165. Tarare (Salieri)

  • Opéra in a prologue and 5 acts
  • Composer: Antonio Salieri
  • Libretto: Beaumarchais
  • First performed: Académie royale de musique (salle de la Porte-Martin), Paris, 8 June 1787

The genius that presides over the reproduction of creatures
Dessus (soprano)Suzanne Joinville
which presides over Sun, in love with Nature
Basse-taille (bass-baritone)Louis-Armand Chardin
A soldier in Atar’s service, honoured for his great virtues
TenorÉtienne Lainez
Tarare’s wife, both tender and pious
SopranoMarie-Thérèse Maillard
King of Hormuz, a wild and unrestrained man
BassAugustin-Athanase Chéron
A European slave woman, Calpigi’s wife and a former Neapolitan cantatrice, being meddlesome and coquettish
SopranoAdélaïde Gavaudan cadette
Chief of the Eunuchs, a European slave and a former singer emerged from the Chapels of Italy, being sensitive and gay
TenorJean-Joseph Rousseau
A boy of the Augurs, being naive and very devout
Boy sopranoJoseph-François-Narcisse Carbonel
UNE OMBRE FEMELLE [A shade]SopranoAnne-Marie-Jeanne Gavaudan
High Priest of Brahma, a misbeliever devoured by pride and ambition
BassMartin-Joseph Adrien
An army general, son of the High Priest, a reckless and fiery youth
BassM. Châteaufort
Captain of Atar’s guard, a valiant man of great honour
BassM. Moreau
A priest of BrahmaBasse-taille (bass-baritone)Pierre-Charles Le Roux cadet
A slaveBasse-taille (bass-baritone)Pierre-Charles Le Roux cadet
A eunuchBasse-taille (bass-baritone)Pierre-Charles Le Roux cadet
A shepherdessSopranoAnne-Marie-Jeanne Gavaudan
A peasantBasse-taille (bass-baritone)M. Dessaules

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Tarare is a revolution in five acts. Despots dethroned; popular uprisings; anti-clericalism; and cries for liberty, equality, and an end to absolute monarchy … two years before the Assemblée nationale and the storming of the Bastille. For light relief: homicidal mania, stabbings, eunuchs, and a tenor hero with a nonsense name who spends the last three acts covered in mire and seaweed. It’s at once one of the most politically ferocious operas before Meyerbeer‘s Prophète, and the cleverest satire before Offenbach. And to top it all off, it’s almost entirely through-composed: 60 years before Wagner. Only with more melody.

Tarare’s theme, Beaumarchais trumpeted, was nothing less than the dignity of man. (A true Enlightenment topic!) This maxim – consoling and severe, in Beaumarchais’s view – caps the opera in letters of fire:

Homme, ta grandeur sur la terre
N’appartient point à ton état ;
Elle est toute à ton caractère.

The opera takes place in Ormuz, in the Persian Gulf, and involves a conflict between an absolute despot, Atar, ‘all-powerful but with a frightful character’, and a lowly soldier, Tarare, ‘who received from heaven only a virtuous character’. Can the one be unhappy, and the other unhappy? Beaumarchais wonders. Both love the same woman: Tarare’s wife Astasie. “Oppose passion to passion, powerful vice to virtue deprived of all, shameless despotism to the influence of public opinion, and see what can come out of such a combination of incidents and characters.”

The opera opens with a prologue in the tradition of Lully: part spectacle, part allegory. Nature and the Spirit of Fire assign roles to the spirits of unborn humanity: haughty grandeur to Atar, humble poverty to Tarare. The characters (except the already corrupted Atar) sing: “Ne souffrez que rien n’altère notre touchante égalité ; Qu’un homme commande à son frère !”

Forty years pass. Tarare has become head of the army after saving Atar from drowning; the people love him for his goodness. The sultan, however, hates the general, as Justinian hated Belisarius, and Louis XVI envied La Fayette; and plots to destroy him. He sends his lackey Altamort, son of the brahmin Arthénée, to kidnap Astasie, smash his household, and murder his slaves, making the crimes look like the work of a pirate. With the help of the eunuch Calpigi (formerly an Italian castrato), Tarare steals into the palace, disguises himself as a slave, and tries to rescue his wife. The unfortunate couple are arrested and condemned to death, but the soldiers, commoners, and slaves revolt; they refuse to acknowledge Atar as their king, and demand that Tarare lead them. Atar stabs himself, and Tarare reluctantly accepts the throne – binding himself to the good of the people.

Beaumarchais vs. tyranny

The opera’s tone is part revolutionary heroic rescue opera, part farce. Beaumarchais himself prided himself on the opera’s piquant variety; each act had its own character. “Here an elevated tone, there a merry one, tragedy or comedy. A noble and simple music, impressive spectacle, and strong situations sustained interest and curiosity. The danger threatening the main character, his virtue, his trust in his country’s gods, against the ferocity of a despot and the political wiles of a brahmin offered contrasts and lots of morality.”

Sketch for set by Pierre-Adrien Pâris

The libretto is in the line of Montesquieu, Diderot, and Voltaire’s attacks on absolute monarchy and the abuses of the Ancien Régime. The nobility and the clergy – a mere 4 per cent of the population – lived lives of luxury supported by the oppressed, over-taxed, and politically powerless other 96 per cent (le tiers état). (Today, by comparison, the world’s richest 1 per cent own 45 per cent of the world’s wealth – while half the planet’s population, 3.4 billion people, live below the poverty line of $5.50 a day.) Louis XVI tried to curb the power of the élites and improve life for the commoner; his efforts were well-meaning but sadly ineffectual.

Athar – souverain vaincu

Like many other French intellectuals of his time, Beaumarchais wanted radical reform: a constitutional monarchy, with the king as head of the country, ruling by law. His instincts were liberal: he ran guns in the American Revolution; he satirized the aristocracy in the Figaro plays (Napoleon called La folle journée, with its biting attack on aristocratic privilege, ‘the Revolution in action’); and in Tarare he takes on the crown and the church.

“Wherever despotism reigns,” Beaumarchais wrote in the opera’s preface, “slavery is close to greatness, love touches ferocity, the passions of the great are unrestrained. One can see the most imbecile ignorance and unlimited power united in the same man, an unworthy and cowardly weakness with the most disdainful pride. There, I see the abuse of power toy with the lives of men, and the modesty of women; revolt marching head to head with atrocious tyranny; the despot makes everything tremble, until he trembles himself; and often both are seen at the same time.”

Atar is one of opera’s most psychotic characters; his casual disregard for life is breathtaking and blackly comic. In the first act, Astasie collapses when she learns that she is in the sultan’s power. A slave announces that she is dead; Atar furiously stabs him to death. As Astasie comes round, the tyrant tells her the slave paid with his life for frightening him, then tries to woo her in a suave aria (‘Je suis heureux, vous êtes ranimé’) – while waving the bloody dagger around. Whereupon Astasie promptly faints again. In Act III, Atar wants to slice off a slave’s head (Tarare in disguise) and present it to Astasie as her husband’s; he decides a more humiliating fate would be for the ‘slave’ to have his way with the woman in the dark. Calpigi’s aria at the end of Act IV (‘Vas! l’abus du pouvoir suprême’) is a revolutionary call to arms against tyranny; the abuse of power inevitably leads to the despot’s downfall. In the final scene, Tarare defies the emperor: “Roi féroce ! as-tu donc compté, / Parmi les droits de ta couronne, / Celui du crime et de l’impunité ? / Ta fureur ne peut se contraindre, / Et tu veux n’être pas haï !”

The priests support Atar’s corrupt régime. Religion is a tool of power (‘la politique’), Arthénée muses in his soliloquy. Brahmin and sultan should act as brothers to maintain their power; so long as they work together, the slave, bound by laws spiritual and temporal, suffers, obeys, and believes, and their power is secure – but if the crown totters, the temple will fall with it. (As the clergy of Saintonge wrote in their cahier de dóleances: ‘The throne and the altar share the same foundation; neither can be toppled without the other.’)  Arthénée advises the priests in the audience: “Pontifes, pontifes adroits! Remuez le cœur de vos rois. Quand les rois craignent, les Brames règnent; le tiare agrandit ses droits.” Make your kings afraid so that you may reign. To gull the people, and convince them that the gods are on their side, the sultan and the brahmin stage a false miracle; ‘By useful fraud, consecrate our authority.’ And, of course, Arthénée will not brook any rival to his religious dominion; he objects to tolerance for Christians as France’s Catholic clergy objected to tolerance for the Protestants and Jews.

Beaumarchais was not, however, opposed to the monarchy per se. Rouff considers him a moderate; in Tarare, Beaumarchais neither adopts nor condemns the most revolutionary, republican principles, but rather argues that existing social abuses and injustices must be corrected. He fell foul of the Convention hotheads; he was arrested in 1792 for criticizing the government, declared an émigré (loyalist), and escaped to exile in Germany for two and a half years before returning to Paris to die.

An early form of music drama

Beaumarchais may not have wanted to overthrow the monarchy; he did, however, want to overthrow opera. Modern opera, he believed, was boring; the problem was that music got in the way of the drama. “The music of an opera is, like poetry, only a new art of embellishing speech, which must not be abused.” The plot should come first; then the beauty of the poem, or the narrative of the style; thirdly, the charm of the music; finally, dance. But the story had only become a banal means to make everything else shine. Music, which should only be an accessory, had gained the upper hand. Drama was now only a means to the goal of music. Hence boredom.

This defect Beaumarchais determined to correct – and, in so doing, go back to the Ancient Greeks. (Had Wagner read Beaumarchais’s argument?)

Beaumarchais wanted to enlist a prominent musician for his artistic reforms. He was a musician himself (he taught Louis XV’s daughters the harp and the flute, and composed seguidillas and dances in Spain). Unlike Wagner, who was both his own poet and his own musician, Beaumarchais baulked at the idea of writing and setting Tarare. (He did, however, set La folle journée – i.e. The Marriage of Figaro – as an opéra-comique.)

He first approached Gluck, who pleaded his advanced age and ill-health. Salieri, Gluck’s disciple, agreed to the project; Beaumarchais admired his earlier French works like Les Danaïdes and Les Horaces for their truth and expression. Both, Beaumarchais wrote, sought to make ‘une musique dramatique’, not just a ‘lyric’ work.

“Make me a music that obeys and which does not command,” Beaumarchais instructed Salieri, “which subordinates all its effects to my dialogue and the interest of my drama.” At the writer’s request, Salieri even renounced “a host of musical beauties simply because they lengthened the scene and made the action languish”. (Some of these reappeared in the Italian reworking, Axur, re d’Ormus.)

“My friend,” Beaumarchais told him, “to soften thoughts and effeminize phrases to make them more musical is the true source of the abuses that have spoilt the opera. Let us dare to raise music to the height of a sinewy, intriguing poem; thus we will restore all its nobility; we may even reach, perhaps, the much-vaunted effects of the Ancient Greek theatre!”

The 18th century is the age of the number opera par excellence; opera seria, opera buffa and opéra comique consisted of arias and the odd ensemble (generally moments of reflection) separated by recitatives or spoken dialogue that advanced the action. Salieri and later Mozart had made the numbers advance the plot, extending ensembles over longer periods of time (reaching 20 minutes in the Figaro Act II finale). In Les Horaces, Salieri had almost done away with numbers, developing a melodic recitative (as Grétry had in his unsuccessful Andromaque). Here he extends the technique.

Set design by Charles Percier.

The score is divided into ‘parlé’ (recitative) and ‘chanté (more lyrical) sections. There are no formal numbers, but the recitative is often extremely tuneful, always with a clear musical idea, however short, full of rhythm and often changing tempo and key. It anticipates, as David LeMarrec recognizes, the recitative of Meyerbeer’s grand opéras. Thus in Act I, for instance, we find recitative marked andante (Atar reveals his plot against Tarare); larghetto (Calpigi replies that the people love the general); andante maestoso (Astasie reproaches the tyrant; Atar offers Tarare the pleasures of his palace); allegro agitato (Tarare pleads for Atar’s aid). All fall easily on the ear. Other extended recitative passages with orchestral accompaniment look forward to Wagner: Urson’s account of Tarare and Altamort’s battle, and Tarare’s description of his adventures entering the palace (both in Act III) prefigure the Rome Narrative in Tannhäuser.

The music

Act I opens with a lively ‘second’ overture in the percussion-heavy Turkish style. When Salieri revised Tarare for Vienna as Axur, re d’Ormus, this became the main overture. After Atar reveals his plot against Tarare, four slaves bring in Astasie, veiled in black from head to foot; the harem slaves’ allegro chorus, ‘Dans les plus beaux lieux de l’Asie’, is full of verve. I have already mentioned Atar’s ‘Je suis heureux, vous êtes ranimé’. Atar changes Astasie’s name to Izar, and puts her in the charge of the European slave Spinette, whose coquettish allegretto (‘Oui, seigneur, je veux la réduire’) establishes her sly character. A devastated Tarare arrives, pleading for the sultan’s help against the pirates he believes kidnapped Astasie; he describes his wife’s beauty in an ardent, rapt adagio (‘Astasie est une déesse’). Atar’s aria ‘Qu’as-tu donc fait de ton mâle courage?’, mocking Tarare for his unmanly tears, was celebrated in its day. A series of brief allegro solos develops into a robust quartet as Tarare prepares to set sail against the pirates, and Atar orders Altamort to make sure he never returns. The act ends with Atar’s andante maestoso ‘Vertu farouche et fière’, almost drooling with pleasure as he looks forward to Tarare’s death and consoling his widow.

Act II: A public square, with the royal palace on one side, and the temple of Brahma at the back. Arthénée the high priest and Atar plot to use religion to control the people; in a solemn ceremony, one of the augurs will name Altamort as the gods’ chosen head of the army. Alone, Arthénée reveals his own ambitions for the throne. Tarare prays to Brahma in a beautiful lento prayer (‘De quel nouveau malheur suis-je encor menacé?’) ; Calpigi reveals the Sultan’s crime to him, and a way of getting into the harem. Tarare resolves to rescue his wife in an allegro alla breve aria (‘J’irai: oui, j’oserai!’).

Inside the temple

Arthénée manipulates the augur with honeyed words in a simple andante ‘Ainsi qu’une abeille’. Atar and the crowd assembles … but the augur names not Altamort but Tarare, to the people’s delight. Tarare rallies the people (allegro: ‘Qui veut la gloire’) and mocks the indignant Altamort; he challenges the priest’s son to a duel. A march chorus (‘Brama! si la vertu t’est chère’) closes the act.

Act III: Night-time in the harem gardens

The third act is the weakest in the opera; it contains an overlong divertissement with a fête Européenne of courtiers pretending to be shepherds and shepherdesses (mocking Marie-Antoinette?), and clodhopping peasants. Atar crowns ‘Izar’ his sultana, followed by a deliberately trivial chorus (“Saluons tous la belle Irza”). Calpigi’s barcarolle ‘Je suis né natif de Ferrare’ describes his unfortunate life, beginning with his castration; this survived as a popular vaudeville number well into the 19th century. This strophic song with chorus is the most conventional number in the score; even here, however, Beaumarchais and Salieri are concerned with drama. During it, we learn that Spinette is Calpigi’s wife, while the eunuch uses the aria to cover up Tarare climbing up the wall. The piece never formally ends, but is interrupted by Atar’s furious outburst on hearing Tarare’s name. The crowd disperse; Tarare, dripping with seawater, slime, and kelp, tumbles over the wall. Calpigi disguises him as a mute slave – not a moment too soon; Atar emerges from ‘Izar’s’ rooms, furious at rejection, and vowing revenge. The sultan and Calpigi sarcastically reprise the “Saluons tous” as a duet. The act ends with nine bars of Tarare’s andante sostenuto.

Act IV: Astasie’s apartment

Astasie longs for death in an anguished allegro agitato (‘Ô mort! termine mes douleurs!’). Learning from Calpigi that Atar will bring a slave to make love to her, Spinette agrees to take her mistress’s place … in exchange for her jewels. Spinette sees through the ‘slave’s’ disguise when he speaks; he pretends he entered the harem in search of love. We then have a farcical scene of Tarare disguised as an admirer disguised as a slave face to face with a woman pretending to be his wife, and who declares her love for … Tarare – to his stupefaction. The witty duet, ‘Ami, ton courage m’éclaire’, contains a phrase that pops up in Glinka’s overture to Ruslan & Lyudmila. Soldiers come to arrest the ‘slave’, undeterred by eunuchs blocking their way; all lament when they discover Tarare’s identity. The act ends with Calpigi’s revolutionary allegro ‘Vas! l’abus du pouvoir suprême’.

Act V: An inner courtyard of Atar’s palace; a funeral pyre, an executioner’s block, chains, axes, clubs, and other instruments for an execution

Atar gloats he can use the law to murder Tarare (andante maestoso: ‘Fantôme vain! idole populaire’). Tarare is led on to be executed, defiant to the last. The chorus ‘Avec tes décrets infinis’ would do justice to any 19th century opera: a mournful, powerful piece, scored for woodwinds, trombone, and kettledrums; the strings are silent, except for the basses. In the nick of time, a militia led by Calpigi and Urson rescue Tarare; when the soldiers and the people turn against their former sultan, Atar stabs himself and dies. Tarare is crowned, to the great joy of the people; in its Italian form, their chorus ‘Quel plaisir de nos coeurs s’empare!’ appeared in Amadeus. We fade out to the spirit world; Nature and the Genius of Fire proclaim the doctrine of egalitarianism, which appears in letters of fire on the clouds. Trumpets sound; thunder; the clouds cover the stage; and the curtain falls.


Tarare was a tremendous hit, thanks to skillful manoeuvring by Beaumachais and Salieri. “Court, nobility, and businessmen, who prided themselves on their interest in the arts, were intrigued by the famous writers’ new work; the bourgeoisie and people were sympathetic to the ardent pamphleteer who had written about widespread complaints on the stage and in his memoirs” (Rouff). So many people wanted to see the opera that 400 guards were posted in the streets and avenues leading to the theatre, and wooden barriers used to control the crowds for the first time. The premiere was interrupted by stormy scenes between royalists and republican ‘patriotes’.

The general feeling, Rouff notes, was that the work was witty, curious, bizarre; it offered intellectual pleasures rather than emotions. The public found in it “brilliant effects of music, sets, and machines; as for the poem, lots of obscurities, some trivial or obscene things, but really beautiful and sublime in places” (Adolphe Jullien, Cour & l’Opéra sous Louis XVI). Some spectators were amused; others criticized its pretensions to morals or philosophy, and called it a monster; everybody wanted to see it (Camp volant, 5 Feb 1819).

Beaumarchais revised Tarare in 1790 for the new Constitution; he wanted to offer it to the people on the first anniversary of the Bastille, but the work was not ready until early August. According to Rouff, this version softens certain verses considered too royalist. It ends with a new act, the coronation of Tarare, now a constitutional monarch. An assembly of the people (like the Assemblée nationale) present him with symbols of liberty and the law. More scenes argue that priests should be free to marry, and that incompatible couples should be able to divorce. Beaumarchais, however, sits on the fence where slavery is concerned. He argues that masters should treat slaves humanely, rather than calling for abolition. Even this, though, was enough to offend young American visitors. The public response was even more violent; Bailly, mayor of Paris, was forced to re-establish order by force. This version was reprised in 1792.

A republican version was performed in 1793 – against the wishes of Beaumarchais, now living in Germany. Tarare refuses the throne, abolishes the monarchy, and declares a republic. Applause was, however, seen as a protest against the power of the Assemblée révolutionnaire: the Convention. This version was performed in years IV, V, VII (after Beaumarchais’s death), and X (1795-1801).

After the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814, Tarare was reduced to three acts, and carved as a dish fit for a king. Now a reformed Atar pardons Tarare, restores his wife and the command of the army, and the people swear fealty to their good king. Critics of the time complained about Beaumarchais’s anti-monarchist sentiments. While acknowledging its dramatic qualities and Salieri’s style, the Journal des débats (7 Feb 1819) argued that Tarare’s object was to spread chaos, overthrow institutions, and disturb the rank assigned to each. A reprise in 1822 attracted few people, and only produced a mediocre effect (Le Miroir). Le Réveil (1822) called it “the most pitiful opera in the world”, “this old and philosophic parade”, and objected to its theme of the dignity of man, the crimes of kings, and “cette maxime usée et commune” egalitarianism. The work was performed in 1824, 1825, and 1826.


WATCH: Deutsche Handel Solisten, 1988.

LISTEN: Cyrille Dubois (Tarare), Karine Deshayes (Astasie), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Atar), Judith van Wanroij (Spinette), Enguerrand de Hys (Calpigi), Tassis Christoyannis (Arthénée), Jérome Boutillier (Urson), and Philippe-Nicolas Martin (Altamort), with Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset, Paris, 2018. Aparté, 2019.


4 thoughts on “165. Tarare (Salieri)

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