82. Œdipe à Colone (Sacchini) – REVISED

  • Tragédie-opéra in 3 acts
  • Composer: Antonio Sacchini
  • Libretto: Nicolas-François Guillard, after Sophocles
  • First performed : Versailles, 4 January 1786, then at the Académie royale de musique (salle de la Porte Saint-Martin), Paris, 1 February 1787, conducted by Jean-Baptiste Rey

Œdipe à Colone, Sacchini’s final work, was the most enduring French tragédie lyrique. A fixture in the repertoire for nearly half a century, it clocked up 583 performances by 1830: more than any other work from its time, including Gluck’s masterpieces.

 “It is Sacchini’s masterpiece,” Clément declared. Fétis thought the work sometimes achieved the sublimity of Classical simplicity; had Sacchini left no other evidence of his talent, his name would still shine brilliantly in the history of art. The opera greatly moved Berlioz, whether by the touching simplicity of the melodies, the truth and sometimes grandeur of their expression, and doubtless also the ancient beauty of the poem. For Arthur Pougin, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, the opera represented French good taste.

“Gluck, Piccinni, Sacchini & Salieri… These four men of genius — the first two, it must be said, are superior — are the apostles of a new musical religion, the reformers of modern lyrical drama, and it is to them, to their efforts that France owes its incontestable superiority over Germany and Italy in the healthy and true comprehension of dramatic music.  (Journal officiel de la république française, 3 September 1878)

Sacchini himself, though, died of a broken heart when the work was rejected. His first forays into French opera – Renaud and Chimène (1783), both revisions of Italian works, and Dardanus (1784) – were unsuccessful, despite, Clément writes, “a noble and true sensibility, exempt from affectation”. (Followers of his rival Piccinni may have sabotaged Renaud.)

Galliard’s poem, which won a literary contest for libretti, was intended for Grétry; the Belgian had loaned the writer a thousand écus, counting on its future success. Grétry, ill and preoccupied, did not, however, have time to set the text, which languished in its author’s desk.

“Gaillard and Sacchini,” the composer Henri-Montan Berton wrote, “dined with my mother, widow of the Opéra director, once or twice a week.  One day Gaillard, in a fit of poetic despair, recited several scenes from the work.  Each was delighted, and Sacchini regretted not being able to work on such a touching piece, and not to have a thousand écus to buy off Grétry.  My mother quickly offered them, and M. Fillette-Loraux, author of [Cherubini’s] Lodoïska, took charge of the negotiation.  He visited Grétry, found him sick in bed, offered the thousand écus, and asked for the manuscript.  Grétry was reluctant to give it up; but, learning that Sacchini would write it, he congratulated Gaillard on the choice of replacement.  Our ambassador returned in triumph to the house.  Gaillard gave his poem to Sacchini on the spot.  The next day, my illustrious master began Œdipe, and finished the masterpiece in less than six weeks.”

Writing the work was one thing; getting it performed quite another. The opera was staged – indifferently, the histories say – at Versailles in January 1786.

“Queen Marie-Antoinette, who loved and cultivated the arts, had promised Sacchini that Œdipe would be the first work performed at the court theatre at Fontainebleau.  Sacchini had told us this good news, and continued to work, as was his custom, on Her Majesty’s passage, who, leaving her prayers, invited him into her music room.  There she delighted in hearing beautiful pieces from Arvire et Evelina, which Sacchini was working on.  Sacchini noted that, several Sundays in a row, the queen seemed to avoid his looks, and so, troubled, uneasy, placed himself in front of Her Majesty, who could not avoid speaking to him.  She received him in her music room, and, moved, told him:

“‘My dear Sacchini, people say that I show foreigners too much favour.  They have asked me to perform M. Lemoine’s Phèdre instead of your Œdipe, and I cannot refuse.  You see my position!  Forgive me.’

“Sacchini, controlling his sorrow, bowed, and immediately returned to Paris.  He visited my mother.  He entered in tears, and threw himself into a chair.  We could only obtain from him broken words: ‘Ma bonne amie, mes enfants, ze souis oun homme perdou! La reine, il ne m’aime piou! le reine, il ne m’aime piou.’

“All my efforts to calm his sorrow were in vain.  He would not eat.  He was very gouty; his condition already worried us.  We called a carriage.  Guillard, Loraux and I took him back to his home; he went to bed, and, three days later, he died.”

Sacchini died on 7 October 1786, at the age of 51. Hardly had he closed his eyes, Fétis writes, when even those who persecuted him during his life assembled to honour him; every artist attended his funeral; his elegy was given at the Académie des Enfants d’Apollon, and printed in the newspapers; several artists drew his portrait; and François Caradori, sculptor to the grand-duke of Tuscany’s court, created his bust for the chapel of the Pantheon in Rome. Piccinni even wrote a glowing letter to the Journal de Paris, praising his compatriot, and arguing such a transcendent talent deserved a happier lot. “I leave time and connoisseurs the care of appreciating the sublime works which such a great master left us.” (Thémines thought this was all very fine, but would have been even finer if Piccinni had written half this dithyramb when its subject was still alive!)

Œdipe à Colone was given its first performance in Paris, on 1 February 1787. It was not advertised in the newspapers; only a poster on the theatre door alerted the public.

“Yesterday, the paying public’s taste for performances at the Opéra was not very happy. Œdipe à Colone, lyric tragedy in three acts, was performed; it will be performed again today; and the receipts remained below 400 livres. Nobody was there. Moreover, that performance did not give a high opinion of the work; the first two acts were received very coldly; the third had more effect.” (Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France)

The queen attended the second performance, the next day, and applauded the work from start to finish.

Slowly, opinions of the opera changed.

“The music is generally admired; it is effective in each act; there are longueurs, moments of boredom, but one is immediately awoken by real beauties. The opera is regarded as Sacchini’s best, and there’s a double reason for judging it so: the first, that his admirers, moved by their sense of loss, are favourably disposed towards the work, while the envious, no longer fearing a competitor, were easily determined to do him justice.” (Mémoires secrets)

The opera became a success – and the final performance, on 24 March, was crowded.

“We have never seen so many people at the Opéra,” wrote the secret memoirist. “The guard were obliged to fix their bayonets to the end of their rifle. Still the people seized the soldiers’ guns, while they beat their fingers with their canes.”

Œdipe had arrived. Sacchini’s name – and Salieri’s – shone with an intermittent brilliance for the 15 years between the death of Gluck and the advent of Spontini, Jullien noted (La Cour et l’Opéra sous Louis XVI, 1878). Dardanus, once disdained, was remounted several times; finally, Arvire et Evelina (completed by Rey) was welcomed.

Œdipe remained popular until 1830, but later audiences were unimpressed. The work was unsuccessfully revived in 1843. Clément faithfully attended all six performances. “Its severe beauties, its forms so pure of harmony, its truthful and moving accents could not overcome the indifference of the public.”

Berlioz was present. “The reprise of the work should offer a lively interest to people familiar with the old repertoire of the Opéra; unfortunately, the number of these amateurs is not enough to fill the hall. Although a certain number of the curious, to whom Sacchini’s masterpiece was unknown, joined them, one saw in the empty seats of the parterre and the amphitheatre written in capital letters these terrible words: THE PUBLIC DID NOT ENTER HERE.”

After a silence of nearly two centuries, Œdipe has been recorded twice in recent years: by Ryan Brown and the Opera Lafayette Orchestra, University of Maryland, 2005 (Naxos); and by Jean-Paul Penin and the Camerata de Bourgogne (Dynamic).

Œdipe comes very close to greatness. It is clearly Sacchini’s best opera; it’s humane, compassionate, even wise. The characters are at once people and symbols of humanity: the suffering Œdipe, adamantine in his sorrow, inflexible in his pitilessness, slowly melting to forgiveness; the remorse and impetuousness of his son Polynice; the compassion and self-sacrificing love of Antigone; the wisdom of Thésée, who has learnt empathy through suffering.

The problem is the libretto, a loose adaptation of Sophocles’ Lear-ian drama about the transcendental death of a suffering king. This ends happily, with father and children reunited, a marriage, and a gavotte. The ending lacks the sublimity of Sophocles – which really calls for a Gluck or the Wagner of Parsifal. The protagonist is not Œdipus, who enters only in Act II (in Sophocles, he’s onstage from the start), but his son Polynice, who appears late in the Greek play.

Œdipus, as everyone knows, killed his father and married his mother. “When he found out what he had done, he tore his eyes out one by one – the tragic end to a loyal son who loved his mother.” Before the action begins, Oedipus’s sons Polynices (Polynice) and Eteocles (here Etiocle) took the throne of Thebes from their father, then fell out; Polynice was driven out in his turn.

Act I

The opera opens with an attractive allegro spiritoso overture. (Berlioz thought it mediocre, and inferior to that for Chimène; Clément believed it not equal to the drama. Both ascribed its weakness to the Italian standards of the time; not until Rossini, Berlioz thought, did the Italians master the overture. This is, of course, a French perspective; see, for instance, Vinci.) Polynice has sought refuge with Thésée (Theseus), king of Athens; the hero will restore him to the throne and give him his daughter to marry. Thésée’s maestoso aria (‘Ma fille est le précieux gage) is over before it starts, at less than a minute, one of these tragédie lyrique ‘airs’ that are really melodic recitative; Polinice’s allegro spiritoso (‘Le fils des dieux, le successeur d’Alcide’) is sweet, surprisingly wistful, as he describes how his treacherous brother will tremble before him. (Berlioz praised its remarkable momentum.) The Athenian soldiers swear to obey and fight for Polynice (‘Nous braverons pour lui’); Clément noted that Méhul imitated its energetic and simple form. A chorus of women greets the entry of Eriphile (‘Allez régner, jeune princesse’), whose sweet sorrow Berlioz found charming; its pure forms and harmonious rhythm reminded Clément of a procession in the Panathenaea. The wedding celebrations provide the excuse for the obligatory divertissement; these include the Athenian maiden’s charming andante aria (‘Vous quittez notre aimable Athènes’).

Eriphile parts from her friends in a pleasant aria marked expressivo e lento (‘Je ne vous quitte point’); Berlioz found it cute verging on silliness. Thésée announces it is time to go to the temple of the Eumenides, protective deities of Athens – but Polynice is reluctant. He reveals that he exiled his father from Thebes, and is full of guilt. In an attractive C major andantino aria (‘Votre cœur devint mon asile’), he explains that he loves Eriphile for her virtues and respect for her father – that which he lacks himself – and wants to be worthy of her. The heavens will forgive Polynice, Thésée tells him, since he is remorseful; the trio ‘Implorons les bienfaits’ is lovely, full of light and healing. (It didn’t make much impression on Berlioz, except for the canon in the final phrase.)

The finale is magnificent. It begins with the priests’ slow, solemn hymn to the Furies (‘Ô vous que l’innocence même’). Berlioz thought the orchestration, truthfulness, and beautiful harmonic progressions placed the religious march on the level of Gluck at his most grandiose and poetic. The high priest implores the Kindly Ones’ blessing on the Athenian forces, leading to an impressive andante chorus – but the goddesses are enraged. Polynice recognizes the wrath of his father, and the people flee in terror. None of this is in Sophocles.

Act II

Polynice wanders alone and miserable, polluted with his crimes, the object of the gods’ fury; his lament (‘Hélas! d’une pure flamme’) is closer to recitative than aria, although Berlioz thought it perhaps the most distinguished aria in the score. Polynice sees his father and his sister Antigone approach, fatigued and dressed in rags; unwilling to face them, he runs to seek Thésée’s help for them.

Œdipe’s Grande Scène is a mad scene running to nearly 30 pages. Berlioz acknowledged that the scene was famous, but wondered whether the situation and verses were more responsible than the music; some of it left him rather cold. The king is worn out by age and suffering, and longs for death. He blesses his daughter, innocent victim of filial love, and weeps for her lot in an affecting andante (‘Ma fille, hélas!’); all her happiness, she replies, is to follow him, and comfort his tears, in a graceful affectuoso (‘Tout mon bonheur’). Œdipe realizes that they are in the site where he slew his father, and hears the hissing of the Furies’serpents; he fancies he sees Jocaste and the altar where they celebrated their incest; he relives the moment when he plucked out his eyes; and remembers the frightened people driving him out. In an intense allegro (‘Filles du Stix, terribles Euménides’), he calls on the Furies to destroy him. Antigone prays to the gods to ease his suffering in a beautiful passage that falls like balm (‘Dieux justes, Dieux clémens!’). Œdipe comes to his senses, and embraces his beloved daughter in a warm duet (‘O transport pleins de charmes!’). The people appear, and demand to know which sacrilegious mortal has dared to enter the mountain shrine sacred to the Furies; learning that he is Œdipe, the enemy of man and god, they demand that he leave, shewing no pity. Thésée arrives and rescues the pair.

Thésee has known suffering and sympathises; his maestoso aria (‘Du malheur auguste victime’) is excellent, full of warm humanity, with a generous outpouring of melody. (Berlioz thought it too much a bravura aria.) It leads without a break into a rather wonderful allegro trio (‘O bonté secourable et chère’) – which Berlioz found even more mediocre.

Act III

Thésée has brought Œdipe and Antigone to Athens – but the Furies are enraged, thunderbolts strike the worthiest citizens, and the people want to sacrifice Œdipe to appease them. Polynice urges Antigone to flee with their father. Antigone prays the gods will spare her life to serve her father; the opening largo (‘Dieux! ce n’est pas pour moi’) leads to an empassioned allegro (‘Les feux d’un ciel brûlant’). Struck by his sister’s virtue, Polynice asks to share her burden. Their largo duet (‘Vous le savez, grands Dieux’) is full of noble sentiment, but conventional; Berlioz said it passed almost unnoticed in the theatre. Œdipe, though, refuses to listen to his son, despite his protests of remorse and sorrow, and his offer to repair the wrong he did his father by reinstating him. Only Antigone remains to him, Œdipe tells Polynice in a tender maestoso aria (‘Elle m’a prodigué sa tendresse et ses soins’). Berlioz called it sublime; Clément thought it one of the most beautiful French arias. The father curses both his sons: let all Greece and their own subjects rise against them, let the walls of Thebes be their tombs, and let them kill each other. This is marked Aria in the score, but, as often in tragédie lyrique, it’s heightened recitative. Polynice’s ‘Delivrez vous d’un monster furieux’ is, though, a proper aria – a da capo: with an urgent allegro agitato A section, and a more lyrical largo B section. Berlioz thought it admirable from a dramatic perspective; difficult to do better in such a situation.

Œdipe forgives his son in one of the opera’s finest numbers, the maestoso trio ‘Où suis-je?’. It ends with a lovely, serene largo (‘Ô doux moment! ô jour prospère!’). The trio, Berlioz thought, would be beautiful so long as something human remains in those who hear it. “As melody, as harmony, as instrumentation, it is beautiful: beautiful in grandeur and truth; it is repose and calm softly returning to these panting breasts; it is a breeze from heaven which refreshes these burning foreheads and these hearts brimming with bitter tears; it is peace; it is happiness.” In his Mémoires, he remembered that the extraordinary sweetness of  the music, with its simple yet insidious melody, was too much for him. “I hid my face in my hands and wept like a man overcome with grief.”

The High Priest announces that because Œdipe has forgiven his son, the gods have forgiven Œdipe; after death, his body will become a powerful talisman for Athens, while Polynice can now marry Eriphile. The opera ends with a glorious, luminous andante chorus (‘Le calme succède aux tempètes’). An act of reconciliation and forgiveness is the answer to strife and civil war.

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