ŒDIPE À COLONE
Tragédie-opéra in 3 acts
Composer: Antonio Sacchini
Libretto: Nicolas-François Guillard, after Sophocles
First performed: Versailles, 4 January 1786, then at Paris, at the Académie Royale de Musique (salle de la Porte Saint-Martin), 1 February 1787, conducted by Jean-Baptiste Rey
- Œdipe (basse-taille): Augustin Chéron
- Antigone (soprano): Anne Chéron
- Polinice (tenor): Étienne Lainez
- Thésée (baritenor): Louis-Claude-Armand Chardin (“Chardiny”)
- High Priest (basse-taille): Moreau
- Eriphile (soprano): Adelaïde Gavaudan, cadette
- A Warrior
- An Athenian Woman (soprano): Anne-Marie Jeanne Gavaudan, l’aînée
- A Herald (basse-taille): Châteaufort
- Priests, People, Soldiers, Eumenides
(Based on Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, 2003, and Wikipedia article.)
The opera is loosely based on Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus at Colonus (401 BC).
Oedipus, as everyone knows, killed his father and married his mother. “When he found out what he had done, He tore his eyes out one by one – The tragic end to a loyal son who loved his mother.”
Exiled from Thebes by his own sons, Eteocles and Polynices, the king wanders Greece, guided by his loyal daughter Antigone. The curse has passed on to the next generation. Eteocles and Polynices have quarrelled over the throne of Thebes; the victorious Eteocles has exiled Polynices.
Theseus, ruler of Athens, promises Polynices both his aid and his daughter, Eriphile. The Athenians celebrate –
but Polynices fears the judgement of the oracles for his crime against his father. As he makes a sacrifice at the temple of the Eumenides at Colonus, near Athens, the gods show their displeasure by thunder and lightning.
Polynices, driven from Athens, begs the gods’ forgiveness. Suddenly, he sees his father and Antigone descending the mountain. The Furies drive him temporarily insane. Antigone pleads with the gods to have mercy on her father. has come to ask the Eumenides for forgiveness. The Athenians refuse to let a polluted incestuous murderer enter the city, but Theseus intervenes in Oedipus’ favour; he is a victim of fate, rather than a criminal.
Polynices, moved by Antigone’s sincere devotion to their father, repents. He is even willing to renounce Eriphile’s hand, and restore the throne of Thebes to Oedipus. But Oedipus will have none of it; he curses both Polynices and Eteocles. At last, he yields to his children’s pleas, and forgives his son.
The anger of the heavens is appeased, and Polynices marries Eriphile.
The young Berlioz was moved to tears by the trio ‘O doux moments’, which follows the reconciliation scene in Act III.
The extraordinary sweetness of the music, with its simple yet insidious melody, was too much for me. I hid my face in my hands and wept like a man overcome with grief.
Berlioz was not alone in his admiration for the opera. It was the most enduring French lyric tragedy, a fixture in the repertoire for nearly half a century, clocking up 583 performances by 1830: more than any other work from its time, including Gluck’s sublime operas.
“It is Sacchini’s masterpiece,” Félix Clément (Dictionnaire des opéras) wrote. “It sometimes achieves the sublimity of its Classical story.”
For Arthur Pougin, writing after the Franco-Prussian War, the opera represented French good taste.
Gluck, Piccinni, Sacchini & Salieri… These four men of genius — the first two, it must be said, are superior — are the apostles of a new musical religion, the reformers of modern lyrical drama, and it is to them, to their efforts that France owes its incontestable superiority over Germany and Italy in the healthy and true comprehension of dramatic music. (Journal officiel de la république française, 3 September 1878)
(Of course, Gluck was German, and the other three were Italian… )
Sacchini himself, though, died of a broken heart when the work was rejected.
One of a large, poor family, Sacchini made his name in his native Italy and in England. Faced with debtors’ prison, he accepted Marie Antoinette’s invitation to Paris, and a position as her singing teacher.
There, he became embroiled in the disputes between the Gluckists and the Piccinnists. As moderates so often are, he pleased neither party.
His first forays into French opera – Renaud and Chimène (1783), both revisions of Italian works, and Dardanus (1784) – were unsuccessful, despite, Clément writes, “a noble and true sensibility, exempt from affectation”. (The Piccinnists may have sabotaged Renaud.)
His great success came posthumously, with Œdipe. Galliard’s poem, which had won a literary contest for opera libretti, was originally intended for Grétry (of Richard Cœur-de-lion fame), who had loaned Gaillard a thousand écus, counting on its future success. Grétry, ill and preoccupied, did not have time to set the libretto, which languished in Gaillard’s desk.
“Gaillard and Sacchini,” the composer Henri-Montan Berton wrote, “dined with my mother, widow of the Opéra director, once or twice a week. One day Gaillard, in a fit of poetic despair, recited several scenes from the work. Each was delighted, and Sacchini regretted not being able to work on such a touching piece, and not to have a thousand écus to buy off Grétry. My mother quickly offered them, and M. Fillette-Loraux, author of [Cherubini’s] Lodoïska, took charge of the negotiation. He visited Grétry, found him sick in bed, offered the thousand écus, and asked for the manuscript. Grétry was reluctant to give it up; but, learning that Sacchini would write it, he congratulated Gaillard on the choice of replacement. Our ambassador returned in triumph to the house. Gaillard gave his poem to Sacchini on the spot. The next day, my illustrious master began Œdipe, and finished the masterpiece in less than six weeks.”
Writing the work was one thing; getting it performed quite another. The opera was staged – indifferently, the histories say – at Versailles in January 1786.
Queen Marie-Antoinette, who loved and cultivated the arts, had promised Sacchini that Œdipe would be the first work performed at the court theatre at Fontainebleau. Sacchini had told us this good news, and continued to work, as was his custom, on Her Majesty’s passage, who, leaving her prayers, invited him into her music room. There she delighted in hearing beautiful pieces from Arvire et Evelina, which Sacchini was working on. Sacchini noted that, several Sundays in a row, the queen seemed to avoid his looks, and so, troubled, uneasy, placed himself in front of Her Majesty, who could not avoid speaking to him. She received him in her music room, and, moved, told him:
‘My dear Sacchini, people say that I show foreigners too much favour. They have asked me to perform M. Lemoine’s Phèdre instead of your Œdipe, and I cannot refuse. You see my position! Forgive me.’
Sacchini, controlling his sorrow, bowed, and immediately returned to Paris. He visited my mother. He entered in tears, and threw himself into a chair. We could only obtain from him broken words: ‘Ma bonne amie, mes enfants, ze souis oun homme perdou! La reine, il ne m’aime piou! le reine, il ne m’aime piou.’
All my efforts to calm his sorrow were in vain. He would not eat. He was very gouty; his condition already worried us. We called a carriage. Guillard, Loraux and I took him back to his home; he went to bed, and, three days later, he died.
Sacchini died on 7 October 1786, at the age of 51. His opera was given its first public performance in Paris, on 1 February 1787 – but without any newspaper advertising, only a poster on the door of the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin.
Yesterday, the paying public’s taste for performances at the Opéra was not very happy. Œdipe à Colone, lyric tragedy in three acts, was performed; it will be performed again today; and the receipts remained below 400 livres. Nobody was there. Moreover, that performance did not give a high opinion of the work; the first two acts were received very coldly; the third had more effect. (Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France)
The queen attended the second performance, on 2 February, and applauded the work from start to finish.
Slowly, opinions of the opera changed.
The music is generally admired; it is effective in each act; there are longueurs, moments of boredom, but one is immediately awoken by real beauties. The opera is regarded as Sacchini’s best, and there’s a double reason for judging it so: the first, that his admirers, moved by their sense of loss, are favourably disposed towards the work, while the envious, no longer fearing a competitor, were easily determined to do him justice. (Mémoires secrets)
The opera became a success – and the final performance, on 24 March, was crowded.
We have never seen so many people at the Opéra. The guard was obliged to put the bayonet on the end of the rifle. Still the people seized the soldiers’ guns, while they beat their canes on their fingers.
Œdipe had arrived. Sacchini’s name, with Salieri’s, shone with an intermittent brilliance for the period of 15 years between the death of Gluck and the advent of Spontini (Adolphe Jullien, La Cour et l’Opéra sous Louis XVI, 1878).
The opera remained popular until 1830, but later audiences were unimpressed.
The work was unsuccessfully revived in 1843. Félix Clément faithfully attended all six performances. “Its severe beauties, its forms so pure of harmony, its truthful and moving accents could not overcome the indifference of the public.”
It will not leave indifferent those of us who admire Gluckian opera, or who, like Berlioz, place Gluck himself among the immortals.
True, it is not quite at the level of Gluck – but one could easily mistake it for Mozart. The music is graceful and serene, with some beautiful pieces. Apart from those videos above, the finest pieces include Polynice’s aria “Votre cour devint mon asile”; and Oedipe’s “Elle m’a prodigué sa tendresse et ses soins”, which Berlioz thought sublime, and Clément called one of the most beautiful French arias.
It lacks, however, the simple, powerful situations of Gluck: a grieving husband’s descent into Hades to rescue his wife, or a wife’s sacrifice. Nor is there the agonising dilemma that is at the heart of Iphigénie en Aulide: Agamemnon ordered by the gods to kill his daughter, or lose a fair wind to Troy. Nor the psychological penetration of the guilt-ridden matricide Orestes.
The libretto is a loose adaptation of Sophocles’ Lear-ian drama about the transcendental death of a suffering king. This ends happily, with father and children reunited, a marriage, and a gavotte. The protagonist isn’t Œdipus, who enters only in Act II (in Sophocles, he’s onstage from the start), but his son Polynices, who appears late in Sophocles’ play.
Even while lacking the power of Sophocles or Gluck, Œdipe à Colone may be one of the loveliest operas I know. Anyone interested in this period should make its acquaintance.
For further reading: Paul Smith, “Sacchini et son chef-d’oeuvre”, Journal des beaux-arts et de la littérature, 1848
François Loup (Œdipe), Natalie Paulin (Antigone), Robert Getchell (Polynice), Tony Bountté (Thésée), and Kirsten Blaise (Eriphile), with the Opera Lafallette Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos.