163. L'épreuve villageoise (Grétry)

  • Comédie en vers in 2 acts
  • Composer : André Grétry
  • Libretto : Pierre Desforges
  • First performed : Théâtre des Italiens, Paris 24 June 1784 – revision of Théodore et Paulin, performed Versailles, 5 March 1784

SETTING: A hamlet in the French countryside, with a farm and a castle.

CHARACTERS: DENISE (soprano); MADAME HUBERT, her mother (soprano); ANDRÉ, her fiancé (tenor); LA FRANCE, a valet (baritone)


L’épreuve villageoise was one of Grétry’s longest-lasting successes, performed in Paris until the end of the 19th century.

Modern audiences might wonder why this sentimental rural comedy was so popular. It’s an insubstantial exercise in the line of Rousseau’s Devin du village: a highly artificial imitation of rustic simplicity for a courtly audience, full of peasants speaking patois.

Overture.

The 17-year-old Dénise is going to marry André today, but she’s fed up with his jealousy. Her mother Mme Hubert thinks the rich valet La France also needs a lesson; he wooed her for five years, but his eye was on her daughter and his fortune. To trick both men, Dénise lets La France pay her court and accepts his marriage proposal, infuriating André. At the end, she refuses his citified charms and marries André instead.

L’épreuve villageoise began as a three-act vaudeville, Théodore et Paulin, performed before the court at Versailles. The opera was only performed once; Grétry noted that the audience were alternately bored by the noble characters and delighted by the peasants. He suggested that his librettist eliminate the aristocrats altogether, losing an act in the process.

Gerlache thought L’épreuve the opera in which Grétry put most melody and musical power. Thill-Lorrain believed he never showed finer taste, a more perfect balance, or a more expressive melody in his other scores.

“I worked more carefully on this opera because the scantiness of the plot demanded it,” Grétry wrote in his Mémoires. “A libretto with a powerful dramatic interest doesn’t need as rich a score, for fear that this double complication will tire the spectators.”

Most of the score, however, is trivial. Act I contains Dénise’s couplets complaining about André’s suspiciousness (‘J’ n’avions pas encore quatorze ans’); Mme Hubert and La France’s conversational duet (‘Bonjour, Monsieur’); another duet where André spies on Dénise (‘J’ai fait un bouquet pour sa fête’); and Dénise’s ariette resolving to punish André by flirting with La France (‘J’ commence à voir que dans la vie’). None are of any great musical or dramatic value. The tuneful Act I finale contains a clever fugue.

Dénise’s couplets at the start of Act II (‘Bon Dieu! bon Dieu! comm’à c’te fête’) were, Grétry recalled, sung and danced everywhere, even on the stage of the Opéra. La France’s ariette bidding farewell to his mistresses is agreeable (‘Adieu Marton, adieu Lisette, adieu Rosette’). The act also includes a trio (‘Je vous revois, chère Dénise!’) for the heroine and her two admirers, and a duet where she reconciles with her peasant boyfriend (‘Viens, mon André, e te pardonne’). The opera closes with general rejoicing and dancing.

Moral: the country is better than the city. Why listen to an orchestra when can one hear nightingales at dawn? Why go to the theatre or see a painting when one can wander a forest? It’s as fake as Marie Antoinette dressing up as a shepherdess at the Petit Trianon while the real peasants die from poverty and exhaustion.

Marie Antoinette and pals enjoy their idea of the rustic life. Not pictured: Malnutrition, disease, excessive taxes.

The opera remained in the Opéra-Comique repertoire until the late 1880s, including in a re-orchestration by Auber.


LISTEN TO: Sophie Junker (Denise), Talise Trevigne (Madame Hubert), Thomas Dolié (La France), Francisco Fernández-Rueda (André), Opera Lafayette, University of Maryland, 2015, conducted by Ryan Brown. (Naxos)


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Le Citoyen Grétry, Memoires ou essais sur la musique, Paris : Imprimerie de la République, An V
  • [Michel Materne] Thil-Lorrain, Les gloires nationales : Histoire de Grétry, Brussels : Librairie de Callewaert frères, éditeurs, 1884

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