171. Lodoïska (Cherubini)

  • Comédie héroïque in 2 acts
  • Composer: Luigi Cherubini
  • Libretto: Claude-François Filliette Loreaux after Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray’s Vie et amours du chevalier de Faublas
  • First performed: Théâtre Feydeau, Paris, 18 July 1791, conducted by La Houssaye.

CHARACTERS: LODOÏSKA(soprano); LYSINKA (soprano), her nurse; FLORESKI (tenor); TITZIKAN (tenor), Tatar leader; VARBEL (baritone), Floreski’s servant; DOURLINSKI (baritone), castellan of Poland; ALTAMORAS (bass), Dourlnski’s confidant

SETTING: Poland, 1600


Lodoïska is one of the most important works in the history of French opera. Giroud calls it the first Romantic opera, combining a dramatic plot and a musical language that drew both from the Italian tradition at its most melodic and Gluck’s innovations, albeit within a richer symphonic texture. Clément and Fétis thought that with it the Italian founded the ‘modern’ (i.e. 19th century) French school.

“Dramatic music in France entered a new path,” Clément wrote. “The effects of harmony and orchestration strengthened those of lyrical diction and melody. What Gluck had imagined in terms of passionate expression, what Mozart had constantly practised in his German or Italian operas, Cherubini raised to a principle. By the constancy and perfection of his beautiful works, he founded a school that was learned, conscientious, distinguished, and favourable to the development of the musicians’ imaginations. In writing Démophoon and Lodoïska, Cherubini opened the way to Méhul, Lesueur, and Spontini.” Modern listeners might add Rossini’s French operas, Meyerbeer, Halévy, and Berlioz. We can hear the germs of them here.

The opera is based on an anecdote in a popular novel of the day, Couvray’s Vie et amours du chevalier de Faublas. One of the first ‘rescue operas’, the story is pure melodrama: the hero and his cleverer servant rescue a maiden in peril from the clutches of a black-hearted, black-hatted aristocrat. Even critics of the time thought the libretto weak, but there was plenty to interest a Revolutionary audience: speeches about liberty, justice, and humanity; beautiful stage sets; a spectacular conflagration (just like the Bastille); and revolutionary-minded Tartars.

Riccardo Muti’s 1991 recording.

The story may resemble an early Hollywood swashbuckler, but it’s faster-paced, more action-driven, and more exciting than almost anything in opera hitherto. The score completely abandons the decorum of the Baroque and Classical periods; for the late 18th century audience, the opera must have seemed an onslaught on the senses.

Lodoïska fell like a thunderbolt, Crowest wrote. The “advanced harmonic combinations, brilliant, nay, even startling and realistic orchestral effects and tone colourings … mark a great artistic advance – a stride so vast that it is scarcely surprising that it caused alarm among the composers of the day.”

There is more power, more volume, more complexity, more energy, simply MORE of everything. (Poor Grétry’s opéras-comiques seem even more pallid next to it.) Cherubini whips the orchestra into a frenzy, builds up crescendo upon crescendo, and unleashes choruses and ensembles – but always with an intricacy of harmonic and orchestral detail that looks forward to Meyerbeer. The opéra comique of the 1790s is, in fact, the ancestor of the grand opéra of the 1830s.

“By the new forms he adopted in the score of Lodoïska, by the vigour of the work’s general conception, by the power he gave to his orchestra, by the truly architectural structure of this virile production of his genius,” Arthur Pougin wrote, “Cherubini posed as the resolute champion of the evolution which the French opéra-comique genre would undergo. Gluck had introduced dramatic truth, the study of situations and characters into the drame lyrique; Cherubini endeavoured to transport them onto the stage of the Théâtre Feydeau to the benefit of our musical comedy, which, with a few exceptions, had been distinguished only by finesse and wit, grace and tenderness, and which generally lacked ampleness and emotion.” (A year earlier, Fétis noted, Méhul laid the foundations of a more dramatic opéra-comique in Euphrosine et Coradin, a work that stupefied and impressed Grétry.)

Lodoïska, Carlez (1866) wrote, is the departure point, the prototype of what we call musique d’effet, musique sombre. The numbers are huge in proportion, and their main idea is developed with extreme care. [Heine, I’m reminded, later admiringly compared Meyerbeer’s Huguenots to a Gothic cathedral: a giant in the conception and forming of the whole, a dwarf in the laborious execution of details.] The melody is large, sometimes expressive, but often having the character of a measured recitative, in that it is subordinated to the harmonies and instruments, which gives the whole the appearance of symphonic music doubled by singing.


The story takes place in 17th century Poland, on the borders of Russia, in and around the castle of the wicked Baron Dourliski. He is an utter rotter: ‘un scélérat, l’horreur de cette contrée, l’oppresseur de tous ceux qui l’environnent, et qui gémissent sous le poids de sa tyrannie…’ The prince Altanno, for some reason, thought Dourlinski a suitable person to entrust his daughter Lodoïska to. The girl was engaged to Count Floreski, an aristocrat but a liberal; when Floreski voted in the Diet for the people’s rights against Altanno, the enraged nobleman broke off the engagement (hiss! boo!), and hid his daughter away. Now Floreski and his servant Varbel are searching the country for Lodoïska.

Ignazio Degotti’s set design for Act I

Act I takes place in the forest of Ostropol, outside the castle; it is night. When the curtain rises, the Tartar band steal towards the castle; their leader Titzikan has vowed to capture the Baron. They are true Revolutionaries, these tribesmen. All Dourlinski’s vassals secretly long for vengeance, and only await an intrepid leader to shake off their yoke; Titzikan wants to be the happy mortal who will restore liberty to men whose virtue is only sleeping. ‘Ils combattront pour eux, pour leurs droits, pour la liberté enfin ! … et le tyran disparoitra du monde, en acquittant, par son trépas, les crimes dont il aura souillé son odieuse vie.’

Floreski and his servant Varbel enter, searching for Lodoïska. The Tartars challenge the travelers to combat; Floreski defeats the chieftain and spares his life, whereupon the two combatants become firm friends. Lodoïska hears her lover’s voice, and urges him to escape; he resolves to rescue her. Disguised as emissaries from her father, master and servant enter the castle.

The picturesque chorus of bandits (No. 1: ‘Approchez sans défiance’) looks forward to Auber. Titzikan reveals his plan in a rousing allegro maestoso aria (No. 2: ‘Triomphons avec noblesse!’), with an optional high C. Varbel’s aria (No. 3: ‘Voyez la belle beosgne’) is pure buffo, an Italianate allegro spiritoso. The most effective number in the act is the brisk quartet (No. 4: ‘Étrangers, n’ayez point d’alarmes’), which leads to the combat. The following trio and chorus (No. 5: ‘Jurons, quoiqu’il faille entreprendre’) is a model for the oath-swearing ensembles of grand opera, like the Rütli scene in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. No. 6 is marked ‘Polonaise’; it begins as one: Varbel’s charming ‘Souvent près d’une belle’; Floreski replies with a less interesting largo (‘Perdre ma belle? plutôt le jour’); Cherubini skillfully combines the two in an andantino duet. Lodoïska is heard for the first time in the finale (No. 7: ‘Floreski! Floreski!’); the syllabic and strongly rhythmic ensemble that closes the act is almost Meyerbeerian. Castil-Blaze (Revue de Paris, 1833) considered this finale a masterpiece of stagecraft. “The combination of drama and music has produced nothing more perfect.”

Act II – une galerie antique – François Verly, after Degotti, 1791

Acts II and III take place in an antique gallery inside the castle; the centre of the stage is dominated by an equestrian statue showing the tyranny of the master. He does his best to live up to the statue: when Lodoïska rejects his offer of marriage, he orders her to be locked away in the most secret part of the tower, without even her nurse to accompany her. Floreski and Varbel penerate the castle in their disguise, but the baron is suspicious, and orders his henchmen to serve them poisoned wine. The quick-thinking servant foxes them, swapping the flasks with a sleeping draught, so the henchmen fall unconscious. The travelers recover their weapons and try to escape, but are seized and disarmed by the guards.

The first three numbers are outbursts of anguish and anger: Lodoïska’s grand aria (No. 8), a rather dull larghetto (‘Que dis-je, ô ciel! si, contre mon attente’) and a wild allegro (‘Hélas, dans ce cruel asile’); Lodoïska and Dourlinski’s allegro spirituoso duo (No. 9: ‘À ces traits je connais ta rage’); and an explosive allegro vivace quartet (No. 10: ‘Non, non, perdez cette espérance’). The canonic trio (No. 11: ‘Ciel, ce que je lui propose’), an attractive andante sostenuto, is a moment of musical repose. Floreski’s allegro aria (No. 12: ‘Rien n’égale sa barbarie’) makes little impression.

The 16-minute Act II finale (No. 13: ‘Hélas qu’allons nous entreprendre’) is considered one of the musical and dramatic highlights of the work. The Journal des théâtres et des fêtes nationales (1794) called it a masterpiece of wit, grace, finesse, and harmonic effects; “this piece alone proves Cherubini one of the masters of the art”, while Carlez (1866) thought no finale so developed or skillful had appeared in French opera before. It contains an andante drinking quartet (No. 14: ‘Amis que ce divin breuvage’) and an allegro con moto intoxication scène (‘Bon! bon! les voila qu’ils y viennent’) which Castil-Blaze thought above all praise. The act ends in an exciting stretta.

Act II – François Verly, after Degotti, 1791

Act III takes place in the same gallery later that evening. Now Dourlinski has Floreski in his power, he will order Lodoïska to marry him to save her lover’s life. His allegro aria (No. 14: ‘Oui, par mon heureuse addresse’) is one of the more conventional numbers in the score. The wild leaps in Lodoïska’s aria (No. 15: ‘Tournez sur moi votre colère’), another allegro piece, show her desperation. The Baron’s accomplice Altamoras brings on Floreski; in a fine quartet (No. 16: ‘Quoi! t’unir à ce barbare?’), the two lovers resolve to die together rather than yield. The Baron orders the pair taken away to prison – but the Tartars burst in, and Titzikan frees Floreski. A symphonie guerrière depicts the fracas. The whole castle – fortifications, towers, ramparts – is on fire; the theatre is filled with Tartars fighting against Poles. Lodoïska is locked up in a tower; the fire spreads to her tower; she is about to die when Floreski, at the top of the fortress, crosses a bridge to rescue her. They return to the bridge, but it collapses under them; the two lovers fall into the arms of the Tartars. Dourlinski tries to stab Floreski, but Titzikan seizes the dagger. The finale (No. 17: ‘Tyran, au nombre de tes crimes’) follows at once: the Tartars chain up the baron and Altamoras, who will be sent to prison. The Tartars blow up the fortress with a mine; the Poles kneel, and the Tartars brandish their weapons as a sign of victory.


The work was a smash hit: performed 200 times in its first year, and 200 more times in the Revolutionary period.

“M. Cherubini’s score is comparable only to the most sublime achievements of the greatest masters,” the Almanach général de tous les spectacles (1792) proclaimed. “Never before have French ears heard more expressive and more characteristic music.” The public, Babault (Annales dramatiques) noted, rose after each piece to applaud their immortal author. “The music is ravishing, sublime; admirable ensembles, profound orchestration, astonishing verve, and extraordinary originality … all justify the popular enthusiasm.” The Journal de Paris (20 July 1791) praised the composer as a great master; Cherubini was a composer of infinite promise, but the critic was nonetheless amazed at the brilliant effects he gathered in profusion. “There are hardly any examples of a more vigorous or more fruitful talent.”

Cherubini’s fame spread to Germany, where 15 years later Haydn and Beethoven would hail him as the greatest dramatic composer of the age with Faniska. Weber praised Lodoïska and conducted it in 1817 and 1818. At the end of the century, Crowest ranked it with Don Giovanni as a work of “great life-giving properties – the deep grounded musical purpose and intent, the profound learning, combined with harmonic and melodic resource, the richness of fancy and idea, the command of vocal and instrumental forms, the grasp of happy periods and great dramatic situations – all this, and more.”

There are only two recordings; both are enjoyable, neither is perfect. Riccardo Muti’s 1991 Sony recording is exciting, has more first-class singers – including Mariella Devia in the title role, and Alsesandro Corbelli as Varbel – and records all the dialogue. But none of the cast are Francophones, and some speak it with an Italian accent. Jérémie Rhôrer’s 2013 Ambroisie / naïve recording has a cast of native speakers, but the Floreski is strained, and the dialogue heavily cut.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Anon., [Untitled review of Lodoïska], Journal des théâtres et des fêtes nationales, 1794.
  • Jules Carlez, “Les opéras qu’on ne joue plus: Lodoïska, de Cherubini”, La Semaine musicale, 4 January 1866
  • Castil-Blaze, “Cherubini”, Revue de Paris, 1833.
  • Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878.
  • Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869.
  • Frederick J. Crowest, The Great Musicians: Cherubini, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1890.
  • 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.
  • William Pencak, “Cherubini Stages a Revolution”, The Opera Quarterly, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 1 March 1991.
  • Arthur Pougin, “Cherubini : Sa vie, ses œuvres, son rôle artistique : VI”, Le Ménestrel, 6 November 1881.

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