CADMUS ET HERMIONE
Tragédie in 5 acts and a prologue
Composer: Jean-Baptiste de Lully
Librettist: Philippe Quinault
First performed: Paris, jeu de paume de Bel-Air, 27 April 1673
The father of French opera was an Italian.
The young Giovanni Battista Lulli accompanied Louis XIV’s cousin Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, duchess of Montpensier, “the Grand Mademoiselle”, to France as her Italian conversation partner.
After Mademoiselle’s disgrace (exiled because of the Fronde), he became composer to the royal chamber (1653), and eventually surintendant of the king’s chamber music (1661). By 1672, he controlled music theatre throughout France.
In 1671, the Abbé Pierre Perrin and composer Robert Cambert were granted royal licence to found the Académie d’Opéras en Musique et verbe français, and staged the first French opera, Pomone. When their enterprise failed, Lully bought the royal licence.
After what Vincent Giroud calls “a hastily assembled patchwork” the pastoral Les fêtes de l’Amour et de Bacchus (1672), Lully and his librettist Quinault produced the first tragédie lyrique (tr. en musique): Cadmus et Hermione (1673).
Twelve more operas followed, establishing a distinctive French style.
David LeMarrec (“Introduction à la tragédie lyrique – quels codes, quel but?”, Carnets sur sol, August 2007) and Piotr Kaminski (Mille et un opéras, Fayard, 2003) identify the following characteristics of the genre:
- A prologue honouring Louis XIV, followed by five acts, usually on a mythological subject
- Drama comes first; music’s purpose is to underline text
- Declamation foremost, homophonic choruses, modest orchestration
- Drama is essentially composed of dynamic recitatives (accompanied by strings) with complex harmonies, alternating with instrumental or sung dances.
- Recitatives blend into arias. These are short, often without reprise; closer to arioso.
- Divertissements in each act, containing dances, choruses, ariettes
- Obligatory dances, like the chaconne
- Obligatory themes, like sleep, storms, deus ex machina (which stirs up conflicts in Act III or resolves them in Act V), pastoral scenes, hopeless despairing love, violent romantic disappointment, evil spells, &c
- Composers’ ingenuity comes from ability to do novel things with these ingredients
Lully’s operas vanished from the stage with the passing of the tragédie lyrique. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants’ 1987 production of Atys was the first Lully opera performed in two centuries, and has rekindled interest in a composer who was a respected name rather than a living presence.
- PALÈS (pastoral god): Demoiselle Cartilly
- MÉLISSE (pastoral god): Demoiselle Cartilly
- L’ENVIE (haute-contre): Sieur Cledière
- LE SOLEIL (taille): Miracle
- LE DIEU PAN: Morel (1678)
- CHORUSES: Troupes of Nymphs and Shepherds, Followers of Pan, Winds of the Air and the Underground
- HERMIONE, daughter of Mars and Venus: Demoiselle Brigogne
- CHARITE, companion: Cartilly
- ACLANTE, companion: Piesche
- JUNON: Des Fronteaux
- PALLAS: Bony
- VÉNUS: Piesche (1678)
- L’AMOUR (haute-contre): Antonio (1678)
- LA NOURRICE D’HERMIONE (haute-contre): Clédière
- PREMIER PRINCE TYRIEN (taille): Clédière (1678)
- SECOND PRINCE TYRIEN (taille): Gingan (1678)
- CADMUS, son of Agenor, king of Tyre and brother of Europa (basse chantante): Beaumavielle
- DRACO, giant, king of Aonia (basse chantante): Rossignol
- ARBAS, African in Cadmus’s suite (bass): Langeais (1678)
- JUPITER (bass): X***
- MARS (bass): Pulvigny (1678)
- LE GRAND SACRIFICATEUR DE MARS: Godonesche (1678)
- Troupe of Africans, 4 Giants, 10 Golden Statues animated by l’Amour, Sacrificers, 4 Furies
The prologue, like the flowers that bloom in the spring, has nothing to do with the case, trala. The Opéra-Comique calls it an “Allegory in praise of the King as Sol Invictus”. Nature spirits and worshippers of Pan wait for the rising of the Sun (pronounced “Louis”). Envy appears, plunges the stage into darkness, and summons a terrible Python from a cave, and foul winds from below. The Sun appears, and banishes the monsters. Hurrah!
The story proper begins. The Tyrian prince Cadmus is looking for his sister Europa (whom, you will remember, was kidnapped by Zeus in the form of a white bull). Cadmus loves Hermione, daughter of Mars and Venus, but her father and Juno want her to marry the giant Draco. Pallas promises to help the prince.
Highlight: Trio for Cadmus’s follower Arbas and two Africans: “Suivons l’amour” (about 3’30”)
Cadmus rescues Hermione, while his companion Arbas distracts the women of her retinue – flirting with Charite, and avoiding the Nurse. Cadmus bids farewell to Hermione; he must go slay a dragon. Cupid brings statues to life to amuse the Princess (cue ballet), and promises to protect her.
Arbas and two Africans lurk outside the dragon’s cave, afraid to face the beast. The monster eats two of the Africans – but Cadmus kills it. Arbas comes out of hiding, stabs the beast, and pretends to have killed it – but is terrified by its death throes. Cadmus organises a ceremony to Mars to appease the god, but the deity destroys the altars.
Highlight: The march and chorus of the Sacrificateurs
The famous incident of the dragon’s teeth. Each one that Cadmus sows turns into an armed man (the Spartoi). They fight the prince, but Cupid helps him defeat them with a magic grenade. The survivors come over to Cadmus’s side. The giant Draco and his cronies attack Cadmus, but Pallas turns them into stone with the Gorgon’s head. Cadmus finds his Hermione – but Juno kidnaps her in her chariot.
Cadmus is distraught by Hermione’s loss…
but Pallas tells him that Jupiter and Juno have ended their quarrel, and the gods will restore Hermione. All the Olympian gods come down to celebrate the wedding at a magnificent feast.
Cadmus might be historically important, but it’s a nullity as an opera. A mythological spectacle designed to entertain and flatter Louis XIV, with very little characterisation, action, or narrative sense – but a lot of ballet. It’s only two hours long, but feels longer than some twice its length.
Most of the music is dull, bar the Africans’ trio, the chorus of the sacrifice to Mars, and the finale. Even Théodore de Lajarte, editor of a piano-vocal score for Breitkopf & Härtel, is mutedly enthusiastic.
“Indeed, the persistence of the same tonalities and the same stylistic procedures, the absence of rhythm, lead to a monotony of accent. – But, to make one forget this undeniable monotony, one will find charming episodes that rest the ear from those beautiful recitatives, perhaps a little too long; and those recitatives themselves are so well recited, so true of accent, so conformable to poetics, that they will remain forever models of diction and excellent subjects of study.”
Still, one must admit the monotony!
To be fair, this was Lully’s first effort as an opera composer; Lajarte says it cannot be compared to his masterpieces like Thésée, Armide, and Atys.
I should probably watch the famous 1987 Atys, before I move onto Rameau. (The little Rameau I’ve heard sounds closer to what we think of as opera; I remember enjoying Minkowski’s Platée when I saw it on TV years ago.)
André Morsch (Cadmus) and Claire Lefilliâtre (Hermione), with Le Poème Harmonique conducted by Vincent Dumestre; directed by Benjamin Lazar, choreographed by Gudrun Skamletz. Opéra-Comique, Paris, 2008.
On one level, it’s a fascinating recreation of the 1673 staging, using technology of the time: painted backcloths, moving scenery, gods coming down from chariots, serpents coming out of the floor…
The pronunciation, too, is a recreation; it’s français classique. The final consonants (“s”, “x”, and “t”s) are pronounced, and the vowels are different (“oy” for “oi”).
I really wish more opera productions would follow this model. Imagine being able to see a Meyerbeer (insert favourite composer of your choice) the way an 1830s audience would have done! Too often, though, it’s “witty”, “clever” deconstructions, where Greek gods are put in cargo pants to be relevant. This is more HIP than hip.
It’s also one of the campest things I’ve ever seen: two hours of men in wigs, eyeshadow, and lipstick prancing about, often with half an ostrich stuck on their heads. That’s not to mention l’Envie (an angry man in a dress, à la Roger De Bris); the Tyrian princes, whose long ringlets and makeup make them look like members of an early ’80s New Romantic band; or the Nurse, a middle-aged woman played by a man in drag, like one of the Pythons’ pepperpots, pursuing the bass.