210. Le Cheval de bronze (Auber)

  • Opéra-comique in 3 acts
  • Composer: Daniel-François-Esprit Auber
  • Libretto: Eugène Scribe
  • First performed: Opéra-Comique (salle de la place de la Bourse / Salle des Nouveautés), Paris, 23 March 1835, conducted by Henri Valentino

YANG, Imperial Prince of ChinaTenorLouis-Antoine-Eléonore Ponchard ;
Louis-Benoît-Alphonse Révial
STELLA, A Mughal princessSopranoAlphonsine-Virginie-Marie Dubois (“Mme Casimir”)
TSING-SING, An old mandarinTenorLouis Féréol
TAO-JIN, His wifeSopranoMarie-Sophie Callault-Ponchard
TCHIN-KAO, A wealthy farmerBaritoneGiovanni Inchindi
PÉKI, His daughterSopranoFélicité Pradher
YAN-KO, A young farmhandTenorÉtienne-Bernard-Auguste Thénard
LO-MANGLI, Stella’s maid of honourSopranoFargueil
Stella’s ladies, soldiers and lords of the prince, peasantsChorus 

SETTING: China; the planet Venus


Rating: 3 out of 5.

The magical horse transports three hapless men and a determined girl from Ancient China to the planet Venus, and Auber and Scribe whisk audiences away on a flight of fantasy. Their planet Venus is not the hellscape 462º in the shade, with an atmosphere of carbon dioxide gas and sulphuric acid, but a lovely garden full of even lovelier young women. So much for astronomical accuracy, but a victory for charm and imagination!

Drawing by Jules Bourdet, 1835.

Le Cheval de bronze is one of Auber’s better-known second-tier operas – or at least one of the more easily available today. There are two recordings, one in French and one in German, and for many years, the brilliant overture was a popular concert piece. It was a hit with Paris audiences; it was performed 106 times in two years – 84 performances in 1835, 22 in 1836 – then slumbered for 20 years until a revised version was given at the Opéra in 1857.

Jouvin (62–63) judged it one of Auber’s most beautiful and complete scores, although he suspected the music was too rich for the public of the day. “The defect of the work is the profusion of ideas. The three acts of this opéra-féerie are like the caverns of the djinn Amygad, in Reyer’s Statue. The public, who listens to it, are waist-high in melody; like Sélim, they are dazzled, and do not know what to choose, solicited right and left by heaps of diamonds and bushels of pearls”. More recently, Letellier (283) places it “among Auber’s best achievements, brimming over with invention: fantasy and comedy are captured perfectly”.

But I find Le Cheval de bronze rather frustrating. Parts of it are brilliant, and look forward to Offenbach; other parts seem bland. Certainly, the French recording doesn’t help: it’s abridged, with large cuts in most numbers; the sound isn’t brilliant, and details are often lost; and some of the cast struggle with a difficult part and with French pronunciation.

The overture is one of Auber’s most brilliant; it is based on themes from the Act I finale and Péki’s aria. Triangles and woodwinds give it an Oriental flavour, and, fittingly for an opera about a horse, it contains a galop.

Act I décor – Cicéri, 1835. Source; BNF.

Act I takes place in a pastoral landscape with Tchin-Kao’s farmstead and pagoda. The wealthy, elderly mandarin Tsing-sing wants to make Péki the farmer’s daughter his fifth wife. She, however, loves the labourer Yan-ko, who rode away on the bronze horse in his despair. Tsing-sing is also married to the jealous, haughty Tao-kin, and cannot divorce her because she is the emperor’s cousin in the eighth degree. She has arranged for Tsing-sing to follow the Prince Yang everywhere; according to Chinese etiquette, if he leaves the Prince for a minute, he will be beheaded. Yan-ko returns on the horse, but he cannot say what he saw or where he went; he will die if he speaks. To stop Tsing-sing from marrying Péki, the gallant Prince Yang mounts the horse, and the mandarin is obliged to follow him; the steed flies away.

The Introduction (No. 1) opens with a chorus of bells and an impressive invocation to the ‘blue demon’ Kiao-tchangs, but the onomatopoeic clink of coins (‘tin tin tin’) and the sudden swoop onto a one-note phrase for comic effect sounds like Offenbach.

Tao-kin’s arrival launches a Trio (No. 2); it starts rather vaguely, with the melody in the voices, but develops into a brisk ensemble. A chorus (No. 3) heralds the arrival of the Prince, who has two arias: some rather jolly Couplets (“J’ai pour guides en voyage”) and an ardent, rapturous Air (No. 4) in which he describes the girl of his dreams, “Le sommeil fermait”. The Quintette (No. 5), “Eh bien, eh bien, chère époux”, is abridged on the recording, although it has its charms; the phrase “Il faut qu’il soit puni” is delightful. Péki’s Ballade of the bronze horse (No. 6), “Là-bas sur ce rocher sauvage”, is effective, but not quite as good as the similar ballad in Fra Diavolo. The Finale (No. 7) ends with an animated, exhilarating allegro vivace ensemble.

Act II takes place in the farmhouse months later. In the interim, Tchin-kao has found two wealthy claimants for his daughter’s hand – one of them 79! – and looks forward to the dowry. Péki and Yan-ko plan to elope, with Tao-jin’s help; Péki will be disguised as a boy. Tsing-sing, however, returns, and settles down to a nap; in his sleep, he reveals that he was in beautiful gardens, with a magnificent palace, and is transmogrified into a magot (a statue). Yan-ko is also transformed. Determined to free her boyfriend from the enchantment, Péki bravely mounts the steed, and she too is swept up into the sky.

Tchin-kao’s largo aria (No. 8) is more interesting as a display of baritone coloratura than for the melody. Péki’s Couplets (No. 9) are a pretty allegretto; they provide the melody for the middle section of the overture, although the words seem oddly fitted to the music. The finest piece in the act is Tao-jin’s grand Air (No. 10), “Ah, pour une jeune cœur”; the first section is a dramatic, pathetic andantino, the second is an almost Spanish allegretto, in which she looks forward to the pleasures of being a widow. It leads without a break (other than a standing ovation) into her Duo (No. 11) with her husband – rather talky, but it ends in a lively quarrel. The Finale (No. 12) contains a serenade in which the people try to wake the sleeping mandarin, sung first quietly, then a vigorous fortissimo – a nice effect. There is also an allegro horrified ensemble (“Ô nouvelle terreur”) and the act ends in a powerful ensemble.

Act III takes place in a fairy garden and a magic garden on the planet Venus, ruled by Stella, a Mughal princess kidnapped at birth; men who can resist the Venusians’ charms for 24 hours will have power over them. Yan-ko and Tsing-sing both failed, but the Prince nearly manages the feat until, overcome by passion, he kisses Stella. Péki, disguised as a boy, is immune to feminine charms, and seizes Stella’s bracelet. The Venusians’ power is ended, and Stella and Péki are brought back to earth. The Prince marries Stella, and Péki uses the magic bracelet to force Tsing-sing to let her marry Yan-ko.

Act III ballet, 1857 – press illustration, by Godefroy Dur. Source: BNF.

The last act seems considerably weaker; I feel the opera runs out of steam. It opens with a charming, ethereal, almost diaphanous, allegro moderato entr’acte, scored for harps and woodwind, and a languorous triple chorus of soprani (No. 13). Otherwise, the act consists of a Duo for Stella and the Prince (No. 14); Lo-Mangli’s agreeable but short allegro moderato Couplets (No. 15), “Tranquillement il se promène”; and Péki and Stella’s Duo (No. 16), cut to almost nothing in the recording, which leads to the Finale.

Early reviews were mixed. Some critics were enthusiastic. Although Le Cheval was Auber’s 25th opera, and the work of a man of 53, L’Indépendant[i] thought it could have been written by a young man; its ideas were fresh, graceful, and tuneful – and the music was destined to become quadrilles, galops, and waltzes. Le Ménestrel thought Le Cheval would occupy an honourable place in Auber’s repertoire[ii]; the music was lively, witty, original, and sometimes powerful[iii].

Le Constitutionnel[iv] thought the work had its longueurs, but judged it a great success for the Opéra-Comique. Auber’s music was abundantly negligent, slackly coquettish, and warbled pleasantly; it ran, jumped, trotted, danced, as Auber’s music usually did, when that witty composer did not treat his notes with the seriousness and conscience that produced La Muette. (A backhanded compliment!)

Jules Janin[v] (Journal des débats) was sarcastic about the inanity (“niaiserie”) of Scribe’s libretto, but thought it was a successful opéra-comique, if nothing more, but one even the least sophisticated audiences could enjoy. “It has all the merits that make popular music. It sings, it dances, it is lively, lively, joyful, dashing; it often remembers Rossini, what a blessing! M. Auber has never been more prodigal of easy and lilting airs, of little romances for all pianos, of charming quartets for all choristers.”

Le Charivari[vi] judgedit one of Scribe’s most mediocre operas, and not one of Auber’s best scores. Most of the numbers were more agreeable than memorable, and generally lacked colour and originality.

Edouard Monnais[vii] (Courrier français) thought the work had a brilliant success, but was also slightly disappointed.One found all his wit, facility, grace, and ingenious orchestration – but the melodies lacked originality, liveliness, and freshness, the rhythms were too reminiscent of the contredanse, and the composer relied on his memory more than his imagination.

Two decades later, a grander, reorchestrated, four-act version was given at the Opéra. The dialogue was turned into recitatives; several numbers were added, including ballets and an octet finale. It ran for 20 performances.

Jouvin (62) considers Le Cheval de Bronze “the last work and the most sparkling score of Auber’s second manner. Musical comedy, elegant and witty, was about to born with Actéon, l’Ambassadrice, and Le Domino noir.”


WORKS CONSULTED

  1. J.J. [Jules Janin], Journal des débats, 26 March 1835
  2. L’Indépendant, 26 March 1835
  3. Le Charivari, 27 March 1835
  4. A., Le Constitutionnel, 27 March 1835
  5. Edouard Monnais, Le Courrier français, 27 March 1835
  6. Le Ménestrel, 29 March and 5 April 1835
  7. I.C.T., Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 29 March 1835
  8. J. Lovy, Le Ménestrel, 27 September 1857
  9. Paul Smith, Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 27 September 1857
  10. Hector Berlioz, Journal des débats, 30 September 1857
  11. Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
  12. Benoît Jouvin, D.F.E. Auber, sa vie et ses œuvres, Paris: Heugel, 1864
  13. Robert Ignatius Letellier¸ Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: The Man and His Music, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010

[i] L’Indépendant, 26 March 1835: « Nous sommes heureux d’avoir à proclamer ce fait : que le talent de M. Auber, appliqué à l’opéra comique, n’a point perdu de sa verve et de son originalité. La représentation du Cheval de bronze vient de le prouver victorieusement. Les idées fraîches, gracieuses, les motifs chantants abondent dans cette partition qui semble avoir été composée par un jeune homme aux naïves inspirations.

« La musique, comme nous l’avons dit plus haut, est constamment gracieuse, originale, chantante et riches en motifs destinés à devenir populaires, et à fournir des textes de quadrilles, de galops et de walses à Musard. »

[ii] Le Ménestrel, 5 April 1835 : « Nous sommes convaincus avec quelques connaisseurs que cette œuvre lyrique est destinée à occuper une place honorable dans le répertoire de M. Auber. »

[iii] Le Ménestrel, 29 March 1835 : « Une musique vive, spirituelle, originale et quelquefois profonde, ajoute à l’attrait de ce poème. »

[iv] A., Le Constitutionnel, 27 March 1835 : « Au reste, toute cette musique est d’une abondante négligence, d’un laisser-aller coquet, d’un agréable gazouillement ; elle court, elle saute, elle trotte, elle danse, comme fait d’ordinaire la musique de M. Auber, quand ce spirituel compositeur ne traite pas les notes avec ce sérieux et cette conscience qui ont produit la Muette. »

[v] Jules Janin, Journal des débats, 26 March 1835 : « C’est M. Auber qui, cette fois, a pris sous sa protection le poëme de M. Scribe. M. Scribe autrefois protégeait M. Auber. Cette partition nouvelle de l’auteur de la Muette vaut la peine d’être écoutée, et elle a tous les mérites qui rendent tellement une musique populaire. Cela chante, cela danse, cela est vif, anime, joyeux, fringant; cela se souvient de Rossini, que c’est une bénédiction! M. Auber n’a jamais été plus prodigue d’airs faciles et chantants, de petites romances à la taille de tous les pianos, de charmants quatuors à la taille de tous les choristes.

« En résume, le Cheval de Bronze est un bon opéra-comique, rien qu’un opéra-comique, complètement, parfaitement et tout-à-fait un opéra-comique. Le poëme est à la portée des plus simples auditeurs pourvu qu’ils ne sachent pas l’astronomie. La musique est à la portée des musiciens les moins avancés de ce bas-monde; M. Auber a voulu se faire chinois et bouffe, et il a réussi c’est un succès de plus et pour lui et pour le théâtre, qui n’avaient pas besoin de tout ce luxe orientât pour réussir. »

[vi] Le Charivari, 27 March 1835: « Nous dirons peu de mots de cet opéra qui est un des plus médiocres ouvrages de M. Scribe, et qui n’est pas une des meilleures partitions de M. Auber. … Mais, en égard à M. Auber, nous sommes obligés de dire que la plupart de ces morceaux sont plus agréables que bien sentis, et qu’ils manquent en général du couleur et d’originalité. »

[vii] Edouard Monnais, Le Courrier français, 27 March 1835: « Le nom de M. Auber excite nécessairement une grande attente; le public se croit permis d’être difficile avec l’auteur de tant de partitions populaires. On retrouve dans celle du Cheval de bronze tout son esprit, toute sa facilité, toute sa grâce, toutes les ingénieuses combinaisons de son orchestre; on y distingué même plusieurs morceaux supérieurs, notamment le duo chanté par Tsing-sing et Taoijn au second acte, et le finale qui vient ensuite. Mais en général il semble que les mélodies manquent d’une certaine empreinte d’originalité, de verve et de fraîcheur, que les rhythmes rappellent trop celui de la contredanse, et que la mémoire du compositeur se soit souvent jouée de son imagination. Une étude consciencieuse pourra seule nous mettre à même de prononcer sur la valeur de ces critiques. M. Auber n’en a pas moins obtenu un succès brillant, et dont une circonstance prouve qu’il ne met pas tout son esprit dans sa musique. »

4 thoughts on “210. Le Cheval de bronze (Auber)

  1. I have the French recording, and I do think it makes this work seem a bit insubstantial (even if the music itself is glorious). I have never seen it, but it seems due for a revival — beautiful and exotic costumes and scenery couldn’t hurt. We were supposed to see Le Voyage Dans las Lune a couple of summers ago, which seems similar in spirit to this work. Hopefully OLH will resume plans to stage that one.

    I am so glad you are writing about Auber. I think he is one of the most unjustly neglected composers. But then, I prefer witty and amusing lightness to drama, tragedy and pathos. Down deep, I’m shallow.

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    1. Thanks, Gregory! It will be all Auber for the next two months. He’s light, but at his best, he’s delightful.

      I’d like to see Le Cheval, too – but could it bronze be staged these days – given objections to The Mikado, Turandot, and Butterfly?

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      1. A few years ago I saw a Mikado, by Pacific Opera Project, that seemed to quell all those concerns. The cast was multi-racial, and there was no attempt to make anyone look Japanese except for the costumes — which were all anime-inspired. A whimsical twist, and one that came across rather well. I heard no complaints.

        That said, I have a recording (the only one) of a post-Mikado British show called The Geisha. While the Mikado isn’t really about Japan, and only mentions race in passing, the text of The Geisha is blatantly offensive (songs with titles like “The Happy Jap-jappy” and “Chin-chin Chinaman”, I kid you not.) This will not be coming to a stage anytime soon, if ever again.

        I cannot tell if the text of Le Cheval de Bronze would cause offense, but imaginative staging can often help. Same with Ba-ta-clan. The French sensibility of 200 years ago (even 300) seemed to embrace exotic themes rather than ridicule other cultures. But I am a white guy who cannot possibly claim to know what he is talking about in this regard.

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