- Tragédie lyrique in 3 acts
- Composer: Antonio Maria Sacchini
- Libretto: Jean Joseph Le Bœuf (or Lebœuf), after Giovanni di Gamerra’s libretto Armida (1772), inspired by Torquato Tasso
- Performed at the Académie royale de Musique, 28 February 1783
Sacchini’s teacher predicted that his pupil could become the man of the century. (He didn’t, of course.) Fétis thought that no composer from the old Italian school put more charm in his arias; even his least successful operas had a multitude of graceful and natural melodies; and his instrumentation, though less original than Gluck’s, achieved beautiful effects by simple means. Clément thought Sacchini’s melody was noble and touching in pathetic scenes; his choruses were powerful and full of character; his harmony was pure; and his operas were ampler in ideas and conformed more to the traditions of ancient tragedy than Piccinni’s.
Sacchini, the son of poor Italian fishermen, thrived in Italy, writing 50 operas by the age of 36. He lived extravagantly in England for a decade, racking up debts and chasing women until his creditors chased him out in turn. And his French success only came posthumously. Berlioz admired that last work, Œdipe à Colone, but Sacchini fell into neglect in the 19th century, and was forgotten by the 20th. Now, though, we can hear some of his beautiful, surprisingly exciting and powerful operas.
Renaud was Sacchini’s first opera for Paris, another in the long line of 18th century operas about the Damascene sorceress Armida and her fickle Crusader lover Renaud.
The composer came to France in 1782, after his wild London years. His friend the critic and composer Nicolas-Étienne Framery had long wanted Sacchini to cross the Channel; he had even translated the Italian Isola d’Amore into French as La Colonie (1775), a work in which Clément finds truly comic situations, delightful music, agreeable singing, true expression, and piquant and picturesque accompaniment.
At first, Sacchini was little noticed, according to Fétis; Parisian music-lovers were then in the throes of the Gluckist and Piccinnist quarrel. It was only when Joseph II, another admirer of Sacchini, recommended the composer to his sister, Marie-Antoinette, that the Italian’s fortunes changed. Dratwicki, however, argues that the directors of the Académie Royale needed a strong personality to hold his own against Piccinni. They commissioned him to write three operas, for each of which he would receive 10,000 livres tournois.
His French début was a version of an earlier Italian opera, Armida (Milan, 1772; revised for London as Rinaldo, 1780). Although Sacchini wanted to compose a new, genuinely French opera, Dratwick believes, time was against him; he and his librettist Le Bœuf rewrote score and libretto to suit French tastes.
The work, based on an earlier French libretto, is a sequel to Lully and Gluck’s operas. Clément thought Sacchini was wrong to begin his French career with a work recalling two of the most admired in French opera. Renaud, he believed, contained great beauties, but the uniformity of the style, its majestic regularity suffered in comparison. The work, he concluded, was not a rival to theirs, or Rossini’s later Armida, but a long-forgotten sister.
More than two centuries after its performance, and a century and a half after Clément, let us grant his point, but try to judge the work on its own merits.
The opera takes place near the walls of the city of Ascalon, Palestine, during the First Crusade (1095–1099).
The overture is a rousing, martial allegro in the key of D.
Act I: The Saracen camp
Hidraot, Armide’s father and king of Damascus, is in council; Renaud has just captured the city of Solème; Hidraot admires his foe, but will not fear him. Also at the council is the Indian king Adraste; once passionately in love with Armide, now wounded by her disdain, he resolves to be indifferent. The Saracens are tired of war, and long for peace. Renaud arrives as an ambassador from the Christians; he offers peace to the Muslims if they cede Jerusalem. The Saracens welcome the treaty – but Armide arrives in a fury. Why, she demands, do they abandon their barriers? She promises marriage to whoever shall kill Renaud. The Crusader defies her in the act’s showpiece, the heroic allegro aria “Déjà la trompète guerriere”.
When he and the Crusaders have left, the Saracens swear he shall die in an impressive chorus, “Souverain arbître du sort”. The act ends with a ballet of Amazon and Circassian warriors; the Amazon commander Antiope sings a cheerful song about slaughter, “Élevée au sein des alarmes”.
Act II: Armide’s tent
This act is terrific; one of the fastest-moving, most entertaining from its period. The princess feels she should hate Renaud, who cruelly abandoned her – but her feelings speak in his favour. In an excellent monologue, she urges herself to hatred and vengeance. At that moment, she hears the Saracen kings attacking Renaud; she rushes to his defence and sees off his foes. At first, the Crusader does not recognize his former lover under her armour; she removes her helmet, and Renaud is stunned to see the beauty he wronged. “Ô ! le plus chéri des ingrats, et des amants le plus perfide…” she tells him. The long Italianate duet that follows is masterly; the pair are torn between passion and duty, and in Armide’s case between love and hatred. The Saracens approach to kill Renaud; at first, the distraught princess thinks of letting them, but realizes that she adores Renaud. Urging him to flee, she sends her demons to protect him. In a slow, fine, almost Gluckian andante, “Barbare amour, tyran des cœurs”, she laments her love for the ingrate. Clément thought this one of the most touching, pathetic arias he had heard; the accompaniment is exquisitely suave. Armide’s love, though, turns to rage again when Hidraot tells her Renaud is slaughtering the Saracens. In a powerful conjuration scene, they summon the Furies to punish the Crusaders – but a greater power (God) stops them from leaving the Underworld. The Furies’ trio is a pendant of the famous one in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, but compelling in its own right. The exciting scene culminates in a tremendous stretta as Hidraot and his men go to fight the Crusaders.
Act III: A battlefield
The plain is strewn with dead bodies, chariots, horses, scattered weapons – but we cannot see the carnage clearly through the raging storm. The Saracens have fled from the Crusaders to a mountain. The distraught Armide wanders the plain; Adraste, mortally wounded, tells her that her father, too, will soon die; Armide’s remorse will avenge both his death … and his love. With those words, he expires. “Qu’ai-je appris ! qu’ai-je fait !” she asks herself. “Ô trop coupable Armide ! A quel excès j’ai porté ma fureur ; Je deviens en un jour parjure, parricide, Et ne sauve un amant perfide, Que pour rendre mon crime, égal à mon malheur.” In a magnificent aria, “Ciel injuste”, she calls on the heavens to strike her down, but at least save her father. Hearing the Crusaders celebrate Renaud’s victory, she is about to stab herself when the knight himself stays her hand. He declares her love – but, she retorts, can he return her dead father and her glory? “J’ai tout perdu, jouis de ta Victoire. Et pour prix du plus tendre amour, Laisse-moi la douceur funeste, de pouvoir renoncer au jour, c’est l’unique espoir qui me reste.” Hidraot, however, is alive; Renaud saved him, and protected him from the Crusaders. In her joy, Armide summons her genies and transforms the battlefield into her magic palace, her temple to love. The Crusaders pay homage to Armide, and the opera ends with a brilliant, joyous virtuoso aria, “Que l’éclat de la victoire”.
Simon-Joseph Pellegrin wrote the original libretto in 1722 for Desmarest; while it did not enjoy the success of Pellegrin’s collaborations with Montéclair (Jephté, 1732) or Rameau (Hippolyte et Aricie, 1733), half a century later, as Dratwicki points out, the fad was to set new music to old texts (Gluck’s Armide; Piccinni’s Roland and Atys; J.C. Bach’s Amadis de Gaule; Philidor’s Persée; Gossec’s Thésée, all after Lully).
Thémines judged the libretto harshly; the poem, in his view, was extremely weak, lacked interest, was naïvely structured, and its verses were vulgar and banal. Dratwicki, on the other hand, finds the new version concise and centred throughout on its heroine. Contemporaries were more enthusiastic; L’Esprit des journaux français et étrangers (quoted in Dratwicki) thought Le Bœuf’s changes quickened the pace.
Renaud premiered on 23 February 1783, attended by Marie-Antoinette and other members of the French royal family. The rehearsal period was difficult; Gluck’s supporters, Dratwicki notes, even got the Opéra directors to offer Sacchini 10,000 francs not to perform his opera; he nearly accepted.
Fétis believes Renaud was a mediocre success, but the work seems to have pleased audiences; it was performed more than 150 times at the Opéra between 1783 and 1815, and also staged in Liège (1784) and Copenhagen (1786).
L’Esprit des journaux français et étrangers (quoted in Dratwicki) welcomed its pleasing, elegant, and sensitive melodies; its perfectly rounded arias; its pure, bright harmony; and effective instrumentation. Other critics were more partisan. The Gluckist Baron Grimm recognized the hand of a master, but thought Sacchini could ill conceal his unease. The Piccinnist La Harpe conceded that two or three pieces were good, but found the score weak and commonplace. La Mercure de France, while pro-Gluck, took a middle line: Sacchini was softer than Gluck, and as pure and melodious as Piccinni, but more energetic, and never monotonous or soporific like the Italian.
Renaud may not reach the heights of Gluck, but it’s exciting, often touching, and moves swiftly. I listened to it in a single sitting, and it held my attention throughout. Gluck and Sacchini’s operas form a diptych; could some enterprising opera house stage them together – or even a festival, with Lully’s, Handel’s, Haydn’s, Rossini’s, and Dvořák’s versions?
Marie Kalinine (Armide), Julien Dran (Renaud), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Hidraot), les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Les Talens Lyriques, conducted by Christophe Rousset. Bru Zane, 2013.
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Alexandre Dratwicki, “A controversial new work”, in Renaud, Bru Zane, 2013
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- M. de Thémines, introduction to Renaud, (series : Chefs-d’œuvre classiques de l’opéra français, vol. 36), Paris : Breitkopf & Härtel, n.d.