194. Pierre de Médicis (Poniatowski)

  • Opéra in 4 acts and 7 tableaux
  • Composer: Prince Joseph Poniatowski
  • Libretto: Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Emilien Pacini
  • First performed: Théâtre de l’Académie Impériale de Musique (salle Le Peletier), Paris, 9 March 1860

SETTING 

Pisa, 1492

CHARACTERS

  • LE DUC PIERRE DE MÉDICIS                                          (tenor)
  • JULIEN DE MÉDICIS, his brother                                      (baritone)
  • FRA ANTONIO, grand inquisitor                                        (bass)
  • PAOLO MONTI, Pisan lord, friend of Julien de Médicis       (tenor)
  • LAURA SALVIATI, Fra Antonio’s niece                             (soprano)
  • A Herald of Arms                                                               (bass)
  • A Soldier                                                                            (tenor)
  • A Fisherman

ORIGINAL CAST

Louis Gueymard as Pierre de Médicis; Marc Bonnehée as Julien de Médicis; Louis-Henri Obin as Fra Antonio; Alexandre Aimès as Paolo Monti; Mme Pauline Gueymard Lauters as Laura Salviati; Léon Louis Fréret as the Herald of Arms; Fidèle Ernest Joseph Kœnig as the Soldier


PLOT

The overture.

Piero de Medici (1472–1503, r. 1492–94), gran maestro of Florence and Pisa, was not a popular sovereign. His father was known as Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’; Piero went down in history as ‘the Unfortunate’ or ‘the Fatuous’. Notorious for his dissolute ways, cruelty, and cowardice, he was eventually overthrown and exiled after ceding the towns of Pisa and Livorno to Charles VIII of France, without the knowledge of the Florentine government, the Signoria. The Dominican friar Savonarola declared a republic; and the Medici family was not to rule Florence for another twenty years, when Piero’s brother Giovanni (later Pope Leo X) took the city. Piero several times tried to reclaim his throne, and eventually drowned while fleeing from a battle his French allies had lost.

Act I. Scene 1. The festival hall of the Palazzo Vecchio de’ Medici in Pisa. (Video here.) Pierre has fallen in love with Laura Salviati, niece of the ambitious Fra Antonio (the opera’s equivalent of Savonarola), who dreams of becoming Pope. Laura, however, loves Pierre’s brother Julien, the popular governor of Pisa.

Act I, scene 1 – set design by Philippe Chaperon

Scene 2. Laura Salviari’s bedchamber. Julien urges Laura to elope with him, fearing his brother’s anger; she refuses. Their interview is overheard by Fra Antonio.

Act II. The gardens of the Palazzo Vecchio de’ Medici in Pisa. (Video here.) The Duke has organised a lavish feast for the people. Here there is a classical ballet: Pan and Endymion’s amorous pursuit of the goddess Diana. Learning from Fra Antonio that his brother loves Laura, Pierre offers Julien a choice between an honourable death as admiral of the fleet against the infidel, or a dishonourable execution; he has a day to decide. Laura agrees to flee Tuscany with her lover.

Act II set model

Act III. Scene 1. A fisherman’s house on the banks of the Arno. (Video here.) Julien’s friend Paolo Monti has led Laura to this humble refuge; in an hour, Paolo will give a signal – a fisherman’s song – and lead her to safety. The next day, the couple will leave Tuscany, and marry. Their plans are thwarted by Pierre and Fra Antonio; they offer Laura the choice between marrying the grand-duke or marrying God – either the throne or the cloister. Laura would rather become a nun than marry Pierre, and is led off to take the veil.

Scene 2. The Campo Santo of Pisa. Julien, meanwhile, is praying at his mother’s tomb. Paolo and his friends tell him what has happened to Laura, and urge him to take the throne. Brandishing their swords, they swear to save their country and rescue Laura.

Act III, scene 2.

Act IV. Scene 1. An inn. (Video here.) Pierre has been wounded in battle; he repents of his cruel decree, and sets off to the cloister to save Laura before he dies.

Scene 2. A cloister. But he is too late. Laura is made a nun in a solemn ceremony. “She belongs to Heaven!” Fra Antonio announces. Julien is frozen with sorrow; and as the Abbess leads Laura towards the cloister steps, Pierre expires.


THE COMPOSER

Grand-nephew of the last king of Poland, Prince Joseph (Józef Michał) Poniatowski (1814/16?–73) was in fact half-Italian.

Photo by Nadar.

His father, General Stanisław Poniatowski, moved to Italy after the abdication of his grandfather the king Stanisław August II and the end of the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation. In Rome, the General fell in love with Cassandra Luci, an already married noblewoman, and had five children out of wedlock by her; Joseph was born in Rome in 1816. The General tried to obtain annulment of Luci’s marriage from the Catholic Church; the children were legitimised in 1822/23, when the family moved to Tuscany.

Joseph Poniatowski showed musical talent from an early age; he was taught the rudiments by a priest, Candido Zanetti, and performed piano variations in public concerts at the age of eight. In Florence, the boy studied singing and composition with Ferdinando Ceccherini (or Cevecchini).

As a young man, Poniatowski composed seven operas, some with great success. According to Golianek, Poniatowski “consciously followed the path marked out by Rossini, adopting his model of opera and his musico-dramatical solutions, but he also made abundant use of the ideas of other contemporary masters like Bellini, Donizetti and also early Verdi”.

Poniatowski’s first opera, Giovanni da Procida, was privately performed in Florence in 1838, with the composer singing the title role; it was publicly performed in Lucca in 1840. His most successful early work was the opera buffa Don Desiderio (Pisa, 1840); it was staged in Venice, Bologna, Livorno, Milan, Rome, Naples, and Palermo, and given successfully in Paris in 1858 and 1867. Rossini congratulated the young man on his work: “I see you have studied the great masters seriously; Cimarosa would be pleased; while Michele Carafa thought there was sunshine in the music. Poniatowski was also one of the first to bring Beethoven’s music to Italy; he conducted the symphonies in Florence.

When the French monarchy fell in 1848, the grand-duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, appointed Poniatowski diplomat (ministro plenipotenziario) to France, Belgium, and England, stationed in Paris. He also gave him the title of Conte (later Principe) di Monte Rotondo.

In 1854, Poniatowski became a French citizen, and soon a senator, mostly concerned (according to Golianek) with the financial situation of musicians, instruction at the Paris Conservatoire, and the functioning of museums, including the Louvre. He became a close friend of Napoleon III; his son married the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate half-brother of Napoleon. He served as a diplomat for France; the emperor sent him on a mission to China and Japan in 1862/3.

While in Paris, Poniatowski composed Pierre de Médicis (1860), a grand opera; two opéras-comiques, A travers le mur (1861) and L’Aventurier (1865); a mass in F major (1866); and La Contessina (1868) for the Théâtre-Italien. He chaired the Parisian Cercle de l’Union artistique, and was a member of the Academy of the Royal Institute of Music in Florence. He was also (with Verdi, Wagner, and Gounod) in the short list to compose Aida for the opening of the Suez Canal.

After the fall of the Second Empire, Poniatowski accompanied Napoleon III into exile in London in 1871. To recoup his lost financial resources, he taught singing, and composed a three-act opera (Gelmina, 1872) for Covent Garden. He had arranged a conducting tour of the United States, but died shortly before he was due to leave.


COMMENTARY

Pierre de Médicis was resurrected in Krakow in 2011, apparently its first performance in nearly a century and a half. How, one may well ask, has this opera been neglected for so long?

It could – and should – be a warhorse. It has most of the ingredients that audiences want from 19th-century Romantic opera: Big Tunes; splendid ensembles and finales; an enormous scena for the prima donna; and masterly handling of conventional pieces (religious scenes, patriotic oaths, gambling scenes, and drinking choruses).

The plot is clear, and moves swiftly; there is true love in peril; hissable villains; a classic romantic triangle (this time with a tenor villain and a baritone hero); and an entertainingly downbeat ending. Many of the elements anticipate Verdi’s Don Carlos (1867): a Renaissance setting; love for the same woman causes friction in a ruling family; a sinister inquisitor; and the protagonist goes into the cloister at the end (against their will).

True, it may not be psychologically intense, but Pierre de Médicis is full of colour and energy, with plenty of inspired melody. It is at least as good as La Gioconda. And those who want their opera in Italian can hear Piero de’ Medici (the five-act version given at La Scala).

It would, in fact, work just as well in Italian. The idiom is clearly ottocento, rather than grand opéra; the only particularly ‘French’ number is the fugal morra chorus in Act II. For the rest, we are in the realm of cavatinas, cabalettas, and choruses.

The overture features the religious march (Act IV) and the fisherman’s barcarolle (Act III). Act I opens with an extensive Introduction (No. 1); it includes Pierre’s suave cavatina ‘Pour vous, j’abandonne Florence’, and an a cappella morceau d’ensemble that develops into a swell of music.

Introduction and sextet.

The scene ends with Pierre and Fra Antonio’s duet (No. 2); the tenor rises to an E flat above high C. The highlight of the act, though, is Laura’s terrific cavatine and cabaletta ‘Doux rêve de ma vie’ (No. 3); it may be conventional in form, but it’s a splendid number; both sections have great tunes, and the prima donna deserves applause. The act ends with Laura and Julien’s duet (No. 4), a very Italianate three-part number somewhat in the manner of Donizetti.

The sound is much better in the full Act I video (at 42:00) – but I like the face Aleksandra Buczek pulls at the end!

Act II is largely divertissement. In the 1860 Paris production, there were lavish sets, fairy-lights, and a ballet. The Polish recording has cut the ballet and some of the choruses; the act only lasts 24 minutes. There is a lively chorus (No. 5); the choeur de la morra (No. 6), a fugal gambling ensemble, somewhat in the style of Meyerbeer; the ballet (No. 7); and a grandiose, very tuneful finale (No. 8).

Act III: Laura’s prayer (No. 9) is overshadowed by the confrontation trio (No. 10): an enormous, superb number, full of passion. Intercalated are another aria for Laura, and the fisherman’s barcarolle, which has all the immediate memorability and theatrical effectiveness of one of Verdi or Puccini’s big tunes.

In the next scene, Julien’s beautiful farewell to his dead mother (No. 11) tugs at the heart-strings. The splendid finale combines both the patriotic/militaristic (enthusiastic cries of ‘Vengeance!’ as Julien and the chorus take arms against the tyrant) and the religious (off-stage chorus of nuns).

Act III finale

Act IV: The first scene is the tenor’s big aria (No. 13), a conventional if energetic cavatina and cabaletta. Drunken soldiers refuse to recognise the duke; only wine is their king. Since Pierre is desperate to rescue Laura before he dies, this neatly mixes comedy and dramatic tension. The impressive second scene (Nos. 14–17) belongs to the prima donna; Laura’s farewell to the world is in the line of Donizetti’s soprano mad scenes of the 1830s.

(For another take on the opera, see Phil’s response.)


RECEPTION

The first night was a glittering occasion. The hall was splendid, according to P.A. Fiorentino (Le Constitutionnel); everywhere one looked, there were adornments, flowers, and diamonds as at a grand ball. All society was there – including the royal family. (Rossini had attended the dress rehearsal.) Some unkind people expected music by the prince, Gebauer (Monde dramatique) commented; they were enchanted and surprised to hear music by an artist.

The success was unanimous and complete, Fiorentino declared. The cast were exceptional, particularly Mme Guemard (Laura) and Obin (Fra Antonio). Laura’s aria in Act I delighted the audience; the stretta provoked an explosion of enthusiasm; the singer, Mme Gueymard, sang the cabaletta twice; the public thought that wasn’t enough, and asked for a third encore. Berlioz thought the cavatina was charming, and the cabaletta full of originality and distinction. The soprano/baritone duet also greatly pleased, and the artists were called onto the stage. In Act II, the public admired Fra Antonio and Pierre’s duet; with one voice, the audience shouted that it was very beautiful, and would have asked for an encore if they weren’t afraid of the length of the play. Fiorentino thought that it bore comparison to Verdi’s best pieces. The trio in Act III caused a furore. The andante was encored before it had even finished; and the allegro was enthusiastically applauded. It was the finest piece in the work, Berlioz thought; it was magisterial, pathetic, and grandiose. The end of the opera was a climax of sorrow and pity, Fiorentino wrote; few scenes were as dramatic or as gripping. Berlioz was particularly impressed by the religious march that opens the scene; its strange and dismal sound struck the listener.

The mise en scène was fabulous, Fiorentino thought. Nothing like it had been seen in living memory: an enormous cast, costumes and armour of incredible richness, satin, silk, and brocade in profusion, magnificent sets, a palace, banquets, a Renaissance chamber, a ducal garden with its jets of water, statues, groups, and fountains; fairy-lights, a view of the Campo-Santo by moonlight, with the Leaning Tower and monuments of Pisa in the background; and the cloister and its processions of monks and nuns. The Luminara feast (in Act II) was like a dream from the Thousand and One Nights, revised and improved by modern taste, Pierre Véron (Le Charivari) thought.

The first two acts, J.-L. Heugel (Le Ménestrel) thought, were pleasant; the audience watched an enchanting diorama that delighted the eyes and caressed the ears and heart without absolutely capturing either one or the other. Choruses, arias, duets, and dance tunes pleased the listener, but without moving one on the same monumental scale as Guillaume Tell, La Juive, Robert-le-Diable or Les Huguenots. In Act III, however, the dramatic composer disclosed himself in his strength and dignity; the calm and picturesque story rose to theatrical heights.

Hector Berlioz (Journal des débats) wrote a glowing review. His praise, however, may have been insincere, Ziezula suggests: as the composer was an intimate of Napoleon III, it was necessary to praise the work. According to the review, the score, written with rare talent, was the work of an easy-going musician who perfectly possessed all the resources of modern art, and combined musical science with a true sense of expression. Poniatowski possessed one of the most delightful tenor voices he had ever heard; hence his extreme skill in writing for voices, in avoiding the defects of some and emphasising the qualities of others. His harmony was clear and simple, without platitude or blandness; he orchestrated with an ease and brilliance which often sweeps the listener away; his melody and his large ensemble pieces were sometimes reminiscent of Verdi. Like that master, he never forgot to give his phrase the expressive emphasis that passion and characterisation demanded.

Ernest Gebauer (Monde dramatique) thought Poniatowski’s style was sometimes very Italian, but his melodies and orchestration showed a serious study of dramatic expression. He had a very rare gift for melody and a real understanding of orchestration. The inquisitor’s aria in Act III, the trio, and the final scene showed that while the composer liked easy melody, he also sought to appropriate the methods of German composers, masters in the art of expression and feeling. In a subsequent article, Gebauer admired original melodies and skilfully composed pieces. The whole work was also remarkably well-written for the voices; the singers performed without effort, truly at ease in this easy and tuneful music.

For other critics, however, the Italian style was a defect. Benoît Jouvin (Figaro) judged it a modest and unambitious work, in the manner of Donizetti and Verdi; it suffered from the far presto of the Italians, and some parts were as old-fashioned as Pacini or the Ricci brothers. Pierre Véron (Le Charivari) thought Poniatowski’s score had the merits and defects of the Italian school. The composer sang with Rossini and thundered with Verdi, whose strange sounds and fiery orchestration he seemed to like.

Pierre de Médicis was staged 47 times in Paris over the next couple of years; the last known performance there was on 16 July 1862. The opera was also performed in Lyon (1862), at the Teatro Real in Madrid (1863) and at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan (1869).

Its only 21st century performance was in Krakow in July 2011, with Massimiliano Caldi conducting the Krakowska Orkiestra Festiwalowa. Aleksandra Buczek as Laura Salviati, Xu Chang as Pierre de Médicis, Florian Sempey as Julien de Médicis, Yasushi Hirano as Fra Antonio, Juraj Holly as Paolo Monti, and Jadwiga Postrozna as Henrietta. (A French grand opera by a Polish-Italian nobleman – performed by a Polish, Chinese, and Japanese cast pronouncing French as if it were Italian. There’s cosmopolitanism for you!) The Polish Musical Association published a CD of highlights from the opera a year after the performance.


COSTUMES


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Score: https://imslp.org/wiki/Pierre_de_M%C3%A9dicis_(Poniatowski%2C_J%C3%B3zef)
  • Libretto: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5745739m
  • 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
  • Ryszard Daniel Golianek, “Politics, Music and Cosmopolitanism: The Operatic Output of Joseph Poniatowski (1816–1873) in its Social and Political Contexts”, Studia Musicologica Vol. 52, No. 1/4, December 2011
  • Grzegorz Zieziula, “Kulisy “błyskotliwego zwycięstwa” w przededniu klęski “Tannhäusera”: “Pierre de Médicis” Józefa Poniatowskiego na scenie paryskiej Opery (1860)” [The background to the brilliant success before the failure of Tannhäuser: “Pierre de Médicis” by Józef Poniatowski on the stage of the Paris Opera (1860)], Muzyka: kwartalnik Instytutu Sztuki Polskiej Akademii Nauk, 2009:
  • J.-L. Heugel, Le Ménestrel, 11 March 1860
  • Paul Smith, Revue et gazette musicale, 11 March 1860
  • P.-A. Fiorentino, Le Constitutionnel, 12 March 1860
  • Pierre Véron, Le Charivari, 13 March 1860
  • Benoît Jouvin, Figaro, 15 March 1860
  • Ernest Gebauer, Le Monde dramatique, 15 and 29 March 1860
  • Hector Berlioz, Journal des débats, 20 March 1860

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