177. Le calife de Bagdad (Boieldieu)

  • Opéra-comique in 1 act
  • Composer: Adrien Boieldieu
  • Libretto: Claude Godard d’Aucour de Saint-Just
  • First performed: Opéra-Comique (1re salle Favart), 16 September 1800

SETTING: Mediaeval Baghdad

CHARACTERS: ISAUUN, the Caliph (tenor); ZÉTULBÉ, a young woman of Bagdhdad (soprano); LÉMAÏDE (mezzo), her mother; KÉSIE (soprano), her friend; a JUDGE (tenor)

ORIGINAL CAST: Jean Elleviou as Isauun; Mme Gavaudan (Alexandrine-Marie-Agathe Gavaudan-Ducamel) as Zétulbé; Louise Dugazon as Lémaïde; Philis as Késie; ? as the judge.


The young Boieldieu

Boieldieu was the leading French opéra-comique composer of his generation. He returned to the lighter style of Grétry after the Sturm and Drang of Cherubini and Méhul, and the terrors of the Revolution. He is best known for the delightful Dame blanche (1825), one of the most popular operas of the century, performed more than 1600 times in Paris by 1900.

Boieldieu was born in Rouen in 1775; after an early success with an opéra-comique there, he came to Paris at only 19 to seek his fortune in the capital. That fortune eluded him, at first; to survive, he worked as a piano tuner, while he made the acquaintance of Méhul and Cherubini, and wrote romances for the salons. (For these, his publisher paid him the measly sum of 12 francs a piece.) His operatic career in Paris began with La Dot de Suzette (1795), which succeeded (according to Fétis) because of its grace and freshness. An opera a year followed: some, like Zoraïme et Zulnare (1798), pleased; others failed.

Huet as the Calife –
lithog. by Franque Noël ; after a drawing by L. Marin

Le Calife de Bagdad was Boieldieu’s seventh opera for Paris, an Arabian Nights fantasy. The Caliph of Baghdad, Isauun, is in the habit of disguising himself while he seeks adventure. His nom de guerre is Il Bondocani; all the soldiers and guards know to obey a man bearing that title. Attired in common garb, the Caliph rescues Zétulbé and her mother Lémaïde from brigands in the desert. Each night for a month, he has appeared under Zétulbé’s window while she strums her lute. The caliph longs to marry her, but wants to be loved for himself, not for his position. Incognito, he asks Lémaïde for her daughter’s hand – but the good woman suspects the young man is a brigand chief. So too do the local militia, tipped off by the Emir, whose offer of marriage Zétulbé rejected, and who now wants revenge. Il Bondocani and the two women are nearly arrested – but the Caliph reveals himself, and raises Zétulbé to the throne.

Complete opera, conducted by Louis Fourestier, with Jean Giraudeau, Christiane Eda-Pierre, Jane Berbié, Jeannine Collard, and Jean-Paul Vaquelin

Le Calife made Boiëldieu successful in France, Fétis wrote – although he preferred the earlier Zoraïme and Beniowsky. Everyone, though, expected Le Calife to fail. The general rehearsal was a disaster; the audience declared the work improbable, absurd, impossible; and the singers tried to comfort themselves as best they may.

On the opening night, Boieldieu hid himself in the prompter’s box. Without being seen, Dénis (Le Nouvelliste, 1852) writes, he could follow the course of the battle in which he had staked his fortune, and where his defeat was predicted.

The overture received thunderous applause; Boieldieu couldn’t believe his ears – but this, he felt, didn’t mean anything. That was only the overture; the play itself would be the killer. But the audience loved it. They applauded every number. They found it charming and amusing. And from that night, Boiëldieu was popular.

The work endured in the Opéra-Comique’s repertoire; it was performed nearly 800 times. (Clément gives the figure of 671 times by 1876.) The piece was resurrected in the 1860s, and again for Boieldieu’s centenary. Clément called it a delicious fantasy (elsewhere, though, he complains of the childish simplicity of the libretto, a suite of quiproquos without interest). Eugène Tarbé (Figaro, 1867) thought his forefathers showed their taste in loving the work. “It’s as witty and gay as can be; and a miracle, when one thinks this operetta dates from the very start of the century! The music is fresher and younger than that of many new operas.” Albert de Lassalle (Le monde illustré, 1867) was more balanced; one shouldn’t expect the beautiful melodic lines, passion and elegance of form of Boieldieu’s later works, he warned his readers, but it showed a talent that would produce beautiful fruit.

The opera is good-humoured, but modern listeners will probably find the instrumentation, harmony, and melodies too simple for their taste. The French public of the time, however, liked that simplicity, Hequet noted; they only understood melody; dissonances, modulations, harmonic progressions, counterpoint, and accompaniments alarmed them. Even the great Cherubini they respected rather than admired.

Cherubini himself was not impressed with the work. ‘Wretch! Aren’t you ashamed of this undeserved triumph?’ he thundered. According to Adolphe Adam, Boieldieu admitted his lack of technique, and took lessons from the Italian. Fétis, Boieldieu’s pupil, disagrees; Boieldieu never attempted the counterpoint and fugue studies he should have taken with Cherubini, and even avowed his ignorance of that part of musical science.

The overture is a lively piece in the Turkish style, full of percussion in the line of Mozart’s Seraglio overture; Hequet thought it poorly orchestrated, but found the melodies exquisite, graceful, and full of Oriental voluptuousness. The opening duet (No. 1: ‘Allons, un peu de complaisance’) is brisk but naïve.

Madame Boulanger as Késie –
engraving by Bovinet after Gabriel

The maid Késie’s aria (No. 3 : ‘De tous les pays, pour vous plaire’) was the opera’s hit number; in it, the soprano imitates women and music styles from different countries: the flighty French, a heavily ornamented Italian cantabile, a Spanish dance, the plaintive Scots, a German waltz, and the indolent English. With its variety of forms and ingenuity, Gautier (Journal officiel de la république française, 1875) thought this marked the moment in opéra-comique when virtuosity became an important part of success.

In the trio (No. 3: ‘Voyez, voyez’), the horns playfully imitate the beating of the lovers’ heartbeats. Zétulbé’s romance (No. 4: ‘Depuis le jour où son courage’) is unmemorable; Hequet judged it mediocre. Rather better are the chorus (No. 6 : ‘C’est ici le sejour des grâces’), and the Caliph’s attractive couplets (in No. 6: ‘Pour obtenir celle qu’il aime’). The jaunty finale (No. 7 : ‘Au choix de votre maître’) ends the opera on a cheerful note.

Boieldieu himself had a run-in with Il Bondocani, a prince in disguise while on an amatory adventure. Lassalle tells the story. The scene takes place in 1815, when Paris was in the power of the Allies after the catastrophe at Waterloo. Boieldieu was enamoured of Mlle X, a singer at the Feydeau theatre. While leaving her house one evening, he met a gentleman preparing to enter it.

This intruder was really the Emperor of Russia disguised as a simple citizen, veiled by the incognito which is the amusement and respite of sovereigns. [Note: From 1805 to 1811, Boieldieu worked in St Petersburg as chapel master to Alexander I.]

But Boieldieu did not at first recognize his rival, and in his jealous anger, he tried to block his way.

“Where are you going? Who are you here to see? And above all, who are you?”

The Emperor knew who he was dealing with; and besides, like a good Russian, he knew by heart all the French opéras-comiques. He answered: “I am Il Bondo Cani!”

The allusion was delicate and contained all the balms which, by exalting the artist’s self-esteem, could heal the heart of the injured lover.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
  • Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
  • A. Denis, “Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique: Représentation extraordinaire au bénéfice de l’œuvre des secours à domicile. – Reprises du Tableau Parlant et du Calife de Bagdad”, Le Nouvelliste, 29 April 1852
  • F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
  • Eugène Gautier, “Revue musicale : Opéra-Comique. – Centenaire de Boieldieu. – Reprise du Calife de Bagdad et du Nouveau seigneur. – Martin. – La dame blanche. – La messe de la Trinité. – Manfred, par Robert Schumann.”, Journal officiel de la République française, 28 December 1875
  • G. Hequet, A. Boieldieu: Sa vie et ses œuvres, Paris : Heugel et Cie., 1864
  • Albert de Lassalle, “Chronique musicale : Fantaisies Parisiennes : Le Calife de Bagdad, opéra-comique en un acte de Saint-Just, musique de Boieldieu. – L’Amour mannequin, operette en un acte de M. Jules Ruelle, musique de M. Gallyot – La messe de M. Théodore de Lajarte,” Le monde illustré, 23 March 1867
  • Eugène Tarbé, “Fantaisies Parisiennes : Le Calife de Bagdad, de Boieldieu. – L’Amour mannequin, operette en un acte, de M. Jules Ruelle, musique de M. Gallyot”, Figaro, 18 March 1867

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