182. Joseph (Méhul)

  • Opéra biblique in 3 acts
  • Composer: Méhul
  • Libretto: Alexandre Pineu-Duval
  • First performed: Opéra-Comique (salle Feydeau), Paris, 17 February 1807

SETTING: Memphis

CHARACTERS: JACOB, shepherd of Hebron Valley (bass); JOSEPH, his son, minister of Egypt; BENJAMIN, his son (soprano); SIMÉON, his son (tenor); RUBEN and NEPHTALI, his sons; UTOBAL, confident of Joseph; a Guard Captain; Girls of Memphis; Seven sons of Jacob (mute); Israélites (mute)

ORIGINAL CAST: Jean-Pierre Solié as Jacob; Jean Elleviou as Joseph; Mme Gavaudan as Benjamin; Jean-Baptiste-Sauveur Gavaudan as Siméon; Pierre Gaveaux as Ruben; Paul as Nephthali; Darancourt as Utobal


Sublime élève d'Apollon,
Ô toi, dont l’Europe charmée
Inscrit la mémoire et le nom,
Aux fastes de la Renommée,
Nous sentons de Jacob la douleur paternelle:
De Benjamin, nous partageons le zèle;
De Siméon nous plaignons les transports...

the poet and future politician Guizot wrote in the Journal des Débats (26 February 1807) a few days after the premiere of Joseph. But the opera was critically admired rather than popular; it closed after 13 performances.

The same newspaper, reviewing the premiere (17 Feb 1807), thought the epic libretto was full of cold gibberish. “Vainly the throng crowds the doors of the theatre; vainly the composer, in his munificence, varies the tones of his harmonic palette, or sounds the horn like a wounded bull. I am convinced it is impossible that the Opéra-Comique theatre should harvest fruit from a thin, languid, boring drama, full of improbabilities and nonsense.”

Jean Elleviou as Joseph

The story is based on the Bible legend of Joseph, in Genesis. The lad is youngest son of the patriarch Jacob, and his father’s favourite. His jealous brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and convince their father that the boy is dead. Joseph prospers in Egypt, thanks to his oneiromantic skills, and becomes a prince there, under the name of Cleophas. Famine strikes Egypt and Israel; the wicked brothers come to Egypt seeking help; Joseph recognizes them, but does not reveal himself until the end of the opera. He persuades his father not to curse his children, and all are reunited.

The complete opera, featuring Laurence Dale, Frédéric Vassar, and René Massis, conducted by Claude Bardon

The libretto is, as the critic suggests, dull. This is an opera without action or dramatic tension; the only incident (the brothers’ crime) happens years before the opera starts. Castil-Blaze, although a friend and admirer of Méhul’s, complained that there was almost no interest in the booklet, the colour was uniform, and there was only one female role (playing the trousers role of Jacob’s little boy, Benjamin). “No music, however admirable, can be linked with impunity to such a foolish, childish poem,” Benoît Jouvin wrote in Figaro. “Méhul’s score, attached to Joseph’s libretto, is like a bird whose wings are trapped under a rock.”

Yet Joseph would become Méhul’s most famous opera. Almost a century later, at the unveiling of Méhul’s statue in his native Givet in 1892, Massenet praised it as an incomparable work that passes immutable through the ages in its eternal beauty. It was particularly popular in Germany; Weber (1817), Mahler (1883), and Strauss (1920) all conducted it. “To list all the merits of this magnificent musical poem, volumes would have to be written,” the composer of the Freischütz exclaimed.

Gavaudan as Siméon

Joseph was Méhul’s 27th opera. At this time, Castil-Blaze wrote, the composer tried to change his style. The German newspapers had hailed Cherubini as the most learned and greatest dramatic composer of his time, after the success of Faniska. Méhul, once as praised as Cherubini, publicly agreed with this praise – but, Castil-Blaze writes, his praise was not sincere; he feared he would be eclipsed by his rival.

Méhul set to work to acquire that knowledge of musical science which he lacked, and which Cherubini possessed in abundance. “He did not see that true skill in music consists less in remembering theoretical formulae than in knowing how to use scientific means, a familiarity that must be acquired in childhood, in order to be a scholar without thinking about it and without hindering the inspirations of genius.” The composer pored over treatises of fugue and counterpoint, and wrote harmonic progressions, just like a young pupil. “He did not become more learned,” Castil-Blaze regretted; “he lost the freedom of thought, and his own style, never noted for its lightness, grew even heavier. Stuffed with imitations and counterpoint, based on the scale, his accompaniments took on a tinge of monotony which spread over his last works.”

Joseph was written in that unhappy system, Castil-Blaze thought: the music is severe, often heavy; the colour firm; and the religious tint suits the Biblical subject – but one encounters the harmonist more than the genius. Berlioz thought Méhul pushed simplicity to dangerous limits. “Méhul treated the orchestra with perfect tact and respectable common sense; not one instrument is too much, none suggests an inappropriate note; but this orchestra, in its learned sobriety, lacks colour, energy, movement, that je ne sais quoi that makes an opera live.” Clément, on the other hand, admired the opera wholeheartedly: “Deep feeling, strong and sustained expression, a grandiose and severe style, finally orchestration of admirable clarity and limpidity, all these qualities combine to make a score we urge young musicians to study.”

It is difficult to get excited about the score of Joseph. The music is agreeable, serene and gentle, sometimes beautiful, but it never sets the pulse racing, and is hard to recall even after hearing the opera a few times. Unsurprisingly, this undramatic opera was often staged as an oratorio in Italy, Belgium, and Germany.

The overture is based on a theme from the cantique in Act II; Castil-Blaze praised its noble simplicity, while Jouvin joked that Méhul must have composed it in a nightmare when the science of Cherubini squatted on his chest, suffocating him.

Act I is set inside Joseph’s palace as minister of Egypt. In the first two numbers, Joseph remembers how his brothers sold him into slavery. Both are sweet, touching in a rather mild way. The adagio Air (No. 1: ‘Champs paternels’) was one of the most famous pieces from the opera, and survived as a repertoire piece.

The andante Romance (No. 2: ‘A peine au sortir de l’enfance’) was equally popular; Clément called it a masterpiece of taste, Castil-Blaze found it full of candour and naivety if monotonous, Jouvin thought its simplicity rather inane. Two ensembles form the musical interest of the rest of the act; neither make much impression. The wicked brothers enter to seek assistance from the Egyptians; Siméon is tormented by guilt, while his brothers urge him to keep silence (No. 3: ‘Non, l’eternel que j’offense’). The finale (No. 4) consists of a sextet and chorus: Joseph recognizes his brothers, masters his anger, aids them, and all praise this Egyptian minister’s goodness. Clément praised it as an admirable psychological study expressed as a harmonic progression; Jouvin acknowledged the beautiful scaffolding of learned harmony, but thought it much ado about nothing.

Act II set design. Source: Gallica

Act II begins, at night, in the Israelites’ camp outside Memphis. Joseph, wanting to see his father again, enters the camp; he is moved to hear the Jews pray. This cantique (No. 5: ‘Dieu d’Israël!’) is one of the finest pieces in the opera. Only accompanied by trumpets and horns, it begins as a chorus for men, is repeated by the women, and then by both sexes together. It was sung each year in the Conservatoire concerts; Clément called it one of the most beautiful effects one can hear at the theatre, while Jouvin thought it truly patriarchal and Biblical in style. This sort of plain-chant prayer chorus became a stock number in grand opera. Benjamin’s Romance (No. 6: ‘Ah! lorsque la mort trop cruelle’) is the only solo for soprano in the opera; it is an unassuming, unaffected little piece. Clément thought it was of an incomparable candour; Castil-Blaze believed the orchestration didn’t suit the innocence and simplicity of the character; Jouvin thought it not much. The Trio (No. 7: ‘Des chants lointains ont frappé mon oreille’) is built around Jacob’s prayer ‘Dieu d’Abraham’. Clément enthusiastically said it contained one of the most beautiful bass phrases ever written; Castil-Blaze found it poorly written for the voice (the patriarich Jacob had to sing like a troubadour); Jouvin found it full of grandeur. The Finale (No. 8) contains another lovely, gently flowing trio.

Act III takes place in Joseph’s palace. The first number is another cantique for women’s voices (No. 9: ‘Aux accents de notre harmonie’). It makes less impression than the cantique in Act II – perhaps, Clément thought, because it is ingenious rather than deeply felt. Jouvin dismissed it as a chorus for a pensionnat of young ladies. Jacob and Benjamin’s duo (No. 10: ‘Ô toi! Le digne appui d’un père’) was praised for its simple pathos, although critics thought it was modelled on the father/daughter duet in Œdipe à Colone; Méhul’s isn’t as good as Sacchini’s.

Jean-Pierre Solié as Jacob and Mme Gavaudan as Benjamin

Siméon confesses his crime to Jacob; the patriarch curses his sons; while Joseph, still in disguise, urges his father to pardon the sinners. The andante section of the morceau d’ensemble (No. 11) is calm and rather lovely. Jacob exposes himself, thawing the old man’s heart. The opera ends with an allegro chorus in praise of God (No. 12).

Looking at Joseph in hindsight, we feel that it was a work of conservatism. It came at the end of the Classical period, and its musical language is largely that of Gluck’s reform operas of 30 years earlier. The austere, rather stuffy score seems moribund. French opera needed a change, a shake-up. As so often happened, that change came from a foreigner. His name: Gaspare Spontini.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Castil-Blaze, “Méhul”, Revue de Paris, 1834 (two parts)
  • Hector Berlioz, “Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique: Première représentation de la reprise de Joseph, opéra de Méhul”, Feuilleton du Journal des Débats, 16 September 1851, http://www.hberlioz.com/feuilletons/debats510916.htm
  • B. Jouvin, “Méhul : Opéra-Comique – Reprise de Joseph”, Figaro, 23 August 1866
  • 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
  • “Inauguration de la statue de Méhul à Givet”, Le Ménestrel, 9 October 1892
  • C. de la Morlière, “Méhul”, Semaine des familles, 5 January 1895

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