- Tragédie-lyrique in 3 acts and 2 intermèdes
- Composer: Antonio Salieri
- Libretto: Nicolas–François Guillard, after Corneille’s Horace (1640)
- First performed: Fontainebleau, 2 November 1786. Then at the Académie royale de musique, Paris, 7 December 1786
CHARACTERS: LE VIEIL HORACE, a Roman (bass-baritone); LE JEUNE HORACE, his son (baritenor); CAMILLE, his daughter (soprano); CURIACE, her fiancé, an Alban (tenor).
SETTING: Rome, 7th century BC
Rome is at war with the neighbouring city of Alba Longa. Fearing that battle would weaken both sides and open the way for an Etruscan invasion, the cities agree that three champions from each side will fight to the death to decide the war. Those chosen are three Roman brothers, the Horatii, and three Alban brothers, the Curiatii. Camille, daughter of the Old Horatius, is betrothed to one of the Curiatii; she tries to prevent the mortal combat, knowing she will lose someone she loves whatever the outcome. Duty comes first: the siblings face each other on the battlefield; the Curiatii slay two of the Horatii, but the surviving Roman kills all three of the Albans – two to avenge his brothers, and the third for Rome. The distraught Camille curses her brother and Rome, but her family forgive her outburst.
According to Livy and Corneille’s play, however, the enraged brother stabbed her to death. “Begone to your betrothed, with your ill-timed love, since you have forgot your brothers, both the dead and the living, and forgot your country! So perish every Roman woman who mourns a foe!” An edifying moral.
Les Horaces was a Roman tragedy and a French fiasco.
Clément (1869), in his magisterial Dictionnaire des opéras, has only two lines on Les Horaces: “Corneille’s work adapted to the lyric stage had little success. The music of the author of Les Danaïdes and Tarare nevertheless pleased amateurs.”
‘Little success’ is an understatement. As was the norm with tragédie lyrique, the opera premiered before the court; the general rehearsal was such a flop that Marie-Antoinette demanded one of Gluck’s Iphigénies be performed instead. A month later, the nobility laughed at the revised work – a humiliating fate for a tragedy, the Mémoires secrets commented. Nor did the Paris audience like it any better; the first public performance was greeted with ‘bitter complaints from the parterre’ and ‘a raucous show of disapproval which lasted for quite some time’ (Mémoires secrets), and the opera was pulled after three performances.
(The text was used for Bernardo Porta’s opera in 1800, which Clément describes as feeble; the highlight of the performance was Carrachi’s attempt to assassinate Napoleon.)
Christophe Rousset recorded Les Horaces in 2016, as part of his French Salieri project, making a strong case for the long-forgotten score.
True, the opera is unlikely to be a popular success. It is austere; the themes of public duty, patriotism, and self-sacrifice are unlikely to strike a chord with many listeners today; the characters are remote; and there are almost no concessions to vocal display. Nor is it on the level of Mercadante’s magnificent Orazi e Curiazi (1846).
But it is an early example of music drama. It is strikingly succinct: three acts and two intermèdes in 86 minutes. It is also almost entirely through-composed. The unit is the scene, not the number, the aria, as in Italian opera; and the narrative unfolds largely through recitative. Yes, there is the occasional aria, and plenty of choruses, but most are short, and many are heightened recitative. Before the French Revolution, then, we have an aesthetic close to Wagner’s – albeit with a reserved Classicism rather than the lush Romanticism of the master of Bayreuth. Les Horaces sounds, in fact, rather like Saint-Saëns’s operas.
This, Dratwicki suggests, was one reason why the 18th century audiences disliked Les Horaces, as they did Grétry’s similar Andromaque. There was little room in it for arias or melody, he notes – but this is an extension of Gluck’s reforms since Iphigénie en Aulide (1774): “the reduction in the number of arias to avoid holding up the action, the removal of superfluity and forms considered too obvious or predictable, and especially the sequence of recitatives, ensembles and choruses, used to amplify the mood and enhance the scenes visually through physical action on stage – all of these being already eminently Romantic features”. Salieri’s music, he argues, is excellent throughout: “At no point can Salieri be faulted for lacking originality or inspiration. Moreover, the tone he adopts is perfectly in keeping with the subject.”
Act I: The temple of Egeria, nymph and consort of the early Roman king Numa Pompilius. Camille and her women have come to make offerings; the Horatian woman dreads the future. War between Rome and Alba broke out on the day she was betrothed to Curiace. On both sides, she sees only misery; whatever happens, she will weep for the vanquished and hate the victors. Must she give up her love for Curiace, Camille asks? The oracle tells her the war will end today, and Camille will be united with the one she loves. (In Corneille’s original, of course, this prefigures her death.) Camille sings her first proper aria, the ecstatic allegro ‘Oui, mon bonheur est assuré’ – but it is interrupted by a crowd of women, children, and old people seeking sanctuary. The signal has been given for the battle to begin, and the people fear invasion. The Horatii and Curiatii arrive, and calm them: the Alban and Roman armies have laid down their arms; instead of civil war between relatives, three warriors from each side will fight. Whoever triumphs, the two cities shall be united as one empire. The act ends with a massive ensemble as all rejoice in the good news.
Premier intermède: The temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. The high priest, Roman king, generals, and senators are assembled to choose the three champions. The high priest’s aria ‘Puissant moteur de l’univers’ is surprisingly jolly for the occasion.
Act II: An apartment in Horatius’s palace. Camille, Curiatus, and the Young Horatius look forward to the wedding that will unite the families and states; their minute-long andante trio is sweet if brief. So is their happiness: Old Horatius and the Romans knights announce that Young Horatius and his brothers have been named Roman champions; the Young Horatius gladly accepts his lot in a maestoso ariette, ‘Dieux, protecteurs du Tibre!’; joined by his father the chorus, it becomes a splendid allegro. An Alban envoy announces that Curiace and his brothers have been chosen as Alba’s warriors. Curiace’s andante aria ‘Victime de l’amour, victime de l’honneur’ is beautiful and mournful. Now follows a duet, one of the few pieces contemporary audiences appreciated. Camille begs him not to fight in a plaintive larghetto; a stretch of recitative follows, with Curiace’s fine phrase ‘J’étois à mon pays avant que d’être à toi’; and the duet ends in an allegro, Camille increasingly fraught, Curiace martial and resolute. An impressive allegro moderato quartet closes the act: the three men prepare to fight, a despairing Camille calls them tigers.
Second intermède: The countryside near Rome. The armies are gathered for the combat. All swear to obey the victor’s side – but the armies are appalled when the brothers appear, and try to separate the fight. Their chorus of protest is like thunder. We are long since out of the Baroque; we can hear the titanic forces of Romanticism and revolution – the age when opera is concerned with peoples and nations. The High Priest announces that he will consult with the gods.
Act III: The courtyard of Horatius’s palace. Camille thanks the gods for halting the combat in the opera’s best aria, ‘Que je vous dois d’encens, Ô mes dieux tutélaires!’, an exciting allegro maestoso. But the gods have confirmed the choice of the six champions. The Old Horatius and his household pray for victory, but a terrified chorus of women announce that Rome has been defeated. Two of the Horatii brothers are dead; the youngest has fled. The Old Horatius laments his dead children, and curses the survivor. An offstage chorus, however, announces Roman victory; the Young Horatius’s flight was only a feint. The hero is crowned with laurels and carried in triumph. Here follows the customary divertissement, held back until the last act. (Part of the reason why Les Horaces failed, as Wagner’s Tannhäuser did 70 years later.) Camille interrupts the festivities in a rage; she kisses the spoils taken from Curiace that decorate the chariot of triumph, and calls on thunderbolts to destroy her brother and Rome. All put this down to her grief, and thank the gods.
Judith van Wanroij (Camille), Cyrille Dubois (Curiace), Julien Dran (Le jeune Horace), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Le vieil Horace), Philippe-Nicolas Martin, Andrew Foster-Williams, and Eugénie Lefebvre, with Christophe Rousset conducting Les Talens Lyriques, Versailles, 2016. Aparté, 2018.
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Benoît Dratwicki, ‘Les Horaces’, Aparté 2018.