167. Démophoon (Cherubini)

  • Tragédie lyrique in 3 acts
  • Composer: Luigi Cherubini
  • Libretto: Jean-François Marmontel, after Metastasio’s Demofonte
  • First performed: Opéra de Paris, 1 December 1788

SETTING: Périnthe, city in Thrace, on the Bosphorus

CHARACTERS: DÉMOPHOON (basse-taille), King of Thrace; his sons OSMIDE (tenor) and NÉADE (tenor); IRCILE (soprano), princess of Phrygia; ASTOR (baritone), warrior of the army and the court; DIRCÉ (soprano), his daughter, secretly married to Osmide; ADRASTE (tenor), guard captain; LYGDAME (basse-taille), high priest of Apollo


Cherubini is one of the Titans – and almost unknown today. Beethoven (BEETHOVEN!), no less, considered him the greatest living composer of his time.

The Florentine dominated French musical life for half a century, as a composer of revolutionary opera and patriotic works at the end of the 18th century, and of religious music in the early 19th. Lodoïska, his second French opera, is considered the first truly Romantic opera, and to have founded the French school.

Ingres’s portrait of Cherubini.

Great musicians held him in enormous regard:

  • BEETHOVEN: “I honour and love you… you for ever remain of all my contemporaries the one whom I esteem the most” (letter from Vienna, 15 March 1823). “The greatest living composer”.
  • SCHUMANN: “When Beethoven was alive, he was certainly the second master of the contemporary era, and since the latter’s death, he must be regarded as the foremost among living artists…” (December 1840)
  • MENDELSSOHN: The first three bars of the overture to Les deux journées “are worth more than our entire repertoire” (1834)
  • WAGNER: “Certainly the greatest of musical architects, a sort of Palladio, […] so beautiful and assured… All the other [French composers], Auber, Berlioz, would be unthinkable without him.”
  • BRAHMS: “We musicians recognize Médée as the highest dramatic art.”

The 19th century musicologist Alexander Ulybyshev considered Cherubini “the musician who, after Mozart, has exerted the greatest general influence on the tendency of the art… Cherubini strikes me as being the most accomplished musician, if not the greatest genius, of the nineteenth century.”

As director of the Conservatoire from 1822 to 1840, Cherubini’s students included Auber and il suo caro Halévy, his protégé, to whom he bequeathed his autograph scores. Berlioz, on the other hand, quarreled with him; Cherubini chased the young man around the Conservatoire library when he came through the women’s entrance. Later, Berlioz interrupted the performance of Cherubini’s final opera, Ali Baba (1833), leaping to his feet and offering money for an idea, any idea, raising the sum each time: “I give up!”

Today, Cherubini’s only familiar works may be Médée (recorded by Maria Callas) and his magnificent Requiem. Few of his operas have been recorded: Les deux journées, one of his most popular works, as long ago as 1947; Medea and Eliza only in unrepresentative Italian translations. Faniska not at all. Even though Haydn and Beethoven were at the premiere in Vienna, and hailed Cherubini as the foremost dramatic composer of the age.

Cherubini demands rediscovery. But the listener should not start with Démophoon.

Démophoon was Cherubini’s first French work. The story, based on Metastasio, is almost tragédie lyrique by numbers: Classical setting (Thrace), tyrannical kings, heavy fathers, star-crossed lovers, arranged marriages, and human sacrifice.

Démophoon is king of Thrace; his son Osmide is married to Dircé, daughter of the warrior Astor, but Démophoon wants him to wed Ircile, princess of Phrygia, who loves and is loved by Démophoon’s other son Néade. (Got that?) Thrace has a nasty custom: every year, a maiden must be sacrificed to Apollo; Démophoon selects Dircé. It takes two whole acts to get to that point. Démophoon relents in the last act, the oracle ends the sacrifices, and the young lovers can marry the partners of their choice. (Metastasio’s original adds another twist: Dircé is Démophoon’s daughter, and Osmide is Astor’s son. Don’t ask.)

The opera only lasted eight performances in 1785; critics blamed the ponderous, undramatic libretto (“If words make an opera, then Démophoon is an opera,” one wag said), but even Cherubini’s 19th century admirers found the score uninspired. Fétis complained that the score only offers dryness in the cantilenas, vague motifs, defects of rhythm and symmetry in the phrases, and, even worse, monotony in the general colour of the work. Even the harmony, Fétis thought, was undistinguished; it was hard to recognize in this feeble production the work of a man who would soon be rightly recognized as a master. Cherubini, he thought, had not had time to study the French style; the language didn’t offer the cadential rhythms of Italian so favourable to melody; and Marmontel’s detestable verses wrecked the tempo. “The composition of this opera must have been an ordeal for [Cherubini].” Halévy thought the composer was frozen by the poet, but acknowledged excellent instrumentation and beautiful choruses.

Others thought Démophoon was a transitional work: Cherubini tried to establish a new style, but without success – either on his part or because of an unappreciative public. The tender and graceful arias, Castil-Blaze thought, belonged to Cherubini’s Italianate style, which he abandoned for Gluck as soon as he came across a strong situation. Pougin thought this hybrid work was a composite where, by fault of too much reflection, inspiration lacked abundance and spontaneity. Halévy and Clément thought Cherubini’s harmonies were too learned for his audience.

There is only one recording: Rome, 1985, conducted by Gelmetti. I can’t recommend it. The cast (which includes Montserrat Caballé and Giuseppe Taddei) can’t pronounce French, and can’t act either – both vital for tragédie lyrique. The sound quality is poor: I listened to an audio recording and watched a bootleg nth-generation video on YouTube. Much of the instrumental detail is lost; choruses are blurred; and the orchestra often overshadows the voices. The track skips and wobbles, and there’s an intrusive buzz or hum, even an occasional high-pitched bleeping. A score is necessary to get some sense of the musical line.

For that reason, I cannot comment on the opera’s musical quality; most of it seems dull, but a better recording might reveal surprising beauties. (MM. Rousset and Niquet…?) The overture is terrific; otherwise, the major pieces seem to be a duet in Act II and Dircé’s aria in Act III. Osmide’s aria at the end of Act II and the chorus in Act III’s temple scene might also be effective.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Castil-Blaze, “Cherubini”, Revue de Paris, 1833
  • Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
  • Benoît Duteurtre, texte de présentation, Lodoïska, Ambroisie / Naïve (Palazzetto Bru Zane), 2010
  • F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
  • Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
  • Arthur Pougin, “Cherubini: Sa vie, ses œuvres, son rôle artistique : IV”, Le Ménestrel, 9 October 1881

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