- Tragédie lyrique in 3 acts
- Composer : André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry
- Libretto : L.G. Pitra, after Racine (1667)
- First performed: Académie royale de musique, Paris, 6 June 1780
Andromaque is one of Grétry’s most surprising works – and one of his finest.
Grétry is remembered as the leading opéra-comique composer of his day; his works can be delightful but frothy. (See here for an overview of Grétry.) Here, he vies with Gluck: Andromaque is a powerful tragédie lyrique, based on one of Racine’s masterpieces.
To an Anglophone brought up on Shakespeare, Racine can seem static and simple, even simplistic; everything is clear, lucid, apparently on the surface. But the language is elegant and nuanced; emotions sharply dissected; and the action moves to its tragic climax. French speakers should listen to the 2016 Comédie-Française broadcast.
Play and opera deal with the fall-out of the Trojan Wars – Troy: The Next Generation, one might say. Achilles’s son Pirrhus and Agamemnon’s son Oreste debate the fate of Hector’s son Astyanax: should he live or die? Pirrhus loves Hector’s widow Andromaque; if she marries him, he will protect the lad; if she refuses, he will let the Greeks kill him. But Andromaque wants to stay true to the memory of her husband: should she remain so, and let his house die; or yield to Pirrhus, and, in being unloyal to her husband, be loyal? But Menelaus and Helen’s daughter Hermione also loves Pirrhus; and Oreste loves her. The jealous princess, with the fury of the Atreidae coursing in her veins, wants revenge; she persuades her cousin to murder Pirrhus, promising her hand as a reward. The deed done, she curses the murderer, and stabs herself to death over her beloved victim’s corpse.
Could Grétry handle such an imposing task? No work cost him less effort, he wrote in his Mémoires et essais; he composed the score in 30 days. But that facility has been held against him; later critics have found it merely facile.
True, some at the time liked the work. La Mercure de France thought one could hope for great things if Grétry pursued this vein. But it was a rarity.
“Racine’s masterpiece is horribly disfigured,” La Harpe complained. The music was only a shrill and tedious noise, with all the failings of Gluck and none of his redeeming qualities: expressive pieces and an understanding of theatrical effect. J.B. Labat (Études philosophiques et morales de la musique) concluded that Grétry wasn’t born for serious music, or the solemn tone of tragédie lyrique. Some thought that Grétry tried to imitate Gluck and Piccinni, but lacked the energy of one and the grace of the other. Later critics agreed; Clément thought Grétry worked at the score with more diligence than inspiration; Curzon believed the subject was beyond Grétry’s powers, and he failed.
While the critics thought Grétry too light, contemporary audiences seem to have found the work too somber. They wanted, Dratwicki noted, more divertissements, light choruses, dancing, and virtuoso ariettes – so Grétry and his librettist Pitra reworked the opera, with a wedding and, apparently, a happy ending. This version was a triumph, and the opera reached 25 performances … until a fire at the Opéra destroyed sets and costumes. The work was never performed again until Hervé Niquet and his Concert Spirituel recorded it in 2009 – and revealed the opera’s power.
Andromaque is remarkable. It is short – an hour and a half – but concentrated, intense, and always dramatic. Grétry’s muse is always sensitive to the text; he understands the warring passions that animate his four characters. And the score is innovative.
Grétry renews the French tragédie lyrique tradition. Andromaque is almost through-composed; the older works of Lully and his imitators made little distinction between recitative and aria, but the result was often monotonous. Grétry turns this on its head; the recitative is melodic declamation, accompanied by orchestral phrases. Half a dozen measures of chorus or aria will appear in the middle of the recitative, or we might suddenly find ourselves the middle of a small duet or aria, which then merges into recitative again. The overture itself leads directly into a chorus; we can’t tell where one finishes and the other begins. Grétry, as Wagner will decades later, thinks not in terms of arias, but of scenes.
Dratwicki argues that Grétry surpassed even Gluck in fitting together the various elements – airs, ensembles, choruses – to form a continuous discourse that was revolutionary for the time, heralding grand opera. David LeMarrec (Carnets sur sol) devoted four posts to the opera, which he considers the only work of its time comparable to Don Giovanni in its modernity and musical density; the harmonies and astonishing orchestration, he argues, anticipate Berlioz.
The two women dominate the opera. Andromaque is a nobly suffering heroine; her finest scenes include “Laissez une tremblante mère” (I) and “Laissez-moi baigner des larmes” (II), full of maternal tenderness as she pleads for her son; and the tomb scene in Act III, with her plaintive larghetto “Ombre chérie”. Her recitative is always accompanied by three flutes; and the instrument sometimes serves as a symbol of Andromaque, as when Pirrhus promises to protect the youth. Hermione is a creature of extremes, in the grip of wild rages and seething jealousy, unsure whether she hates or loves Pirrhus more. Her furious “C’en est fait, le parjure” (II) leads to an impressive finale where Oreste and Andromaque, backed by the chorus, prepare to slaughter the wayward king at the wedding altar. Grétry brings out the full resources of his orchestra (kettledrums, horns, trumpets, oboes, clarinets, violins, violas, bassoons) and a four-part chorus. In one of the work’s strongest scenes, she imagines the murder, her mind crawling with venomous insects; the strings buzzing like angry hornets, blasts of the flute, and so forth. The two men are slightly in their shadow; Pirrhus is seen from the outside, but his sudden upward vocal leaps indicate his instability. Oreste is Hermione’s puppet; when he realizes he has been used, and succumbs to madness, he hallucinates the vengeful Furies tormenting him, and the death of Hermione, and stands rooted in horror, gasping for breath.
The choruses are masterly: the Greeks urging Oreste to master his emotions (“Modérez ce transport jaloux”), then, in a low voiced conspiracy (“Au milieu de la nuit”), plotting to kidnap Hermione; the double choruses of Hermione and Andromaque’s suites comforting and mocking their mistresses (“C’est la veuve d’Hector, pleurant à vos genoux” / “Rien ne peut fléchir”), or of Trojan women and Greeks, pleading for and demanding Astyanax’s life. There are the mandatory divertissements – athletic performances, mock combat, torch-lit wedding processions – but integrated into the opera; in one scene, Hermione even chases away the ballet celebrating the marriage.
Rossini’s adaptation of Racine, Ermione (1819), was also unsuccessful when it premiered; it took a century and a half to be recognized as one of Rossini’s finest works, an intense psychological drama like a bel canto Elektra. It is to be hoped that Andromaque will be as fortunate.
Karine Deshayes (Andromaque), Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Hermione), Sébastien Guèze (Pyrrhus), and Tassis Christoyannis (Oreste), with Hervé Niquet conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Concert Spirituel, Brussels, 2009. Glossa, 2010.
- Henri de Curzon, Les musiciens célèbres : Grétry, Paris : Henri Laurens, 1907
- Benoît Dratwicki, “Andromaque: Tragédie lyrique – André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry”, essay accompanying the Glossa recording.
- Le Citoyen Grétry, Memoires ou essais sur la musique, Paris : Imprimerie de la République, An V
- Édouard Regoir, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry : célèbre compositeur belge, Brussels : Schott frères, 1883