- Tragédie lyrique in 3 acts
- Composer: Antonio Sacchini
- Libretto: Nicolas-François Guillard, after Corneille’s Cid
- First performed: Fontainebleau, 16 November 1783; performed at the Académie royale de musique, Paris, 9 February 1784
Lullists vs. Ramistes; Rameau vs. Rousseau ; tragédie lyrique vs. Italian opera ; Gluckistes vs. Piccinnistes ; and finally Piccinnistes vs. Sacchinistes. The 18th century French preferred their music drama with an aesthetic quarrel, implacable factions, and perhaps a duel between acts.
And so two Italian composers – once students together, once friends, now rivals – faced off at Fontainebleau, before the king of France. Each would stage two performances of their latest work; Piccinni’s Didon a classical drama of love, suffering, and abandonment based on Virgil; Sacchini’s a neo-classical drama of love, suffering, and forgiveness based on Corneille’s Cid. The same soprano, Antoinette Saint-Huberty, would sing both the wronged Phoenician queen and the Spanish maiden wavering between revenge for her father and love for the man who killed him.
Louis XVI smiled on Piccinni’s, and yawned at the other. Chimène was not to his taste. He heard it only once; rather than hear it a second time, he ordered that Didon be staged instead. Poor Sacchini! At least Marie-Antoinette herself had presented him to the monarch.
The Parisian public enjoyed Chimène more than the king did, with reservations. Sure, it was melodic, but hadn’t Sacchini simply reheated his earlier Il Cid / Il Cidde? Besides, drama took a distant back place to music. And they liked Piccinni’s opera more. Chimène was performed 56 times (21 in its first year) until 1808; Didon 250 times until 1826.
Does the work deserve its fate? Clément praises it; he finds, as in all Sacchini’s works, a noble sensibility, truthful and with none of the affectations common at the time. Stylistically, the purity of form, he argues, makes hearing it very agreeable. Fétis, too, notes that it has great beauties.
The work was revived in 2017, at Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, conducted by Julien Chauvin; French critics favourably revived it. “Who would have dreamt such a good score still slept in libraries?” Forum Opéra’s Laurent Bury wondered; the elegance of the orchestral music reminded him of Mozart. Olyrix’s Damien Dutilleul thought this breathtaking work of great musical and vocal richness had nothing to envy Gluck; Le Monde’s Pierre Gervasoni called it a total success, a proto-Romantic work capable of moving audiences. Classique News declared that this wonderful rediscovery finally restored Sacchini his nobility; often reduced to a sole success (Œdipe à Colone), Chimène was a late 18th century jewel that deserved to be dusted off and immortalised on disc.
I would place Chimène slightly below the other French works I have heard; it is less thrilling and spectacular than Renaud, less sublime than Œdipe, and the music seems less memorable. Nor is it as rich as Massenet’s take on the Cid. It moves quickly, though; the opera lasts only an hour and a half.
Setting: 11th century Castile
Characters: CHIMÈNE, in love with Rodrigue, even though he killed her father in a duel (soprano); LE ROI [the King] of Castille (taille/baritone); RODRIGUE, Le Cid, a Castilian warrior, in love with Chimène (tenor); DON DIÈGUE, his father (bass); ELVIRE, Chimène’s confidante (soprano); DON SANCHE, a nobleman, Chimène’s champion (haute-contre) ; A HERALD (bass)
Act I: In the palace of the King of Spain. Chimène is the daughter of Don Gomès, count of Gormas. Her lover, Rodrigue, has slain Don Gomès in a duel to avenge an insult to his father, Don Diègue. Honour demands that Chimène avenge her father, and so she demands justice from the King of Spain. She is, though, unsure whether vengeance or love is uppermost in her heart. Her grand aria, “Je vois dans mon amant l’assassin de mon père” ends the scène. Rodrigue demands death, and offers Chimène his head; she, instead, begs him to leave. The duet is the act’s set-piece; it ends in an exciting allegro spiritoso, “Ciel! quel destin! quel sort affreux!” Don Diègue appears with his followers; he tells his son that the Moors will attack that night, taking the King and his court unawares. Don Diègue encourages his son to fight them, and either die a noble death for Spain and his king, or come back crowned with glory.
Act II: A vast peristyle in the palace. A terrified crowd enters fleeing from the Moors. From offstage, however, we hear cries of victory. A Herald announces Castilian victory: a man, his face hidden in the darkness, said he had secret orders from the king, and laid an ambush for the would-be invaders. The Moors fled by sea, leaving 1000 captives and two kings prisoners.
Rodrigue himself appears; while all praise him, the warrior reveals that he hoped to die in battle. A long divertissement follows, as the chorus celebrate his victory; even the foe have named him ‘the Cid’. Chimène enters, demanding vengeance; in Rodrigue’s glory, he may be immune from justice – but not from honour. The apparently rather slimy Don Sanche challenges him to mortal combat; the king states however wins will marry Chimène. All hope that Rodrigue will triumph – including Chimène herself.
Act III: Chimène’s apartment. Chimène is distraught; she expects Rodrigue to defeat his antagonist; can she love her father’s killer? Rodrigue appears, and declares his intention to die – to Chimène’s horror, who demands he fight to rescue her from a horrible marriage. Alone, she prays that he be neither victor nor vanquished. Trumpets sound the start of the combat; Chimène watches the battle from her window – and is aghast to see the Cid wounded; to her dismay, Don Sanche enters her room to speak to her. She begs the king: if Rodrigue is dead, then let her follow him. Rodrigue is not dead, of course; realising her feelings, Chimène pardons him. The opera ends with a lively celebratory quartet.
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- M. de Thémines, introduction to Chiméne ou Le Cid, Chefs d’œuvre de l’opéra français, ed. Eugène Gigout, Paris : Théodore Michaelis, n.d.