205. Les deux journées (Cherubini)

  • Opéra in 3 acts
  • Composer: Luigi Cherubini
  • Libretto: Jean-Nicolas Bouilly
  • First performed: Théâtre de la Rue Faydeau, Paris, 26 Nivose, Year 8 (16 January 1800)


ARMAND, president of the Parlement of ParisTenorPierre Gaveaux
CONSTANCE, his wifeSopranoAngélique Scio-Legrand
MIKÉLI, a water-carrier, Savoyard by birth living in Paris,BaritoneMarcel-Jean-Antoine Juliet
DANIEL, his father, an elderly invalidBassPlatel
ANTONIO, Mikéli’s son, a farm lad in the village of GonesseTenorJausserand
MARCELINA, Mikéli’s daughter and Antonio’s sisterSopranoRosette Gavaudan
SÉMOS, a wealthy farmer of GonesseBassFerdinand Prevost
ANGELINA, his daughter, betrothed to AntonioSopranoMlle Desmares
FIRST and SECOND Commandants of Mazarin’s Italian troopsBass BassAlexis Dessaules Georgette
An OFFICER of the GuardMute 
FIRST and SECOND Italian soldiersBass BassDarcourt Garnier
FOLK of Gonesse  
GUARDS and Soldier  

SETTING: Paris and the village of Gonesse, in the year 1647


Count Armand is a man on the run, pursued by Cardinal Mazarin. The ‘people’s champion’ and other leaders of the parlement opposed the Cardinal’s heavy taxes, which they fear would crush the poor. In retaliation, the parlement leaders have been arrested; only Armand and his wife Constance, ‘the guardian angel of the poor’, have so far escaped – but a reward of 6,000 ducats has been issued for their arrest. The kindly watercarrier Mikéli rescues them from soldiers, and hides them in his house. He plans to get them out of Paris, but every outlet is guarded by Italian troops devoted to Mazarin. But Mikéli will risk all in ‘the sacred cause of suffering humanity’. His family also have a debt to repay; years ago, Armand saved the life of Mikéli’s son, Antonio. Fortunately, Antonio is about to get married in the country, so the family have permission to leave Paris; Constance will take the place of Mikéli’s daughter, Angelina, and leave escorted by her ‘brother’. Mikéli smuggles Armand out of the city in a water-barrel. But even outside Paris, the fugitives are not safe; Armand is captured by soldiers, and sentenced to death. At the last moment (just as in Monsigny‘s Déserteur), Mikéli rushes in with a free pardon for Armand, signed by the Cardinal.


Les deux journées was Cherubini’s most popular work, performed more than 200 times in Paris alone, and a favourite in Germany.

At the time, the librettist Bouilly recalled, music connoisseurs had admired the rich harmony, profound learning, and dramatic power of Médée and Lodoïska, but the libretti did not give audiences what they wanted: sustained interest, and new and moving situations; thus, while Cherubini’s beautiful music was applauded, audiences remained cold. They wanted, in Sedaine’s words, something to satisfy the ears and the heart at the same time. And the partisans of Grétry’s modest, meagre orchestration considered Cherubini’s vigorous instrumentation mere noise (Henri Blanchard, Revue et gazette musicale de Paris).

Cherubini, eager to write something with popular songs, wrote to all the authors for a libretto; Bouilly had the right story. A water-carrier had saved a relation of his, a magistrate, from the Terror, and the librettist wanted to give the people “a lesson in humanity”. (Luigi Picchianti, Cherubini’s earliest biographer, remarked: “The spirit of this dramatic conception perfectly suited the feeling and the tendencies of the public at that time, since, after witnessing so many acts of cruelty, they felt the need for returning to the pleasures of kindness and sensibility of heart”.) This poem, Bouilly recalled, stimulated Cherubini’s “rich and fertile imagination”, and he composed “one of the most beautiful scores of modern times”.

The overture pleased the audience, and the first act seemed well constructed and interesting – but connoisseurs had wanted Cherubini to cut the septet finale, saying it was too long, and would cause the opera to fail. Cherubini refused, but paced up and down behind the curtain, in great anxiety. When the characters sang ‘O divine providence!’ the audience spontaneously burst into shouts and cheers, making so much noise poor Cherubini could not understand what was going on. “Qué, qué, qué, qu’est-cé qué c’est? … qui sont pas contents? qui sifflent?”he stammered in his Florentine accent. But Bouilly embraced him: “Ah, mon ami! You have written a masterpiece!” Students from the Conservatoire climbed over the orchestra, and congratulated their beloved master.

Juliet as Mikéli in the 1807 production.

Act II contains the opera’s most famous scene: Armand’s escape from Paris in a barrel. The watercarrier takes his cart to the city gates, and distracts the guards while the count escapes. The play’s success depended on that scene, Bouilly wrote; more than once, he had seen the public enthusiastically applaud a first act, then turn severe to the rest of the work. But it needed to surprise the audience; the interest and comedy of the situation must strike the public at the right moment. Everything came together. The singer Juliet (Mikéli) misled the public by pouring a stream of water from the barrel, then suddenly opened the top, out of which popped the fugitive’s head. His delirium of joy at finding himself free; the actor’s charming mummery; the thrilling delivery of his lines; and above all the inexpressible orchestration, galvanised the audience – and Bouilly knew the work would be a lasting success.

Pressing Cherubini in my turn in my arms, I said to him with this lively expression of my fear and shock: “Pardon me, great master! I was trembling, and would not have consoled myself for having compromised your fine talent.”

“Never,” he replied, returning my hug, “no, perhaps I will never have a better opportunity to develop it; and I owe you my best triumph.”

The notices in the papers were enthusiastic. The Journal de Paris declared the music was one of Cherubini’s masterpieces; the most graceful music married to the most learned harmony. The Courrier des spectacles praised Cherubini’s power, rapidity, learned and unexpected transitions, and the sentiment that reigned in all the impassioned situations.

Similar positive reviews appeared in L’Année thêatrale, Les Etrennes lyriques et théâtrales, and La Gazette de France.

Ten years after its premiere, Les Tablettes de Polymnie declared: “This skilful and fine production put M. Cherubini at the forefront of composers for ever. This work contains everything that is required to form a whole that approaches perfection: skilful touch, broad, pure style, beautiful arrangement, correctness of expression, clarity, nobility and richness in the accompaniments, which, by the way in which they are conceived, always leave the song in the foreground; everything contributes to make this composition classic for the study and satisfactory for the effect.”

Les deux journées was particularly popular in Germany, given there as Der Wasserträger. Goethe considered the libretto a true model of comic opera; Beethoven always kept the score ready at hand, and used it as a model for Fidelio. Mendelssohn’s “own pleasure … surpassed anything he had ever experienced before in the theatre” (Monthly Musical Record, 1872). Spohr was “intoxicated with delight and the powerful impression that the work had made on [him]”; he borrowed the score, and sat over it that night. “It was that opera chiefly that gave me the first impulse to composition.” Weber considered it “a really dramatic and classical work. Everything is calculated so as to produce the greatest effect; all the various pieces are so much in their proper place, that you can neither omit one nor make any addition to them. The opera displays pleasing richness of melody, vigorous declamation, and all striking truth in the treatment of the situations, ever new, ever heard and retained with pleasure.” Riehl called Les Deux journées “emotion dramatised. The melody is charming, yet united with all the highest contrapuntal science, while the richness of the instrumentation may be compared to the colouring of Paul Veronese.”


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Les deux journées begins the 1800s with a bang. The Classic poise of the 1800s is dead; this is music for a new century of action and endeavour.

The story is verismo decades early – a naturalistic opera of striking clocks, passports, carts, water-barrels, and working-class characters (kindly and courageous, rather than the bargefolk, prostitutes, criminals, and slum-dwellers of Puccini or Giordano). It’s a well-made thriller – and how swiftly it moves! It introduces tension and suspense to opera: soldiers searching houses, desperate lies and impersonation, the threat of arrest and execution, taking place almost in real time.

The overture (in B major) is tense, nervous, febrile – music of dread suspense, and joyous, almost orgasmic release. Early audiences heard the troubles of recent years; L’Année théâtrale thought it “paints, in a striking manner, the tumult of the people, the movements of troops, and everything that the Revolution has made so familiar”.

The 19th century musicologist John Ella wrote: “To my mind there is no more striking effect of powerful imagination suggestive of the darkest imagery of tragic incidents than the whole of the introduction to Les Deux Joumées. After the two lovely cadences of serene placid harmony, come the basses with powerful unisons in a grand figure of a vague character reposing on a deep pedal note. How touching are the bewailing short melodic phrases so tenderly expressed, with the penetrating chord of the augmented fifth in its simple structure! The mysterious tremolo of the violins, the wailing effect of the flutes, the tragic responses of the basses, and the terrific utterance of the corni ff in the fifth of the dominant, until the grand climax of the allegro, are in the highest degree suggestive, and have served Weber and Mendelssohn to good purpose. This introduction I have always considered one of the most poetical creations of Cherubini.”

In fact, Mendelssohn considered the first three bars of the overture worth more than the entire repertoire of the baritone Devrient. Weber added trombones for a performance in Germany, and thought it made a great effect; he asked if the opera could be played with trombones, doubling and reinforcing a few chords, but Cherubini told Weber that he did not consent at all; if he had wanted to put new instruments in his work, he would have done so.

Act I takes place in the watercarrier’s humble home. The first number is Antonio’s couplets, ‘Un pauvre petit Savoyard’ (No. 1); it introduces the themes of gratitude and good deeds repaid; the tune recurs as a motif several times during the opera. Mikéli’s couplets, ‘Guide mes pas, ô Providence’ (No. 2), has a lovely phrase: ‘J’ai secouru, j’ai sauvé l’innocent’.

The trio (No. 3) ‘O mon libérateur’ really is excellent, and Beethoven wrote down a passage from it in his sketches for Fidelio. Les Tablettes de Polymnie wrote that it charmed both the heart and the ear, and left in the spectator’s soul that pure and touching joy that the memory of a beautiful action produces. Blanchard (Revue et gazette) notes that for a long time it was considered a masterpiece of theatre, declamation, and of hurried, tight musical dialogue, in which the instruments and the whole orchestra intervene in an admirable way.

Armand and Constance’s duet (No. 4), ‘Me séparer de mon époux’, could almost come from Fidelio; it demonstrates a wife’s loyalty to her husband, and her refusal to let him face danger alone. Les Tablettes de Polymnie considered it a model of the noble and pathetic style, which presents at every moment the painter’s idea of grandioso.

The act ends with the superb septet finale (No. 5), ‘O Ciel, en croirai-je mes yeux’, eleven minutes of Cherubini at his most inspired. The phrase ‘O celeste Providence’ blazes, and one can understand its effect on the first audiences. “All the feelings of surprise, joy, sorrow, gratitude, hope are expressed with their own accent, and the accompaniment always adds to the expression that the song can give them,” wrote L’Année théâtrale. “The whole merges into an effect of harmony, one of the richest that we have yet heard on the stage.”

Acts II and III consist of ensembles where the story dominates; Cherubini’s sense of theatre – his “dramatic genius” – impressed Les Tablettes de Polymnie.

With the astonishing resources of his art, he put so much variety, energy, clarity, and expression in the accompaniments that the listener, always satisfied and delighted, walks with the dramatic action from scene to scene, without feeling the need for any aria to relax and distract him. To sustain two whole acts in this way, without ever letting the action cool down for a single moment! … We avow that it is an effort of genius that we cannot admire too much. The composer sailed through a sea bristling with rocks and breakers; he avoided them all, inspiring, so to speak, in his crew all the cheerfulness, confidence, and security that he himself was far from feeling when ordering the maneuver. He proved to us that genius can conquer everything except ignorance and envy.

Act II takes place on the outskirts of Paris, near the old city barriers. It opens with a chorus of soldiers (No. 6), ‘Point de pitié’, that is almost a model for grand opéra; it is some of the most robust choral writing before Meyerbeer. The soldiers stop Antonio and his ‘sister’; the scène (No. 7), ‘O mon frère, je t’en supplie’, is situational music; the story advances through the music. The finale (No. 8), ‘Allons, allons’, ends with a military march.

Act III seems less inspired; we move out of the city and into a pastoral idyll; its timelessness and innocence – even when disturbed by soldiers – is far removed from the naturalism of the Paris acts. It contains a peasants’ chorus, ‘Jeunes fillettes’; a quartet and chorus, ‘Que ce silence est effrayant’ ; and a rather dull finale. Some versions of the score include an aria for Constance.

Later generations realised the novelty of Cherubini’s score. “The old systems of the time in which the dramas used to be composed almost exclusively of airs were beginning to be destroyed,” Picchianti wrote, “whilst in this opera, with the exception of duet and canzonet, the whole was composed of concerted pieces and choruses, in new style, full of vigour and charm.” The Athenæum even thought that Cherubini “created the new Wagnerian theories of operatic treatment”, annihilating “the tyranny of leading singers”.

In the Deux Journées there is no aria d’entrata for prima donna, tenor, baritone, or bass; there are no solos interrupting the action of the drama; every character is individualised, and has marked type,—each one contributing to the concerted pieces faithfully, consistently, and coherently.

Cherubini disdains to write for mere display of the voice; hence the discontent of section of the public, unwilling to be deprived of their shakes and roulades.

Despite its fame, by the 1840s, French audiences found the work old-fashioned; B. Davons (L’Indépendant, 1842) praised the inspiration and science of the music, but found the three dramatic situations too uniform, and the plot very simple; it would hardly suffice for a single act by Eugène Scribe.

Seventy years after its premiere, the French musicologist Pougin thought the play would be difficult to stage without retouching it; at the very least, the dialogue would have to be completely rewritten. But Pougin still considered Les deux journées a marvellous score: “The artist who produced a work so powerful, so equal in all its parts, so prodigiously balanced, was a man of genius and a master among all.” He regretted that it had completely disappeared from the French stage, where it should have remained the glory and eternal honour.


Yann Beuron (Armand), Mireille Delunsch (Constance), and Andreas Schmidt (Mikéli), with Das Neue Orchester conducted by Christoph Spering, 2001.

There are several recordings in German, and Thomas Beecham conducted it in 1947.


  • B. Davons, L’Indépendant, 10 April 1842
  • Henri Blanchard, Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 10 April 1842
  • Edward Bellasis, Cherubini: Memorials Illustrative of His Life, London: Burns and Oates, 1874
  • Arthur Pougin, Le Ménestrel, 18 and 25 December 1881, 1 January 1882
  • Frederick J. Crowest, The Great Musicians: Cherubini, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1890.

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