122. Le dilettante d’Avignon (Halévy)

LE DILETTANTE D’AVIGNON
Opéra-comique in 1 act
Composer: Fromental Halévy
Libretto: François-Benoît Hoffman finished by Léon Halévy
First performed: l’Opéra-Comique (salle Ventadour) 07 November 1829

This early Halévy rarity was released on Friday; “un chef-d’oeuvre inconnu”, as the Avignonnais dilettante remarks.

One associates Halévy more with anathemas, anti-Semitism, boiling oil, and kings mad or poisoned (the serious end of the operatic spectrum), but he was also a master of the opéra-comique – and this is hilarious.

It’s the 1820s, and Rossini mania has struck France. The impresario Maisonneuve has changed his name to Casanova; rechristened his family and servants; sacked all his French-speaking singers; and insists on speaking only Italian – even though he’s limited to capisco, la sua moglie, and l’anima mia. He will also give his daughter to the Italian tenor he’ll hire – who is really his daughter’s boyfriend Dubreuil, calling himself Signor Imbroglio.

Le dilettante was composed very early in Halévy’s career: 1829, six years before La juive. He returned to Paris in 1822 after winning the Prix de Rome, and spent 13 years struggling to scale the professional ladder and make his name with the public. His first opéra-comique L’artisan (1827) was coldly received; so, too, was Le roi et le batelier (1828)I, composed for Charles X’s birthday.

Halévy also had his eye on the Italian market; he worked as accompanist and harmony master at the Théâtre Italien (replacing Hérold), and composed Clari (1829) as a vehicle for Maria Malibran. (Cecilia Bartoli resurrected the work in 2008.) The work flopped, despite its star singer and Halévy’s skilful use of Italian techniques; how could a Frenchman compose Italian opera?

Le dilettante d’Avignon is a riposte to those critics – and Halévy’s first success. The work was a collaboration with his brother Léon, based on an unfinished libretto by François-Benoit Hoffmann.

Hoffmann, who wrote libretti for Méhul and Grétry, detested Italian opera; the brothers Halévy softened the satire. Their version pokes fun at music snobs’ adulation of Italian opera at the expense of home-grown produce; and urges musicians and audiences alike to appreciate the best qualities of both. “Les deux genres sont bons, monsieur,” Dubreuil remarks; “et, au lieu de se quereller sur leur mérite, il vaudrait mieux prendre à l’un ce qu’il a de raisonnable, et à l’autre ce qu’il a de gracieux.” Halévy himself appears as Dubreuil, the young Prix de Rome winner who gives singing lessons while waiting to be allowed to compose operas.

The opera is a French bel canto feast, demanding virtuoso singers. Fortunately, it has three excellent young ones, including Mathias Vidal, one of the two best tenors around. The highlights include:

• Elise and Dubreuil’s duo “S’il s’agissait de montrer mon talent”, part elegant Italianate cooing, part vocal warm-up

• Elise’s “Viens à son aide ô Dieu de l’harmonie”, urging the god to inspire Dubreuil – a great little soprano showpiece, it works several styles into the aria, including soulful Romanticism (a touching larghetto) and a martial allegro; the dramatic finale looks forward to grand opera.

• The duo à trois voix (sung in both Italian and French)

• And the exhilarating trio “Il fait en ce beau jour”. Casanova thinks French operas are too wordy, so Dubreuil composes a Rossinian finale, using only two asinine lines by the philosopher Malebranche: Il fait en ce beau jour le plus beau tems du monde / Pour aller à cheval sur la terre et sur l’onde, working in the tune of Malborough s’en va-t-en guerre for good measure. A decade later, Le Figaro (8 Sept 1839) thought the ensemble showed Halévy’s happy art of making his learning agreeable, and making the most difficult combinations charming.

Contemporary audiences also liked “Vive, vive l’Italie, pour son chant”, a catchy little number that also rounds off the show.

Léon Halévy considered the score one of his brother’s masterpieces. The opera remained in the repertoire for years, and performed 119 times, always fruitful.

“Success, a great success!” thought Gilblas (10 Nov 1829). “The story is light, but it’s full of spirit, good taste, and gaiety. The music is fresh, harmonious, and does plenty of credit to M. Halévy.”

Le Corsaire (9 Nov 1829) thought the work entitled Halévy to the public’s goodwill, and to see his works performed on the lyric stages; “it is difficult to better manage the graceful genre than this young man has done”. La Semaine (8 Nov 1829) also liked the truly funny little opera, full of wit and charm.

Le Compilateur (15 Nov 1829) liked the work, with reservations. “The piece will make those looking for a comedy laugh for a long time, and please music lovers; it will take its place after [Hoffmann’s] Rendez-vous Bourgeois and [Auber‘s] Concert à la Cour.” Nevertheless, the story owed much to La Melomanie and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and was more a concert than a drama, while some of the music reminded him of other works.

Le Figaro (8 Nov 1829) thought the plot was very light (a bagatelle); the music did credit to Halévy, but was less important than Clari. Some very pretty phrases, graceful and original ideas obtained pardon for some charmless and colourless arias.

Decades later, Beulé, Halévy’s successor as perpetual secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, praised both this opéra bouffe, full of verve, and Clari as imitations of the Italian style, erudite and supple jeux d’esprit. Grimard (Annales politiques et littéraires, 7 June 1896) called it a little marvel of grace and wit.

Thirty-two years later, Le dilettante inspired one of Offenbach‘s best works, M. Choufleuri restera chez lui le… – a comedy about Frenchmen pretending to be Italian opera singers, in which Léon’s son Ludovic may have had a hand.


CHARACTERS & CREATORS

  • DUBREUIL (tenor), singing director, known as ‘Imbroglio’ : Louis Ponchard
  • MAISONNEUVE (bass), director of the Avignon theatre, known as ‘Casanova’ : Fargueil
  • ÉLISE (soprano), his daughter, known as ‘Corinaldi’ (soprano) : Marie Casimir
  • MARINETTE, his niece : Mlle Monsel
  • VALENTIN, actor : Boullard
  • ZUCCHERIN, premier tenor : Belnie
  • RIBOMBA, comic singer : St Ange
  • POVERINO, a soprano singer : Jamain
  • Comédiens et Comédiennes: Chœur

NUMBERS

Ouverture

  1. Introduction : Allons dignes soutiens du Théâtre (Valentin, Marinette)
    Chœur : Nous y voilà parlons, chantons
  2. Duo : Quoi ce jeune homme à regard tendre (Elise, Marinette)
  3. Duo : S’il s’agissait de montrer mon talent (Dubreuil, Elise)
  4. Air : Dans ce pays, comme partout (Valentin)
  5. Air : Viens à son aide ô Dieu de l’harmonie (Elise)
  6. Chœur : Vive vive l’Italie, pour son chant
  7. Trio : Mille volte o mio tesoro (Dubreuil, Elise, Marinette)
  8. Trio: Il fait en ce beau jour  (Dubreuil, Elise, Marinette)
  9. Chœur final : Honneur, honneur au Génie

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