Josef Wagner (Antigone). It’s a Francophone cast, but the opera is cut.