- Tragédie lyrique in 5 acts
- Composer: Antonio Salieri
- Libretto: François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet and Louis-Théodore de Tschudi, after Ranieri de’ Calzabigi
- First performed : Théâtre de l’Opéra (salle de la Porte Saint-Martin), Paris, 26 April 1784, with Mme de Saint-Huberty (Hypermnestre), Henri Larivée (Danaüs), and Étienne Lainez (Lyncée), conducted by Jean-Baptiste Rey
Les Danaïdes is not your average G-rated 18th century opera. The grisly plot contains 50 violent deaths, and ends in Hell. This intense Greek tragedy was one of Salieri’s greatest successes, thrilling, horrifying, and shocking audiences; with it, he became Gluck‘s sanctioned successor. Forty years later, it overwhelmed the young Berlioz. Even today, the bold, imaginative score, with its enormous choral and orchestral forces, still has plenty of power.
The Danaïdes are the fifty daughters of Danaüs, king of Libya. (Not all by the same woman.) Danäus and his large family fled to Argos after his twin Ægyptus deposed him; the usurper’s equally numerous sons wanted to marry their maidens. (Æschylus tells the legend of the in his Danaid Tetralogy – all lost except Ἱκέτιδες, The Suppliants.) To avoid a battle, Danaüs agrees to marry his daughters to their cousins – but the funeral baked meats will solidly furnish forth the marriage tables…
The stormy, turbulent overture is one of the best of its period; Mozart obviously had it in mind when he composed Don Giovanni.
Act I: A temple by the sea
The first act is deceptively serene – almost a pastoral opéra ballet in the tradition of Rameau (in the same way that 50 years later Meyerbeer’s Huguenots begins as an opéra-comique). Danaüs and the eldest brother Lyncée (Lynceus) swear oaths of friendship before the altar of Juno, with dire consequences for any who break the vow. The wedding is celebrated with a brilliant allegro maestoso chorus, “Desends du ciel, douce Hyménée”, and dancing. Danaüs invites the young couples to be happy in his carpe diem aria “Jouissez du destin propice”, a smoothly hypocritical andante maesoso. Danaüs’s eldest daughter Hypermnestre and Lyncée sing an attractive duet, and the act ends with a reprise of the wedding chorus.
Act II: An underground chamber in the Palace, dedicated to Nemesis
Danaüs reveals his dread purpose to his daughters: Ægyptus stole his throne, ordered him put to death, and for years he and his daughters wandered as miserable exiles. (The brief chorus, with its descending woodwinds phrase, anticipates Berlioz.) This marriage and peace treaty is a sham, he tells his daughters; the bridegrooms will murder their brides on the wedding night. They must strike first, he orders – and he whips a blood-coloured veil from the altar to reveal fifty daggers. All the Danaïdes swear to obey their father and stab their bridegrooms to death, in an impressive maestoso “Divinité, du sang avide” and the powerful “Oui, qu’aux flambeaux des Eumenides”. All the Danaïdes? All but one: Hypermnestre has not sworn. She tells her father she will not murder the man she loves, and begs her father not to murder his nephews in a fine andante, “Par les larmes dont votre fille”.
Danaüs is adamant: an oracle predicted his death at the hand of one of his nephew’s sons; will she sacrifice her father to save her lover? But she shall not save him; if she dares to speak, both she and her husband will die immediately. Alone, Hypermnestre is appalled at her situation, and calls on the heavens to end her misery in a powerful monologue, “Foudre celeste! Je t’appelle!”.
Act III: A garden decorated for a feast in honour of the god of marriage
The act depicts how the Ancient Greeks ended the wedding day with an evening banquet – an early example of historical reconstruction in French opera. The scene include a spirited allegro chorus (“Célébrons à l’envi cette heureuse alliance”); the bridegrooms’ beautiful andante chorus, hoping the night will be long (“Descends dans le sein d’Amphitrite”); and a lively toast to Bacchus (“L’Amour sourit au doux vainqueur du Gange”). Only Hypermnestre stands apart from the festivities: the wine cup Lyncée pledges to her reminds her of blood. He appeals to her in a sweet if mild andante, “Rends-moi ton cœur, sa confiance”. Hypermnestre is on the point of warning him when Danaüs again threatens them; she leaves after a distraught allegro, “Mon père … mon époux”. The Danaïdes fill their husbands’ wine cups, intoxicating them; in a Pantomime, figures dressed as the gods of marriage bind the couples with garlands of flowers and lead them to their wedding chambers. As late as 1837, Dr. Veron, director of the Opéra from 1831 to 1835, called the scene “the absolute summit of horror, in the treachery of those women, dancing with their husbands, caressing them, leading them on, when they have decided to murder them”.
Act IV: A gallery leading to Hypermnestre and her sisters’ apartments
Hypermnestre again begs Danaüs – in vain. He is pitiless; only revenge matters. Alone, Hypermnestre wonders how to warn Lyncée, and convince him they must part (andante agitato: “Vous qui voyez l’excès de ma faiblesse”). Lyncée, overcome by jealousy, thinks she has betrayed him (“À peine aux autels d’Hyménée”). She shows him the dagger, and is about to tell him the truth – but lies instead, threatening to stab herself if his jealousy wounds her. Hypermnestre hints at danger, again urging him to flee, in “Hélas! que ne puis-je te suivre”, a lovely slow duet with a dramatic finish. Lyncée’s friend Pelagus warns him that the dreadful signal is about to sound; Hypermnestre at last tells him the truth; and Lyncée runs to avenge his brothers or die with them. Offstage, the bridegrooms cry out as their wives cut their throats; a dreadful silence falls over the palace; and Hypermnestre collapses onto a chair. (Did Scribe and Meyerbeer have this scene in mind when they wrote the great fourth act of Les Huguenots?)
Act V: The same
There is no break between the fourth and fifth acts. Hypermnestre recovers consciousness; she thinks Lyncée is dead, and exhorts her father to kill her (allegro agitato: “Père barbare, arrache-moi la vie”). Danaüs enters, demanding to know if she has murdered her husband; realising that Lyncée is still alive, he accuses his daughter of treachery, and has her chained. The Danaïdes rush in, crazed with blood, and dressed as Bacchantes; they wear tiger-skins, and carry the bloodstained daggers or thyrsi (the pinecone or vine leaf-topped staves of the Maenads). Their brilliant chorus, “Gloire! Évan! Évohé!” (allegro assai e fiero), sounds startlingly Berliozian. Danaüs orders his murderous daughters to hunt down and destroy Lyncée, whom he thinks is hiding somewhere in the palace. Danaüs rejoices in his vengeance – but his triumph is short-lived. He learns that his daughters are dead; and that Lyncée and his men, joined by the revolted and revolting populace, are attacking the palace. Danaüs is about to kill Hypermnestre, whom he blames for his defeat, when Pelagus runs him through with his sword. The survivors of the terrible night give thanks to the gods, and are about to leave for Egypt … when the stage goes dark, the earth trembles, and thunder roars. Lightning strikes the palace, which goes up in flames and disappears.
Tableau: The Underworld
The opera ends with a nightmarish scene, lit by a rain of fire: Danaüs is chained to a rock; thunderbolts strike his head, and a vulture devours his entrails, which, like Prometheus’s, grows back. The Danaïdes are chained in groups, tortured by demons, devoured by serpents, or pursued by the Furies. They shall be punished forever.
“This great tableau of Tartarus, where the assembly of a superb decoration [i.e. set], an impressive pantomime, and music full of energy, created one of the most striking spectacles that has ever been performed in any theatre” (Le Mercure de France, 8 May 1784). This scene can still unsettle a listener two and a quarter centuries later. One can imagine the effect it must have made on the imaginative young Berlioz; there are echoes of it in the final scene of La Damnation de Faust.
The libretto was originally intended for Gluck; after the failure of his last French opera, Écho et Narcisse (1779), and weakened by age and a stroke, he did not believe himself up to composing the work. He entrusted the task to Salieri; in his dedication of the score to Marie-Antoinette, the younger composer said he wrote it under Gluck’s direction. When the opera was finished to Gluck’s satisfaction, he told the director of the Académie royale de musique that one of his students had helped him; indeed, the opera was presented for the first 12 performances as Gluck’s work, with some assistance by Salieri. The younger man was known for his comic operas, and Gluck worried the Parisian press would turn hostile. Only when the opera had secured its success did Gluck reveal that the score was entirely Salieri’s.
“No work, withstanding the grim subject,” Dr. Véron thought, “is as rich and imposing when taken as a whole. The crowd of people on stage, the number of sets and their variety, the fine use of machinery, the bright costumes, all helped to capture the imagination and fill the viewer with amazement.” This may have inspired the grand opéras performed under his ægis half a century later. The conservative The conservative La Harpe, on the other hand, was shocked by “this spectacle with its accumulation of cold atrocities”.
Les Danaïdes was widely performed throughout Europe, and staged into the 1820s. It convinced the teenaged Berlioz, he wrote in his Mémoires, to abandon his medical studies and devote himself to music.
“The pomp and brilliance of the spectacle, the massive sonority of the orchestra and chorus, the inspired pathos of Mme Branchu [as Hypermnestre] and her extraordinary voice, the rugged grandeur of Dérivis, Hypermnestre’s aria, in which I discerned, imitated by Salieri, all the characteristics of Gluck’s style as I had conceived it from the pieces from his Orphée in my father’s library, and finally the tremendous bacchanal and the sad voluptuous ballet music that Spontini added to his old compatriot’s score, disturbed and exalted me to an attempt that I will not attempt to describe… I hardly slept that night, and the next day’s anatomy lesson suffered accordingly. I sang Danaüs’s aria ‘Jouissez du destin propice’ as I sawed my subject’s skull; and when Robert, impatient at my humming ‘Descends dans le sein d’Amphitrite’ when I should have been consulting Bichat’s chapter on nerve-tissue, exclaimed: ‘Oh, come on! We’re not getting anywhere! In three days, our subject will have gone bad! Eighteen francs down the drain! You really must be sensible!’, I replied with the hymn to Nemesis, ‘Divinité de sang avide!’ and the scalpel fell from his hands.”
Like the rest of Salieri’s operas, Les Danaïdes vanished from the repertoire; it has been performed occasionally in the last few decades (Rome, 1983, with Montserrat Caballé; a couple of German recordings). The benchmark is Christophe Rousset’s 2015 recording, with Judith van Wanroij (Hypermnestre), Philippe Talbot (Lyncée), Tassis Christoyannis (Danaüs), and Les Talens Lyriques and Les Chantres du centre de musique baroque de Versailles.
Rousset praised the work for its ambitious combination of through-composed, orchestral writing and Italian vocalism. “We approach this post-Baroque æsthetic with the feeling of discovery and astonishment which orchestras at the time must have felt when engaging with this new and revolutionary style. Les Danaïdes is certainly one of the great masterpieces.”
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Benoît Dratwicki, “Intrigue and controversy at the Académie Royale de Musique”, Les Danaïdes, Bru Zane 2015
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- Marc-Henri Jordan, “Stage scenery for Les Danaïdes and the architectural language”, Les Danaïdes, Bru Zane 2015