- Comédie in 3 acts
- Composer: André Grétry
- Libretto: Michel-Jean Sedaine
- First performed: Comédie-Italienne, Paris, 2 March 1789
MAIN CHARACTERS: ISAURE (soprano); VERGY (tenor), a young nobleman; RAOUL de Carmantans (bass), her husband; OSMAN (tenor), Raoul’s servant; LE VICOMTE DE CARABI (tenor) and LE MARQUIS DE CARABAS (bass), Isaure’s brothers
TIME: The Middle Ages
Q: Sister Anne, Sister Anne, what do you see?
A: I see that horrid M. Grétry! He wants to make our flesh creep.
Grétry’s grisly adaptation of Perrault’s fairy tale shocked some audiences; nothing like it had ever been seen at the Comédie Italienne – and such an atrocious subject, the Mercure de France complained, should never be seen on the opera stage again.
The title character punishes the curiosity of women with murder; he has already killed three women before he marries his new bride Isaure. He keeps their remains in a locked cupboard – and gives the key to his wife to test her, with strict instructions not to open the door. She fails; her terrified scream shatters the classical pose of French opera. It has discovered terror and suspense; four months after the premiere, revolutionaries would storm the Bastille.
The painter Vernet had warned Grétry he would have to adopt the stronger, noisier style that had become fashionable. In Raoul Barbe-Bleue and the two operas that followed, Pierre le Grand and Guillaume Tell, Grétry sought to reinforce musical colour: developing the harmony and the orchestration, while keeping the song foremost.
Certainly, Grétry’s score is more robust than his earlier, rather anodyne opéra-comiques. The Baron Grimm, a severe critic, thought the music was more learned, the harmony less uniform, and the orchestration more varied and trimmer. The Journal de Paris noted that the music pleased greatly; there were pieces of heartbreaking pathos, grand arias, ensemble pieces, as well as great orchestral beauties, which excited the most lively applause.
The overture begins with a sly, stealthy largo like someone creeping down a tower staircase, then a sudden burst of horror (allegro maestoso) and a terrified, desperate rush to escape – without avail.
Raoul’s splendid entrance aria ‘Venez régner en souveraine’ bristles with martial vigour; Grétry, breaking the rules of harmony, used a bassoon playing fifths to make the audience shiver, and suggest that his proposal to Isaure is an invitation to have her throat cut. (Clément was unconvinced: Grétry’s music never made anybody shudder!)
Isaure’s grand aria anticipates the Jewel Song from Faust: a relatively unadorned larghetto expresses her resolve to stay true to her boyfriend Vergy, but Raoul’s gift of jewels seduce her; her aria glitters and sparkles with coloratura like the diamonds and emeralds that tempt her.
For light relief, a spot of drag: Vergy disguises himself as her sister. When Isaure discovers the dead bodies, the ‘siblings’ express their terror in a taut, nervous allegro agitato duet ‘Je me meurs!’, gasping broken phrases.
The third act contains an effective trio: Raoul has condemned his wife to death, and given her time to prepare her soul; she and Vergy anxiously spy out the window for rescue, while the husband (off-stage) roars for blood like an ogre.
The finale is startlingly urgent: knights (including the fathers of the murdered women) rush in, and kill Raoul before he can claim another victim; and there is a heroic cry of deliverance from tyranny. It’s Fidelio on a smaller scale.
While the score was praised, the gloomy story was greeted with reserve, Fétis wrote; it was performed only 15 times between its premiere and the end of 1789, but was revived in 1818 and in Vienna in 1840. Later critics were hostile towards the work. Fétis thought it a poor opera: too much of the fake sentiment common at the time; and too many trivial episodes not related to the action. Brenet thought the piece was badly written, poorly motivated, despite the dreadful tableaux that alarmed the audience. Clément considered it one of Grétry’s weakest works.
The work received its first performance in nearly two centuries in 2018; the CD, released in November, has an introduction by David Le Marrec, of the Carnets sur Sol website, praising its dramatic tension.
Chantal Santon-Jeffery (Isaure), François Rougier (Vergy), Matthieu Lécroart (Raoul), and Manuel Núñez Camelino (Osman), with Martin Wahlberg conducting Orkester Nord. Recorded Selbu, Norway, 2018. Aparté Music, 2019.
- Le Citoyen Grétry, Memoires ou essais sur la musique, Paris : Imprimerie de la République, An V
- Michel Brenet, Grétry : Sa vie et ses œuvres, Paris : Gauthier-Villars, 1884
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Henri de Curzon, Les musiciens célèbres : Grétry, Paris : Henri Laurens, 1907
- Ed. Fétis, Collection complète des œuvres de Grétry publiée par le gouvernement belge, XVIIIième livraison : Raoul Barbe-Bleue, Breitkopf & Hærtel, n.d.
- David Le Marrec, “Raoul Barbe-Bleue (de Grétry), un (terrifiant) opéra comique en (Mars) 1789“, Carnets sur Sol, 12 November 2019.
- David Le Marrec, “Raoul Barbe-Bleue, un opéra comique en (mars) 1789″, Aparté 2019.
- Édouard Regoir, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry : célèbre compositeur belge, Brussels : Schott frères, 1883