18th century Spain.
“Confess, wretched woman!” the jealous Spanish nobleman thunders. “You’re hiding your lover in that cupboard!”
She stands in front of the door, blocking his way. She’s adamant; she won’t let him pass.
“Come out of the closet, you scoundrel!” the nobleman demands.
The clever young maid wonders what to do. Thinking quickly, she invents a lie to save her mistress.
The closet opens … and out comes – not the gallant the nobleman expected, but: another woman!
A minuet tune comments ironically on the situation, on the nobleman’s stupefaction, and the rashness of jealousy.
This act finale is a little marvel of musical and dramatic construction. It moves swiftly and deftly through several entrances and exits in an unbroken stretch of music.
Matters come to a head at a garden pavilion by night. The nobleman thinks the woman he loves has played him false! She’s apparently made a tryst with another man…
But all the mistaken identities, false assumptions, and cross-purposes are resolved, and the opera ends with families and lovers reunited, and general rejoicing.
The young Mozart saw the opera when he was in Paris; he thought it was rather good, and no doubt took careful notes.
We’re talking, obviously, about…
L’AMANT JALOUX, OU LES FAUSSES APPARENCES
- Comédie in 3 acts, mêlée d’ariettes
- Composer : André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry
- Libretto : Thomas d’Hélé (=Thomas Hales), versified by F. Levasseur
- First performed: Théâtre de la Cour, Versailles, 20 November 1778. Première at the Opéra-Comique (Hôtel de Bourgogne), 23 December 1778.
The jealous lover is Don Alonze (tenor), fiercely devoted to Léonore (soprano), the widowed young daughter of Lopez (bass), a merchant of Cadiz. Her father, though, doesn’t want her to remarry, in case she takes her money out of the business. Don Alonze’s sister Isabelle (soprano) also has problems: her guardian wants to marry her. Only the arrival of a French officer, Florival (tenor), rescued her that morning. But Florival thinks the woman he loves is named ‘Léonore’ – which causes havoc when he turns up outside her window and serenades her … while she’s entertaining Don Alonze.
“There’s no point in praising the comedy of L’Amant jaloux,” Grétry wrote in his Mémoires. “Ever since this piece appeared at the theatre, the public has regarded it as the model for pieces of this kind.”
It was, indeed, one of Grétry’s biggest successes, and possibly his own favorite among his nearly 60 operas. LaHarpe (in the Mercure) called it the masterpiece of the opéra-comique to this point, an astonishing and perfect combination of writer and composer; the constant and prodigious success of this comédie-lyrique attests its merit and perfection.
Its success, though, was dubious at first. It failed at its general rehearsal at Versailles on 20 November 1778, the first day of the performance. People were so certain it would fail, Grétry remembered, that when he dined with the first gentleman of the King’s chamber, all consoled him. Grétry asked Louis XVI’s permission to start the entertainment with his opera, rather than the intended Rose et Colas (a popular piece by Monsigny). The king agreed, and Grétry had the decorations changed at 5 o’clock. The fate of L’Amant jaloux changed from that performance. “This transition from a complete failure to a triumphant success, in such a short time, was a delightful moment for d’Hele and me.” A month later, it was performed at the Opéra-Comique – a palpable hit.
The characters, Grétry thought, were admirably contrasted: a fiery jealous man with Léonore, sweet, tender and indecisive; Lopez, methodical as all businessmen are, with a smart young maid; a lively young Frenchman with Donna Isabelle, who has all the Spanish gravity. Each act, moreover, contains a remarkable situation: in the first, Isabelle’s flight after hiding in the closet; in the second, Florival’s serenade; in the third, the jealous lover finds Florival in the garden, and the father arrives in his nightcap to separate them. “The twists are so adroitly placed in the course of the dialogue that the mind is always occupied pleasantly.”
No, it’s not The Marriage of Figaro. It’s obviously a model – I stress ‘model’ – but Figaro is certainly more inspired. Grétry’s opera is naturalistic, fast-moving, and elegant, but the music is light.
The centerpiece of the first act is the multi-section trio “Victime infortunée”, where Isabelle describes how she was saved from a fate worse than death. Grétry considered the act finale (described above) one of his best; “it is varied without profusion, and of a true character”. It begins as a trio. Another character comes on. It becomes a quartet. Then another (mute) character appears. One of the original trio leaves, and the act ends with a trio of a different composition.
Léonore’s virtuoso aria “Je romps la chaîne » opens Act II; as a coloratura showpiece, it has, as far as I know, no equal in opéra-comique until Herold’s Pré-aux-clercs half a century later. Grétry confessed that he and d’Hélé wanted a more dramatically appropriate aria – but succumbed to the desire to show off Madame Trial, “the most beautiful voice that nature ever made”. The newspapers, he said, took him to task. Still, there are B6s and a couple of C6s. Florival’s serenade (with pizzicato mandolin accompaniment) “Tandis que tout sommeille” may be the most exquisite aria in the opera; it is both lovely music and an excellent stage effect, as it provokes Léonore and Don Alonze to a quarrel duet.
Little stands out in the final act.
Listen to: Ed Lyon (Don Alonze), Celeste Lazarenko (Léonore), Andrew Goodwin (Florival), Alexandra Oomens (Isabelle), Jessica Aszodi (Jacinte), and David Greco (Don Lopez), with Erin Helyard conducting the Orchestra of the Antipodes, Sydney, 2015. Pinchgut Opera.
Watch: Magali Léger (Leónore), Claire Debono (Isabelle), Marylne Fallot (Jacinte), Brad Cooper (Don Alonze), Frédéric Antoun (Florival), and Vincent Billier (Don Lopez), with Jérémie Rhôrer conducting Le Cercle de l’Harmonie. Versailles, 2010. https://www.medici.tv/en/operas/lamant-jaloux-gretry-pierre-emmanuel-rousseau-opera-comique/
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