L’IRATO, OU L’EMPORTÉ
- Opéra bouffon in 1 act
- Composer: Méhul
- Libretto: B.J. Marsollier
- First performed: Théatre Favart, Paris, 17 February 1801
SETTING: The garden of Pandolphe’s country house near Florence
CHARACTERS: PANDOLPHE, a bad-tempered old man (bass); LYSANDRE, his nephew (tenor); SCAPIN, Lysandre’s servant (bass); ISABELLE, niece of Pandolphe’s dead wife (soprano); NÉRINE, her maid (soprano); Dr. BALOUARD, Lysandre’s former tutor (tenor)
ORIGINAL CAST: Jean-Pierre Solié as Pandolphe ; Jean Elleviou as Lysandre ; Marzen as Scapin ; Mme Philis as Isabelle ; Mme Pingenet, ainée as Nérine ; Dozainville (Baptiste-Pierre Dardel) as Balouard
Napoleon preferred Italian opera buffa to French opera. He complained, for instance, of Cherubini’s noisy accompaniments, so different from the sweet lullabies of Paisiello. “I understand,” Cherubini retorted; “you like music that doesn’t prevent you from thinking of affairs of state.” Or, according to another version: “Yes, because it doesn’t stop you from thinking of other things!”
The premier consul got on rather better with Méhul. The two men were friends, Napoleon’s harpist, Alvimare, remembered. “Bonaparte loved Méhul not only for his great talent, but even more as a man of wit and learning. He liked to chat with him and talk about music. [But] he reproached the Conservatoire and Méhul himself for having adopted a sort of Teutonic composition, more scientific than graceful, and trying to make music loud rather than lovely.”
In 1800, a troupe of Italian singers performed Cimarosa’s Matrimonio segreto in Paris. Like La serva padrona had half a century before, the Italian farce caused a furore – and rekindled the hoary old debate about Italian versus French opera. The dilettanti and the journalists disparaged any opera that wasn’t written by an Italian – including Méhul’s.
If Italian opera was what they wanted, Méhul must have thought, then by Jove he’d give them an Italian opera. He presented L’irato as a French translation of an opera buffa by one ‘Signor Forelli’, given in Naples 15 years before.
A bad-tempered old man (buffo bass, of course) blocks the happiness of two young lovers; he disinherits his nephew, and wants to marry his ward off to an elderly doctor. But a clever servant eventually wins him round.
L’Irato should not, though, be dismissed as a mere pastiche; it’s one of Méhul’s most enjoyable operas, skillfully composed, full of good tunes and contrapuntal cleverness.
The overture is good-humoured but conventional; Castil-Blaze judged it feeble. Scapin’s allegro aria ‘Promenerons nous bien longtemps?’ makes little impression. Much better is the tenor / bass duet ‘Jurons! Jurons de les aimer!’; the solemn adagio opening is a lovely inspiration. This was one of the hit numbers, and was popular even 25 years later. Scaphin’s bravura aria ‘Mais que dis-je?’ is a knowing nod to operatic convention; the singer even points out the recitative, cantabile, and ritornello. Pandolphe’s ‘Ah, les maudites gens’ is a rather standard buffo bass aria. Castil-Blaze, though, says it is distinguished by excellent orchestral details; its dramatic effect is certain when performed perfectly.
The quartet ‘Ô ciel, que faire’ is the principal number in the work, much admired by Clément, Fétis, and Castil-Blaze. It is a deft, witty ensemble. Castil-Blaze called it the best piece of this sort the French school had produced – but this was in 1834. Isabelle’s rondeau ‘J’ai de la raison’, apparently in the style of Dalayrac, is rather delightful. So too are Lysandre’s couplets ‘Si je perdais mon Isabelle’, especially the exquisite opening. The drinking trio ‘Femme jolie et du bon vin’ is another tuneful number. The finale consists of a tiny chorus and a masterly ensemble which, as the genre-savvy Scapin points out, mounts to a crescendo to express joy.
The performance was a success. “That’s how Méhul should compose!” the critic Geoffroi remarked. Napoleon himself was there; he heartily applauded, and declared that no French composer could write such charming music. The public called for the author – and onto the stage stepped the very French Méhul. “Deceive me often like that!” the good-humoured consul said.
Alvimare believed Méhul wanted to please Napoleon by writing a light, tuneful work in the Italian manner. The composer dedicated the score to the premier consul. “Your interviews on music inspired me to compose some works in a less severe style than those I have given so far. I made the choice of l’Irato; that attempt was successful. I owe you this tribute.”
Some critics (Berlioz among them) thought Méhul wanted to confound the First Consul and his entourage, who refused any melodic faculties to Méhul. Johannes Weber, though, considered this unlikely; mocking Napoleon was too dangerous a game. Fétis and Castil-Blaze thought Méhul played the trick to satirise Italian opera, detesting what he imitated; but L’irato, Fétis thought, lacked the verve of real Italian operas. Weber dismisses as absurd the suggestion that Méhul merely wanted to pastiche or parody Italian music.
Some people, though, thought Méhul had abandoned the serious genre to which he seemed dedicated. “They congratulate me,” the irritated composer wrote, “and l’Irato receives their praise all the more as it serves them to condemn my other works. I must warn them not to hasten to boast of my conversion; I belong to no party, and don’t want to enlist in any. I do not know in Music any genre enemy of another, if everything tends towards making it at the same time more pleasant and more true. I believe that this art has a nobler purpose than that of tickling the ear, and that it is not doomed to never be anything but loveable. Music is always subordinated to Drama, and the choice of colours is controlled by the drawing that must be coloured. If the music of l’Irato does not look like what I have composed so far, that is because l’Irato does not resemble any of the works that I have treated. I know that popular taste seems to prefer purely graceful Music, but taste has never demanded that truth must be sacrificed to grace.”
Listen to: Alain Buet (Pandolphe), Cyril Auvity (Lysandre), Miljenko Turk (Scapin), Pauline Courtin (Isabelle), Svenja Hempel (Nérine), and Georg Poputz (Balouard), with Werner Ehrhardt conducting the Bonner Kammerchor and L’Arte del Mondo. Capriccio, 2006.
- Antoine-Vincent Arnault, Nécrologie : Notice sur M. Méhul, n.d.
- Hector Berlioz, “Les opéras de Méhul (Deuxième article)”, Le Nouvelliste, 9 September 1851
- Castil-Blaze, “Méhul” (two parts), Revue de Paris, 1834
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- Johannes Weber, “Critique musicale : Méhul, sa vie, son génie, son caractère, par M. A. Pougin”, Le Temps, 11 March 1889