175. Adrien (Méhul)

  • Opéra in three acts
  • Composer : Étienne Méhul
  • Libretto : François-Benoît Hoffmann, after Metastasio’s Adriano in Siria
  • First performed : Théâtre de la République et des Arts, Paris, 16 Prairial, An VII (4 June 1799)

SETTING: Syria, 2nd century AD

CHARACTERS : ADRIEN (Hadrian), emperor of Rome (haute-contre = tenor); FLAMINIUS, a consul, his friend (basse-taille = bass-baritone); SABINE, a Roman noblewoman, betrothed to Hadrian (soprano); RUTILE, a military tribune (basse-taille = bass-baritone); COSROÈS (Osrhoes), king of the Parthians (basse-taille = bass-baritone); EMIRÈNE, his daughter (soprano); PHARNASPE, a Parthian prince, betrothed to her (haute-contre = tenor)

ORIGINAL CAST: Étienne Lainé as Adrien, Lays as Flaminius, Marie-Thérèse Maillard as Sabine, Moreau as Rutile, Cheron as Cosroès, Mme Cheron as Emirène, Jean-Joseph Rousseau as Pharnaspe


Hadrian was one of the great Roman emperors: an intellectual, a Hellenophile, a traveller, an art lover. Moderns have found him a sympathetic, humanist figure, notably in Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoires; musicians like Rufus Wainwright are intrigued by his tragic love for the Bithynian youth Antinous.

We get little sense of Hadrian here, though; Méhul’s opera, based on Metastasio’s libretto Adriano in Siria, has nothing to do with the man, and little to do with any historical incident. This Hadrian is a stock tyrant, in love with the daughter of his enemy, the Parthian king Cosroès. He could be Trajan or Titus or any of the soldier emperors. The characters and incidents are entirely conventional, up to the king’s magnanimous change of heart.

It took seven years for Adrien to reach the stage. Méhul wrote it in the early 1790s; the piece was rehearsed in 1792, but the Commune de Paris stopped the production, claiming the poem was too Royalist. It ends, after all, with the chorus wanting Hadrian to reign over them forever, ever victorious. Hardly an appropriate sentiment for the Revolution. Rumours even ran around Paris that Marie-Antoinette’s horses would draw the emperor’s chariot. The painter David proclaimed that the Commune would sooner set fire to the Opéra than see kings triumph.

Those principles still held in 1799. The Directoire ordered the work withdrawn after the fourth performance. It was remounted in February 1800, and, with further changes, in December 1801, for a further two performances. Castil-Blaze suggests Adrien succeeded entirely, but was pulled off by government order; Fétis thought it obtained only a succès d’estime: without spectacle or dance, it couldn’t last on stage.

Altogether, it was only performed 20 times, and the score was never published. It was largely forgotten until the Palazzetto Bru Zane resurrected it in 2012, with György Vashegyi conducting the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra, Philippe Do in the title role, Gabrielle Philponet as Émirène, Jennifer Borghi as Sabine, and Philippe Talbot as Pharnaspe.

The score is severe, terse – and rather boring. Too much of it consists of dry recitative, lasting up to five or even six and a half minutes at a stretch. Some of it is tuneful – Fétis thought it equalled Gluck’s – but the overall effect is monotonous.

In composing Adrien, Castil-Blaze wrote, Méhul innovated nothing; the score was well-made music in a bad system. Gluck had regenerated the Opéra 20 years before; Méhul thought it had reached perfection, and contented himself with following in the footsteps of the great German, and those of Piccinni and Sacchini. Castil-Blaze found in the opera five arias for women of a uniform shape and character, a couple of beautiful choruses, but little melody. Fétis, on the other hand, thought the score was worthy of Méhul’s genius: a multitude of new effects, admirable choruses, and that impressive recitative.

The overture – which Castil-Blaze thought the best part of the opera – comes from Horatius Coclès (1794); it is a grand, austere piece, opening with a roll of percussion and a repeated, rising blast of trumpets. In it, we can hear the majesty of Rome.

There are few numbers in Act I. We note a brief, lyrical aria for Adrien, ‘Belle captive, apaisez vos alarmes’, declaring his love for Emirène. The finale is spectacular. The Parthians attack the city of Antioch. The public flee in terror; vestals and priests pray for delivery. The Roman army tries to hold off the invaders; their engineers sap the bridge, which collapses under the Parthians, who tumble into the river. Their chief is captured, and the Romans celebrate their victory. The massive number calls for three choruses and five soloists, attaining, Dratwicki noted, a maximum volume that was unbelievable at the time.

Act II takes place on a mountain in Syria. Emirène begs for Pharnaspe’s life in the dramatic ‘S’il périt, hélas!’. Adrien’s aria ‘Oui, vous voyez mon trouble extrême’ is dramatic and turbulent, with sudden leaps into the tenor’s upper register; the part almost calls for a heldentenor, and looks forward to the grand opéra roles created by Adolphe Nourrit in the 1820s and ’30s. We also find Sabine’s imperious, menacing ‘De Rome craignez la colère’; the lovely duet ‘Ô du sort fortuné retour!’; and an effective invocation scene as the Parthians plot to murder Adrien, with an eerie, sotto voce chorus. The finale is noisy and conventional.

Air de Sabine – “De Rome craignez la colère”. Soprano: Jennifer Borghi.

In Act III, we find an impressive choral scene (‘Règne à jamais, règne sur nous’) as the Romans celebrate Adrien’s victory; the delicate women’s chorus is particularly lovely. Nevertheless, the stereotyped characters, slow pace, and lack of melodic inspiration make this opera disappointing.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Castil-Blaze, “Méhul”, Revue de Paris, 1834 (two parts)
  • Alexandre Dratwicki, “Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: Adrien (1791)”, article accompanying CD, conductor György Vashegyi, Palazzetto Bru Zane / / Ediciones Singulares, 2014.
  • F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869

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