- Opéra-comique in 1 act
- Composer: Étienne Nicolas Méhul
- Libretto : François-Benoit Hoffman, after De Dea Syria (attributed to Lucan)
- First performed : Opéra-Comique (1re sale Favart), Paris, by the Comédiens Italiens ordinaires du Roi, 3 May 1792, conducted by Frédéric Blasius
SETTING: The king’s palace at Damascus, in Antiochus’s room
CHARACTERS: SÉLEUCUS, King of Syria (taille = baritenor); ANTIOCHUS, his son (haute-contre); STRATONICE, promised to Séleucus (soprano); ERASISTRATE, doctor (baritone)
Méhul commands respect rather than affection. He was the leading French composer of the Revolutionary age, and admired by Napoleon. He wrote the Chant du départ, the anthem of the First Empire, nicknamed “the brother of the Marseillaise”; he was the first musician appointed to the Institut de France (Académie des Beaux-Arts) in 1795, and the first to receive the Légion d’honneur in 1794. But he is almost forgotten now.
“Méhul in his time was one of our most profound harmonists,” the anonymous critic of Le Corsaire wrote in 1830. “Rigorous observer of the rules of his art, he applied himself to create new and bold combinations without ever sacrificing the correctness of the drawing; he knew the power of imitative song; he knew that the musical expression must follow and reinforce the dramatic situation – so that the most intrepid arrangers fought in vain to draw a single contredanse from his severe compositions.”
Pougin (Annales politiques et littéraires, 1892) praised Méhul as one of the greatest of French musicians, embodying the national genius of vigorous conciseness, elegance, and beautiful language. Wagner considered him one of the three masters who continued and developed Gluck’s reform. (The others were Cherubini and Spontini.)
Méhul’s most acclaimed works are Euphrosine et Corradin (1790), his first opera, with the same story as Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran; Stratonice (1792), which we discuss below; Mélidore et Phrosine (1794), a pre-Wagnerian drama of incest and leitmotifs; Adrien (1799), which we will discuss next month; Ariodant (1799), his favourite opera, based on Ariosto; and the Biblical opera Joseph (1807), performed in Germany until the end of the 19th century.
None of Méhul’s works remain in the repertoire. A few have been sporadically recorded – most recently, Bru Zane has recorded Adrien and the Ossian drama Uthal (1806), infamous for its absence of violins. But, as Le Gaulois wrote in 1917, the dust lies thick on his sleeping scores. And has done now for two centuries.
I confess that I find Méhul rather cold. His music seems skillful, but academic rather than inspired. The expression is true and vigorous, as Pougin suggests; his music is more robust than Grétry’s; his harmonies and orchestration are effective – but his strength was not in melody. Few tunes (other than that famous Chant du départ) linger. Even ‘famous’ pieces like the quartets in Stratonice or l’Irato, the battle scene in Adrien, or, Fétis suggests, the duet in Euphrosine et Corradin succeed because of how Méhul constructs and assembles his material, rather than the quality of the material itself.
Berlioz made a similar criticism. He praised Méhul’s “passionate energy”; his conviction that the music for an opera should relate to the sentiment expressed in the words; and his understanding that musical expression did not depend on melody alone, but on harmony, modulation, rhythm, orchestration, the choice of the upper or the lower register of voices and instruments, the speed or slowness of execution, and the different shades of dynamics in the production of sound. In this, Berlioz wrote, Méhul belonged to the school of Gluck.
“But his style, more studied and polished, and more academic than that of the German master, was also much less grandiose, less striking, and less pungent. You will find there far fewer of those immense shafts of light which penetrate to the depth of the soul. And then, if I may make this confession, I find Méhul rather short of ideas. The music he wrote was excellent, truthful, pleasant, beautiful, and moving, but cautious to the point of austerity. His muse shows intelligence, spirit, warmth and beauty; but she preserves the looks of a housewife, her dress is grey and lacks fullness, and she cherishes parsimony.”
In the opera-cum-oratorio Joseph, Berlioz thought Méhul handled the orchestra with perfect tact and common sense. “There is not one instrument too many, and not a single note is out of place. But this same orchestra’s studied soberness lacks colour and even energy. You miss movement and that indefinable element which generates life.”
Méhul was born in the French Ardennes, in the town of Givet, the son of a cook. He learnt music from a blind organist. (So it’s true; handling your organ does make you go blind.) The young man greatly admired Gluck. He attended the first performance of Iphigénie en Tauride (according to one story, he hid in the theatre the night before). The great composer took the provincial youth under his wing, and taught him how to write operas. When Méhul felt ready, he submitted Alonzo et Cora to the Opéra; the work wasn’t performed for another six years – once he had made a name for himself. Disappointed but undaunted, Méhul next tried the Opéra Comique.
Euphrosine et Corradin was a brilliant success, and made Méhul famous overnight. It showed Méhul’s strengths and defects, Fétis judged: a noble song, but sometimes lacking elegance; instrumentation more brilliant and strongly conceived than anything heard in France before, but too much attachment to certain forms of accompaniment that were endlessly reproduced; a just sense of dramatic propriety; and above all a great energy in painting strong situations. Grétry was stupefied and impressed; he called one duet perhaps the most beautiful effect that ever existed. “It excites you throughout all its length; the explosion at the end seems like the theatre roof crashing down on the spectators’ heads.”
Méhul had accomplished in the opéra-comique the same revolution that Gluck had accomplished in the opera, Massenet (Ménestrel, 1892) judged. “To Grétry’s ariettes, his more masculine accents followed; even abandoning the friendly little flute that reigned supreme at the Salle Favart, he was not afraid to give voice to the epic trumpet.”
Stratonice was one of Méhul’s most highly regarded works, following the success of Euphrosine and the failure of Alonzo et Cora (1791).
The story takes place in ancient Syria. Antiochus, the handsome, popular prince, has taken to his death-bed. The reason? He loves Stratonice, the girl who will marry his father, King Séleucus, and who will become his step-mother. A shrewd doctor listens to his heartbeat, diagnoses the complaint, and invents a cure. (In Lucan’s original version, Stratonice was already the prince’s stepmother.)
Cherubini thought it Méhul’s masterpiece. “It lacks nothing; it is a work of genius.” The opera attained 200 performances during Méhul’s lifetime; it was so successful the Opéra staged it at same time the Favart continued to give it. The music, the Journal des débats wrote at the time, is very plaintive, very expressive; audiences heartily applauded the numbers.
The French playwright Antoine-Vincent Arnault (Nécrologie), Méhul’s collaborator on Mélidore et Phrosine, called it a perfect work. The libretto was witty, graceful, and sensitive; Méhul rivalled Sacchini in his melody, and Gluck in his ingenuity and the rich harmony of his accompaniments. In his Notice historique (1819), Quatremère-de-Quincey called the arias noble and expressive; the accompaniments rich without luxury; and the harmony, skillfully treated, united with the melody.
A modern listener would probably find it slightly tepid. It is high-minded, but lacks passion and melody.
The overture (No. 1) is sombre and powerful – not what one would expect from an opéra-comique; it resembles Grétry less than Gluck or even Beethoven. Castil-Blaze called it beautiful, vigorous, full of passion and vehemence, but the little andante it starts with reminded him of the overture of Gluck’s Alceste.
The opera opens with a serene chorus (No. 2: ‘Ciel, ne sois point inexorable!’), again rather in the manner of Gluck. In Antiochus’s aria (No. 3: ‘Oui, c’en est fait!’), he resolves to take his feelings to the tomb, rather than suffer or cause his father unhappiness. The piece is powerful and psychologically penetrating; we feel we are eavesdropping on the young man’s torment. Castil-Blaze thought it lacked melody, but found it very dramatic.
Séleucus’s aria (No. 4: ‘Versez tous vos chagrins’) was one of the best-known pieces from the opera; it was often performed at concerts and salons, above all by the singer Ponchard. The Journal des débats (1825) considered it one of the most beautiful arias in the French repertoire. It makes little impression; fatherly tenderness, yes, but it is simple and slightly tuneless.
The ensemble is the most famous piece in the opera; it begins as a duet (No. 5: ‘Parlez, parlez. Achevez de m’apprendre’) as Érasistrate examines his patient, and becomes a trio when the king enters (No. 6: ‘Je ne puis resister à mon impatience’), then a quartet (No. 7: ‘Je tremble, mon cœur palpite’). This was the most extended number ever performed on the French stage, lasting 12 minutes. It is well-constructed, but doesn’t set the pulse racing.
Clément said its nobility and magnitude gave it a place among the masterpieces. Fétis agreed that its breadth, nobility, harmonic effects were worthy of the highest praise. On the other hand, he thought, Méhul’s faults also stood out. Nothing was heavier, more monotonous, than the ground bass accompanied by a kind of flowery counterpoint reproduced endlessly; nothing more scholastic than these accompaniments of a single motif (from a sol passo) which stubbornly pursue the listener. The whole piece was beautiful, estimable in several respects, but this effort stuck out and harmed spontaneous inspiration. Nevertheless, Fétis concluded, the merits were great enough to forgive the weaknesses.
Érasistrate’s andante (No. 8: ‘Ô des amants déité tutélaire’) is warm and sympathetic. The brief finale (No. 9: ‘Ô mon fils, quel moment pour moi’) consists of an andante and an allegro. Surprisingly, Stratonice, although the title role, has no aria of her own; she takes part in the ensembles in the middle and at the end of the opera.
Stratonice does offer, though, a rare opera in which everyone is good. Opera characters are usually selfish or obsessive; they are, as Peter Conrad argues, pure Id. Here, they are willing to sacrifice their happiness and lives for others. Antiochus loves his father’s betrothed, but would rather die than admit it, or be a rival to his father; Stratonice loves the prince, but is honour bound to love her husband-to-be; and Séleucus chooses paternal love over erotic love.
It’s a very eighteenth-century attitude: reason and benevolence triumph over self-interest and passion. It also depicts a king who chooses the good of others over his happiness, and ends with general forgiveness. Could Stratonice be a remnant of the Constitution? The opera was performed in May 1792, nearly a year after Louis XVI and his family tried to flee France; eight months later, the National Convention condemned the king to death. Méhul himself seems to have had monarchist tendencies; his Jeunesse de Henri IV was staged in 1792, but the audience was outraged to see a prince (‘un tyran’) onstage. Their boos and hisses forced the opera to end halfway through; only the overture survived.
LISTEN TO: Yann Beuron (Antiochus), Étienne Lescroart (Séleucus), Karl Daymond (Erasistrate) and Patricia Petibon (Stratonice), with William Christie conducting Capella Coloniensis / Corona Coloniensis, Erato, 1996.
- Antoine-Vincent Arnault, Nécrologie: Notice sur M. Méhul, [1817 ?]
- M. Quatremère-de-Quincey, Secrétaire-perpétuel de l’Académie, Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Méhul, read at the Séance publique de l’Académie royale des beaux-arts, 2 October 1819
- X.X.X., “Chronique musicale : Stratonice – Les deux journées”, Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 28 August 1825
- [Anon.], “École royale de musique: Concert consacré à la mémoire de Méhul”, Le Corsaire, 11 March 1830
- Castil-Blaze, “Méhul”, Revue de Paris, 1834 (two parts)
- Hector Berlioz, “Les opéras de Méhul (deuxième article)”, Le Nouvelliste, 19 September 1851
- “Berlioz and Méhul”, The Hector Berlioz Website <http://www.hberlioz.com/Predecessors/mehul.htm>
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- J[ohannes] Weber, “Critique musicale: Méhul, sa vie, sa gloire, son caractère, par M. A. Pougin – La situation musicale à Londres”, Le Temps, 11 March 1889
- “Inauguration de la statue de Méhul à Givet”, Le Ménestrel, 9 October 1892
- Arthur Pougin, “Souvenirs contemporains : La statue de Méhul”, Annales politiques et littéraires, 16 October 1892
- C. de la Morlière, “Méhul”, Semaine des familles, 5 January 1895