- 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.
(Francophone readers should see David LeMarrec’s excellent “Introduction à la tragédie lyrique – quels codes, quel but?”, Carnets sur sol, August 2007.)
The subjects were generally drawn from Greek mythology (occasionally mediaeval legend), with a prologue honouring Louis XIV.
The stories focused on a romantic quadrangle or parallelogram: it set a couple of lovers (heroes or royal) against their rivals (kings, gods, sorceresses), with a parallel intrigue involving their attendants.
There was plenty of spectacle, with lavish sets, gods descending in machines, battles, miraculous transformations (into trees, rivers, and birds), monsters, and storms at sea.
Saint-Evremond called them “magnificent follies, full of music, machines, and decorations”; while La Bruyère declared that “Opera must have machines, and the point of the spectacle is to keep wits, eyes, and ears in an equal enchantment”.
There was a lot of lively dancing (Louis XIV believed dance symbolised the king’s agility and power), magnificent choruses – and plenty of recitative.
France had a strong theatrical tradition; the 17th century was the age of Racine and Corneille. Drama, therefore, came first; music’s purpose was to underline, to express the text, rather than to distract from it. Following Monteverdi’s Florentine tradition, Lully sacrifices music to the clarity of declamation. (No virtuoso arias for castrati.)
Much of Lully’s trágedies lyriques consists of recitative accompanied by strings (guitars). The recitative provides clear explanations to the intelligent French listener. It blooms here and there, Laurencie argues, in lyrical episodes, in measured arias distributed a little like the tirades of classical tragedy, and supported by short verses grouped in quatrains or strophes.
Much of the recitative is attractive, and there are exquisite little duets or trios, often only lasting a few bars.
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.
The emphasis on recitative can, however, be an acquired taste. “Lully’s recitative is bloodless, its vigour carefully paced, its passion channelled, its nobility stereotyped and laboured,” Joseph Kerman complained. “Its greatest pride was justness of declamation, a characteristically French virtue which does not mark its dryness of expression“.
Similarly, Donald Jay Grout thought “Anyone who plays through the whole score of a Lully opera is likely to emerge from that experience (if he survives it at all) with a confused impression of page upon page of music void of imagination, pale in colour, thin in harmony, monotonous in invention, stereotyped in rhythm, limited in melody, barren of contrapuntal resource and so cut into little sections by perpetually recurring cadences that all sense of movement seems lost in a desert of cliches, relieved all too rarely by oases of real beauty.”
Lully has many admirers, however, particularly in France, where he is admired for his sensitivity to drama and expression. It took me, I confess, a while to warm to Lully’s operas; I found the later Rameau more immediately attractive. Only by listening to Lully in context – coming off the back of Monteverdi’s Ulisse and Poppea – did I appreciate him.
|PALÈS, pastoral god||Demoiselle Cartilly|
|MÉLISSE, pastoral god||Demoiselle Cartilly|
|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, her companion||Cartilly|
|ACLANTE, her companion||Piesche|
|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)|
|LE GRAND SACRIFICATEUR DE MARS||Godonesche (1678)|
|Troupe of Africans, 4 Giants, 10 Golden Statues animated by l’Amour, Sacrificers, 4 Furies|
Cadmus et Hermione was Lully’s first experiment in the tragédie lyrique genre. The composer’s first period, Labardie argues, gropes and wavers on the borders of comédie-ballet and opera; its aesthetics are not yet settled.
Cadmus, prince of Tyre, rescues Hermione from the giant Draco. With the help of the goddess Pallas, he slays a dragon (which eats a couple of Africans), and sows its teeth to create the Spartoi. There are dancing statues, and an impressive ceremony honouring Mars. The opera opens with a prologue praising Louis XIV as Sol Invictus, and ends with a banquet of Olympian gods.
It’s historically important, but 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.
The work, Laurencie argues, betrays the composer’s inexperience. For the first time, he writes, Lully tried to connect scenes and arias via sung declamation, but, too concerned with closely following the words, he only half succeeded. Result: monotony.
The opera is also an unsuccessful mixture of comédie-ballet and pastorale wih tragedy, Labardie maintains. With its pastoral prologue full of shepherds and Pan, heroic drama, and farcically comic servants, the opera suffers a great uncertainty of style.
Even Théodore de Lajarte, editor of a piano-vocal score for Breitkopf & Härtel, is mutedly enthusiastic.
“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!
Lionel de la Laurencie, Les maîtres de la musique: Lully, 2nd edition, Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan, 1919 (2nd edition)
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.
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.
- Duo de Palès et Mélisse: Que l’astre qui nous luit
- Premier air des Faunes
- Air de Pan: Que chacun se ressente
- Air de l’Envie: C’est trop voir le Soleil
- Entrée de l’Envie
- Premier air du Soleil: Ce n’est point par l’éclat
- Second air du Soleil: Dans ces lieux fortunés
- Trio de Palès, Mélisse et Pan: Heureux qui pour plaire
- Air pour les Dieux Champêtres
- Air d’Archas avec choeur: Quelque embarras que l’amour fasse
- Premier air d’Arbas: Ces grands hommages
- Second air d’Arbas: Non, nous n’aurons point de bruit
- Air d’Hermione: Cet aimable séjour
- Air d’Aglante: On a beau fuir l’amour
- Air de Charite: La peine d’aimer
- Trio d’Arbas et deux Africains: Suivons l’amour
- Air du Géant: Il faut que votre destinée
- Air d’Arbas: En te voyant, belle Charite
- Air de Charite: Puisqu’enfin pour te satisfaire
- Air d’Arbas: C’est trop railler
- Duetto de Charite et Arbas: Guéris toi, si tu veux
- Air de la Nourrice: Ah ! vraiment je vous trouve bonne
- Air de Charite: Je suis jeune
- Air d’Hermione: Ah ! Cadmus pourquoy m’aymez-vous
- Duo d’Hermione et Cadmus: Au nom des plus beaux noeuds
- Air d’Hermione: Amour, vois quels maux tu nous fais
- Premier air pour les Statues
- Air de l’Amour: Cessez de vous plaindre
- Deuxième air des Statues
- Deuxième air de l’Amour: Tout doit rendre hommage
- Air d’Arbas: Que maudit soit l’amour funeste
- Trio des Princes Tyriens et Arbas
- Air d’Arbas: Tous ces chagrins et ces regrets
- Marche des Sacrificateurs
- Air pour les Sacrificateurs
- Air de l’Amour et Duo: Il faut faire voir
- Air pour les Combattants
- Duo d’Hermione et Cadmus: Que c’est un charmant avantage
- Air de Cadmus: Belle Hermione
- Air à Danser
- Air de l’Hymen: Venez, Dieu des Plaisirs
- Air pour Comus
- Duo de la Nourrice et Arbas, puis gavotte
- Menuet chanté (Charite): Amants, aymez vos charmes