- Comédie lyrique in 3 acts, in verse
- Composer: André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry
- Libretto: Morel de Chedeville & the Comte de Provence (future Louis XVIII)
- First performed: 30 Oct 1783
La Caravane de Caïre was one of Grétry’s most popular operas; it reached an extraordinary 506 performances and sold more than a million tickets by 1829.
Belgium’s first prime minister, the Baron de Gerlache, thought his compatriot’s work was one of those pieces of which audiences never tired. “The libretto is very mediocre, but it offered the musician rich scenes, a beautiful spectacle, happy contrasts between our norms and the customs of the East, and finally a mixture of warlike, passionate, and voluptuous feelings.”
A modern spectator might be less enthused by the naughty Pashas, eunuchs, slave-traders, deserts, bandits and bazaars, slave auctions, and harem girls (some of them European).
Eighteenth and early 19th century audiences were fond of these Orientalist comedies; at their best, we have The Abduction from the Seraglio and L’italiana in Algeri – but Grétry’s opera lacks the delightful melodies of Mozart or the comic genius of Rossini. It’s a fairly insubstantial piece; the plot is badly constructed (Act II is largely ballet), and the music makes little impression.
CHARACTERS: ZÉLIME, a slave (soprano); SAINT-PHAR, her husband, also a slave (haute-contre); OSMAN, pasha of Egypt (basse-taille); ALMAÏDE, his favourite (soprano); FLORESTAN, captain of a French vessel (basse-taille); HUSCA, caravan boss and slave dealer (baritone); TAMORIN, chief eunuch of the seraglio (haute-contre)
SETTING: Egypt, 18th century
Act I: A caravan stop by the banks of the Nile. Free travelers hope to enjoy their pleasures in Cairo; slaves lament their misfortune. Among them is the beautiful Muslim girl Zélime and her French husband Saint-Phar. Husca, the caravan boss, thinks the woman is a dish fit for the Pasha, and is deaf to the couple’s pleas. When Arab bandits attack the caravan, the gallant Saint-Phar demands a sword; impressed by his spirit, Husca unchains him, and promises him his liberty if he is victorious. The Frenchman drives the marauders back; Husca goes to free him, but St Phar asks him to free his wife instead. The caravan leader refuses, to the couple’s dismay; he could get 2000 ducats for Zélime. The caravan sets off, to the march heard at the end of the overture. The act, the Baron Grimm thought, was of a new and piquant type, a true painting in the style of Jean-Baptiste Le Prince.
Act II: Scene 1: The Pasha’s seraglio in Cairo. Husca tries to sell his wares to the eunuch Tamorin. The Pasha orders a feast for Florestan, a Frenchman who has served him well; the Muslim leader is a great admirer of the French. His chief wife Almaïde and the harem women dance for their lord, but the Pasha is bored. Tamorin suggests he try infidelity to spice up a diet of monotony; surely Husca’s beauties will delight him. The Pasha replies that infidelity causes languor; he wants a companion, not another slave. But if Tamorin were to offer him a French girl? This scene has a lively duet, ‘J’ai des beautés piquantes’; and a trio celebrating the charms of French mademoiselles.
Scene 2: Half an hour – a quarter of the opera – is a lengthy divertissement in the Cairo bazaar; on CD, it rather outstays it welcome. It opens with an 18th century marche égyptienne, less a stab at local colour than a fumble with a blunt butter knife. The music, Fétis and Clément thought, lacked the authenticity of Félicien David or Ernest Reyer, both of whom had lived in the Middle East. A French slave girl accompanies herself on a harp; an Italian slave girl sings the opera seria ‘Fra l’orror della tempesta’, from Metastasio’s Siroe (not as good as Fagioli singing Hasse); and a German slave girl sings a folk song. There is a dance with harp accompaniment; and Genoese, German, and trinational pas de deux. (The Italian dance is rather excruciating: six minutes of dull strings: plink plonk plink.) Audiences of the time, though, admired the picturesque scenes and thought the ballets remarkable. The Pasha notices Zélime among the slave girls, and is struck by her beauty; he buys her for 10,000 ducats. Saint-Phar vows to rescue his wife in a heroic aria.
Act III: The palace. And this is where the story really starts, dear listeners. The Frenchman Florestan (remember him?) is searching for his lost son, who ran away to sea, longing for battle and adventure. (Any bets on who this son will be?) Florestan is ready to return home to Europe, even if it means abandoning his search. Almaïde reveals that she is jealous of Zélime in one of the opera’s more tuneful arias, ‘Je souffrais qu’un rival’. Osmin tells her that a Frenchman wants to kidnap Zélime from the Pasha, and asked his help; Almaïde orders him to carry out the subduction under the cover of the feast.
Florestan and his fleet-footed fancy French followers farewell forever, in a rather good chorus ‘Le plus affreux naufrage’. Zélime is subducted during the festivities; the Pasha and Florestan rumble furiously in a brief but effective bass duet. The subduction is thwarted; Zélime begs for mercy for her kidnapper. To his horror, Florestan recognizes the kidnaper is his son. He, Almaïde, and Zélime beg the Pasha to spare Saint-Phar. The ruler does; more, he restores his wife. The opera ends with father and son and two pairs of spouses reunited.
La Caravane was the third comédie Grétry produced at the lofty Académie royale de musique in two years: Colinette à la cour (January 1782), L’Embarras des richesses (November 1782), and La Caravane (October 1783). With them, Fétis and Hulst argue, Grétry created the comédie lyrique, and introduced the demi-caractère genre to the Opéra. (Later, with Panurge dans l’île des lanternes (1785), Grétry would go even further, and introduce the genre bouffe.)
“When I took comédie lyrique onto the stage of the Opéra, I was regarded as a reprehensible innovator,” Grétry remembered in his Mémoires. “Nevertheless, I saw that the audience was tired of tragedies that never left the stage. I heard the many partisans of the dance murmur, seeing it reduced to a secondary and often useless role in the tragedy. I saw the management, seeking variety, unsuccessfully restage fragments or ancient pastoral pieces. I said that the two competing genres could lend each other their mutual charms; that the actors at the Comédie Française alternatively played comedy and tragedy, and that, if they were forced to renounce one of the two genres, they would not be able to decide which. At last, these three works, and above all the Caravane, given in such a short period of time, convinced the public that it was necessary to establish the comédie lyrique at this spectacle.”
Piccinni tried to sabotage the work, as he had Sacchini’s first French opera. On the day of the performance, Fétis writes, his partisans organized such a violent and scandalous cabal that the lieutenant of police was forced to ban the leader of this group (the architect Moulgue). But the opera succeeded.
The consensus was that the libretto was bad; according to Baron Grimm, audiences complained that the story lacked action, particularly in the second act, where nothing happened; and that the style was clumsy, even in bad taste.
But the music pleased. The Mercure de France found in it the wit, gracefulness, and piquant truthfulness that characterize Grétry’s scores; it was so comic, Grimm thought, that one forgot all the faults of style with which the opera abounded.
The public, too, had everything to satisfy their eyes, as the writer of the Mémoires secrets said: beautiful costumes and stage sets, and a charming spectacle. The new and varied tableaux of the first act, the pleasing dances in the bazaar scene, the dénouement and the brilliant fête that follows, Grimm thought, secured its success.
In later years, Hulst wrote, it would save Opéra managements. As a score, Curzon concluded, the work cannot claim to be in the the forefront of Grétry’s oeuvre. Nevertheless, the picturesque, varied, eventful subject inspired the composer, and half a dozen pieces remained classics for a long time.
Katia Velletaz (Zélime), Jennifer Borghi (Almaïde), Cyrille Dubois (Saint-Phar), Julien Véronèse (Osman), Tassis Christoyannis (Florestan), Alain Buet (Husca), and Reinoud Van Mechelen (Tamorin), with Guy Van Waas conducting Les Agrémens and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur, 2013. Palazzetto Bru Zane.
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Henri de Curzon, Les musiciens célèbres : Grétry, Paris : Henri Laurens, 1907
- Benoît Dratwicki, ‘Grétry and the comédie lyrique’,
- Alexandre Dratwicki, ‘La Çaravane du Caire : Its composer, librettist and singers’,
- Étienne Jardin, ‘La Caravane du Caire in the 19th century
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- 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
- Félix van Hulst, Grétry, Liège: Félix Gudart, 1842