- Grand opera / Singspiel in 3 acts
- Composer: Luigi Cherubini
- Libretto: Joseph Sonnleithner, after Pixérécourt’s melodrama Les mines de Pologne (1803)
- First performed: Theater am Kärntnertor, Vienna, 25 February 1806
Two years ago, I raved about the operas of Luigi Cherubini, perhaps the most exciting opera composer of the Revolutionary age – a bold orchestrator and harmonist, a master of counterpoint and ensemble writing. Beethoven no less thought him the greatest living composer, but Cherubini’s operas have been rarely performed. I wanted to hear Faniska, which Beethoven and Haydn went into raptures over when it was performed in Vienna – but at that time, there was no recording. Earlier this year, a concert recording was released. Does it live up to expectations?
|RASINKY, starost of Ruva||Tenor||Neumann|
|ZAMORSKI, starost of Scudomir||Bass||Karl Friedrich Clemens Weinmüller|
|FANISKA, Rasinsky’s wife||Soprano||Laucher the elder|
|HEDWIGE, their daughter, six years old||Soprano||Thérèse Neumann|
|ORANSKI, leader of Zamorski’s Cossacks||Bass||Johann Vogel|
|MOSKA, Zamorski’s maid||Soprano||B. Rothe|
|RASNO, her nephew, a mountaineer||Tenor||Wilhelm Ehlers|
|MANOSKI, Rasinsky’s friend||Tenor||Rösner|
|Havermel, Urban, Kisling|
Like Lodoïska, Faniska is a rescue opera set in distant Poland – a melodrama with virtue in peril, clear goodies and baddies, and vice defeated. Faniska is the wife of Rasinsky, starost of Ruva; another starost, the wicked Zamorski falls in love with her, and abducts her and her golden-haired child. Hoping to marry her, he tells her that her husband is dead. But Rasinsky, disguised as a Cossack, enters the castle, bearing the message of his own death – a ruse to see his wife. His daughter accidentally betrays him, and Zamorski throws husband and wife into a dungeon; they will be executed the next day. All three escape with the help of the maid Moska and her nephew Rasno, but Zamorski recaptures them. They would have been hanged had not Rasinski’s followers stormed the castle and liberated the unfortunate family. Zamoski is killed in the fighting.
In the early 1800s, Cherubini was one of the most renowned composers in France, but his financial resources did not equal his reputation. He had made an enemy of Napoleon.
According to Clément, Cherubini had performed in Napoleon’s presence and without his order the funeral march for General Hoche (1797). He had even dared to contradict Napoleon, who extravagantly praised Paisiello and Zingarelli. “Paisiello passe encore; mais Zingarelli!” exclaimed Paisiello. Napoleon could not bear to be contradicted, and from that day, there was antipathy between the two. At another function, Napoleon complained of Cherubini’s too noisy acompaniments and loftily expressed his preference for Paisiello’s music, which rocked him gently. “I understand,” replied Cherubini. “You prefer music that doesn’t stop you from thinking of affairs of state.”
It was difficult for Cherubini to live in Paris when Napoleon’s enmity left him without resources. But Baron von Braun, manager of the Viennese opera houses, commissioned two works from Cherubini, one of the most important composers of his day. Cherubini arrived in Vienna in July 1805; he conducted a performance of Les Deux Journées, and revised Lodoïska, writing a new aria for the prima donna and two entr’actes.
Not trusting the German poets, Cherubini had Pixérécourt’s French melodrama turned into an Italian opera; he set it to music; and another poet translated it into German. (“Here then is a play written in three different languages before it was put in front of the Viennese public,” said Castil-Blaze, who in turn translated some of it back into French.)
Cherubini had finished the score, but in early October, war broke out between France and Austria (an ally of Germany and Russia against Napoleon). A month later, Napoleon entered Vienna, and the war ended with the French victory at Austerlitz in December. Napoleon stayed in the city until early 1806, while the Peace of Pressburg was arranged.
“Since you are here, M. Cherubini, we will make music together,” Napoleon told him. “You shall conduct my concerts.”
Cherubini organised several soirées musicales at Vienna and at the Schönbrunn Palace, and the emperor and the composer’s relations seemed to thaw. Napoleon told him: “I really hope that you are only here on furlough, and that you will soon return to Paris.” It was, Pougin remarks, almost an invitation to request a position of the emperor, but Cherubini was too proud to solicit, and replied that he could not return to France until he had completed his contract; that was his mistake, and the next year, Napoleon created a musical position for the composer Paër.
The journey to Vienna was also an opportunity for the Italian to meet his great contemporaries. He visited Haydn, whom, Pougin noted, he regarded as his mentor and inspiration; for his part, Haydn esteemed Cherubini and regarded him as one of the great artists of the time. Cherubini asked Haydn’s permission to call him his father, as he owed his style to him more than to any other; Haydn agreed, on the condition that he could call him his son. As a token of his affection, Haydn gave Cherubini the autograph of the Drumroll Symphony (No. 103), inscribed: “In nomine Domini – di me Giuseppe Haydn – padre del celebre Cherubini.”
Beethoven and Cherubini also saw each other often during his stay; Pougin notes that despite what some people claim, the two got on well, and their discussions of art were profitable to both. Beethoven kept scores of Médée and Faniska in his small music library; his sketches for Fidelio contain a passage from a trio from Les Deux journées, written as a memorandum; and although deaf, he would press his ears to a clock that played overtures and arias from operas, to hear his favourite piece, the overture to Médée. Cherubini was still in Vienna when Fidelio had its first three performances; according to Pougin, he made some observations on how Beethoven had written for the voices, and sent to the Paris Conservatoire for a copy of the Méthode de Chant, which he urged Beethoven to carefully consult.
Cherubini also made the acquaintance of Hummel, and was the first to bring his sonatas to Paris.
Faniska was finally performed in February, before the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, and his court. Beethoven and Haydn were there, too; according to Crowest, they “pushed in among the crowd that they too might hear the music and strains of him whom they regarded so highly, and to whose unrivalled power and learning they were not ashamed to bear witness”. Haydn embraced Cherubini after the performance, and exclaimed either “I am very old, but I am your son,” or “You are my son, worthy of my love”.
The work was a very great success, the Leipzig Allgemeine Musikzeitung reported: “Cherubini received unanimous applause from the public, and was called back at the end of the performance.”
Faniska was “a real masterpiece”, the paper continued. “The music is worthy in every way of the great master who wrote it; with the exception of certain passages where it can be criticized for being too artificial, it is profound, full of warmth and power, and quite characteristic. Rich in harmony – sometimes even a little too much perhaps – it is truly striking and strongly dramatic. But you have to hear it several times to fully understand it.”
At the other end of the century, Crowest called Faniska “a triumph of musical art”. “There is much in Faniska equal to anything Cherubini has written. Of the most varied and beautiful character, abounding with charming points of imitation and graceful contrapuntal learning, rich with choice harmonies and ever-varying tints of tone and orchestral colour, the music may be said to show Cherubini in his happiest mood.”
Faniska was performed 28 times, but Fétis observed, “the disasters of war had the imperial court and the Viennese into grief; circumstances weren’t favourable for impresarios”. Cherubini’s contract to write two operas was cancelled, and the composer left Vienna and returned to Paris.
The opera apparently enjoyed a life in German provincial theatres, including at Dresden and Dessau.
The only recording (Borowicz, 2020) is a concert version of the Italian version of this Viennese Singspiel, without any of the Spiel! So I can’t comment on its merits as an opera; the story isn’t there.
How very much 19th century opera owes to Cherubini! Faniska casts one eye backwards to Mozart, sounds like a Rossinian opera buffa orchestrated by Beethoven, and looks forward to Verdi. The orchestration and harmony glow, but the brocade might be too heavy for the average opera listener. Perhaps that’s one reason why Cherubini is seldom performed; there must be a reason why a composer adored by Beethoven and Haydn (and later praised by Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms) isn’t a central part of the repertoire. Rossini is fizzy and funny and fine; Boieldieu, Auber, and the other French opéra-comique composers of the next generation are lighter and simpler. And somehow we’ve never quite regained that taste for Cherubini, despite the enormous renown he enjoyed in his lifetime, and the valiant efforts of conductors like Riccardo Muti.
Faniska is uneven, and modern audiences might find the plot too melodramatic, but the best parts are magnificent. The overture in F was once justly famous; as late as 1890, Crowest could confidently say that the piece, “so well known, is frequently allotted a place in concert programmes, and any comment upon it would be superfluous”. Edward Bellasis considered it “one of its author’s most finished works. While the opening is surprising and beautiful, and the allegro exceedingly gay, the most striking portion is strange, weird, yet lovely subject, for the violoncellos and bassoons, that occurs later on, and is repeated with delightful persistency, and with an airy accompaniment for the violins, to use the phrase of Mr. Macfarren, ‘hovering over it’.”
The Act I introduzione sounds like Rossinian opera buffa, but the harmonies are more complex and heavier orchestration; it’s very easy on the ear, although not perhaps very distinctive. Much of this musical language, perhaps, became conventional. Zamorski’s aria in E flat (No. 2) was well regarded: “the exquisite and thoroughly characteristic aria … which should be in the repertoire of every bass singer with a good compass, and a desire to possess a thoroughly characteristic excerpt by this classic composer,” Crowest thought.
With Faniska’s prayer cavatina ‘Eterno Iddio’ (No. 3), we’re suddenly in Verdi, or at least Donizetti – the prima donna’s tragic scene, the emphasis on pathos rather than vocal display. “It is hardly too much to say, that, for variety of modulation and just expression, it yields only to the great scene in Don Giovanni, where Donna Anna mourns over the dead body of her murdered parent, and incites her lover to revenge his death,” wrote the Harmonicon.
There follows a trio in A (No. 4) for Faniska, Moska, and Oranski. The Coro di contadini (No. 5), in C major, is a moment of magic: “a very simple vocal subject,” Bellasis thought, “but the repetitions abound in variations of instrumental accompaniment, which evince the command Cherubini has over this branch of his art”.
One would call it easily the best piece in the act, but we haven’t heard the finale yet – and the finale is superb. I listened to the stretta – an allegro molto in D – then promptly listened to it three more times; it must be one of the very best composed before Rossini. (The stretta is at 6’39”.)
The finest pieces in Act II are the joyous duet of the reunited husband and wife, and a beautiful canonic trio (No. 10: ‘Dolce ne guai ristoro’) for tenor, soprano, and mezzo. This last recalls the masked trio in Act I of Don Giovanni. The act also contains a second aria for Faniska (No. 8), a grand scena in F; a cavatina for Rasno (No. 10), which Crowest thought “beautiful”; and a rather jolly finale (No. 12).
In Act III, the two most important numbers are a quintet (No. 16), part buffo, part dramatic, and a quartet (No. 17). There are also two marches and a chorus; Crowest called the military music “exceedingly clever”. The jubilant lieto fine vaudeville finale (No. 19) brings the opera to a magnificent close.
In Crowest’s opinion, Faniska was “in every sense worthy a place on modern opera boards, and it must always rank as one of the finest contributions to the lyric drama”. It’s hard to judge its dramatic merits, or whether it would stand up today, but its most attractive music deserves to be better known. Hopefully, one day there will be a fully staged production, so we can decide for ourselves.
Natalia Rubiś (Faniska), Krystian Adam (Rasinski), and Robert Gierlach (Zamoski), with the Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Łukasz Borowicz. Recorded Poznań, Poland, 2020.
- Castil-Blaze, “Cherubini”, Revue de Paris, 1833
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- Edward Bellasis, Cherubini: Memorials Illustrative of His Life, London: Burns and Oates, 1874
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris: Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- Arthur Pougin, Le Ménestrel, 26 March, 2 April, and 9 April 1882
- Frederick J. Crowest, The Great Musicians: Cherubini, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1890.