- Tragédie tirée de l’Écriture sainte (tragédie biblique) in a prologue and 5 acts
- Composer: Michel Pignolet de Montéclair
- Libretto: Abbé Simon-Joseph Pellegrin, after Judges 11
- First performed: Académie royale de musique, Paris, 20 (28?) February 1732
Do you believe that yours is the only true god? Do you think that members of other religions are blasphemous idolaters who should be killed, and their statues and temples smashed? You do? Then you’ll love France’s first Biblical opera!
Sane people should listen to Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide and Mozart’s Idomeneo instead: humanist treatments of the same basic myth, with better music.
Jephthah the Gileadite, son of a harlot, vows that if God lets him defeat the Ammonites (apparently not a prehistoric mollusc), he will sacrifice “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet him”. (The Ammonites invaded, according to the Bible, as God’s punishment for the Jews, who had turned against their religion. So much for interfaith dialogue.)
Jephthah smites the Ammonites and twenty of their cities, “with a very great slaughter… Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.” He returns – and his daughter (nameless in the Bible) runs out to meet him. Two months later, “he did with her according to his vow which he had vowed”. (Talmudic scholars try to rescue the text by claiming that he simply locked her up for the rest of her life, rather than murdering her.) Here, God intervenes, Jephthah repents, and all praise the King of glory.
Jephté was Montéclair’s second opera, originally composed for a Jesuit college in Caen a decade before. He was 65 at the time of its Paris performance, a teacher and theoretician who had composed sacred music and several cantatas. His librettist, Pellegrin, also wrote for both theatre and religion; a member of the Cluniac order, he composed cantiques spirituelles for church schools, and plays and libretti for the stage. “Catholic in the morning and idolater in the evening, he dined from the altar and supped from the theatre,” the poet Rëmi quipped.
The opera was a lasting success, regularly performed until 1761. “There are very few operas that the public has honoured with more applause,” the Mercure de France (March 1732) declared. The anti-clerical Voltaire, though, was bored; and Charles Vintimille, Archbishop of Paris, tried to ban the work in 1736.
“As for the music, the greatest connoisseurs find it very worthy of Lully.” We have made our views clear on Lully elsewhere on this blog.
The prologue could indeed have been written by Lully (except there’s no licking of the royal boots); it suggests French opera hasn’t advanced in 60 years. It depicts Christian “Truth” driving away the “false” Classical deities, who tumble into the fiery pit.
It’s poisonous rubbish; Christianity ushered in a thousand-year age of superstition, ignorance, and murderous theocracy until enquiring Italians rediscovered their Classical heritage, preserved by the Arabs. My sympathies are entirely with the emperor Julian. (Read Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, 2018, a powerful depiction of the havoc the cult wrought. See also here and here.)
Ever-intolerant monotheism, the totalitarianism of religion, as Gore Vidal (“Monotheism and its Discontents”, 1992) argued, dominates the opera.
The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. … The sky-god is a jealous god, of course. He requires total obedience from everyone on earth, as he is in place not for just one tribe but for all creation. Those who would reject him must be converted or killed for their own good. Ultimately, totalitarianism is the only sort of politics that can truly serve the sky-god’s purpose. Any movement of a liberal nature endangers his authority and that of his delegates on earth. One God, one King, one Pope, one master in the factory, one father-leader in the family home.
The fanatic Jephté and his brother Phinée want to “purge the Earth” of the “pernicious blood” of the “infidel” (I,iii). “Viens; répands le trouble & l’effroy | Sur les ennemis de ta gloire: | Dieu des Combats, remporte la victoire: Que la mort vole devant toy!” (“Come; wreak confusion and terror upon the enemies of Thy glory; God of battles, bear away the victory; let death fly before Thee!”)
Later, Jephté declares that the people have deserted their god, who must be appeased with blood (I, vii). “Eh bien tu seras appaisé; | Ce n’est que par du sang quíl faut que je te vange | Du sang que l’on t’a refusé. Dieu d’Israël, Dieu que j’adore, | Ton zèle en ce moment m’embraze, me devore.” (“Very well, Thou shalt be appeased: It is with blood alone that I must avenge Thee. The blood they have denied Thee. God of Israel, god whom I worship, Thy zeal even now inflames me, consumes me.”) This is the fundamentalist mindset.
His daughter Iphise loves the Ammonite prince Ammon; this is, of course, condemned, less because he is the enemy leader than because his religion is different. Pellegrin wrote: “The love I ascribe to the Daughter of Jephthah for an idiolatrous Prince is justly punished by the danger by which she is threatened, and it is only after having overcome it that she finds grace before the Lord”.
“Seigneur, tout mortel qui t’offence, doit être accablé sous tes coups,” (“Lord, all mortals who offend you must be struck down”) Iphise and her mother sing, begging for God’s forgiveness. Man’s a worm, and a guilty worm at that. God throws down lightning bolts; “Esprit de feu, lance ta foudre, | Vange ton Dieu, sers ton couroux; | Réduis ses Ennemis en poudre! | Mais, sur des coeurs soumis, ne porte pas tes coups,” the Jews sing. (“Spirit of fire, launch your lightning bolt, avenge your God, serve His anger, reduce His enemies to dust! But, upon His obedient ones, do not cast your blows.”) God wreaks his revenge, but it is only according to His love (“Il faut éclater sa vengeance; Mais ce n’est qu’après son amour”).
There is almost no memorable music in Montéclair’s lugubrious score. There is much recit, a few choruses, and a couple of arias that are pretty enough in a dreary way. The sacrifice scene “La terre, l’enfer, le ciel même tremble devant le Seigneur”, with its military double chorus, impressed listeners, including Rameau, at the time. The first attractive piece, Iphise’s aria “Ruisseaux qui serpentez”, comes at the start of Act IV, about 1hr40 into the opera.
Rameau, the Mercure de France (March 1761) claimed, admired the opera: “It was this music, according to the admission of the celebrated M. Rameau, that gave rise to the masterpieces with which he has enriched our operatic stage. This great man heard Jephté; the noble and distinguished character of that work impressed him apparently by the features analogous with the vigorous fertility of his genius. From that moment he realized that our dramatic music was capable of a new power and of new beauties. He took the decision to compose with music, he was emboldened to be creative. It must be admitted, nonetheless, that Jephté begot Hippolyte et Aricie.”
There is, though, little of Montéclair in Rameau’s opera, easily the first good French opera – 60 years after Lully wrote the first one.
William Christie’s 1992 Harmonia Mundi recording, with
Jacques Bona, Sophie Daneman, Nicolas Rivenq, Claire Brua, Mark Padmore. and Les Arts Florissants.
I have used Fannie Vernaz’s accompanying essay in writing this article.