211. Le domino noir (Auber)

  • Opéra-comique in 3 acts
  • Composer: D.F.E. Auber
  • Libretto : Eugène Scribe
  • First performed : Opéra-Comique (salle de la Bourse), 2 December 1837, conducted by Narcisse Girard

ANGÈLE de Olivarès, The “Domino noir”, a novice nunSopranoLaure Cinti-Damoreau
BRIGITTE de San Lucar, her fellow nun and confidanteSopranoMlle Berthault
HORACE de Massarena, A young Spanish diplomat, Juliano’s friendTenorJoseph-Antoine-Charles Couderc
Comte JULIANO, his friendTenorThéodore-Étienne Moreau-Sainti
JACINTHE, Juliano’s housekeeperSopranoMme Boulanger
URSULE, Another nunSopranoThérèse Olivier
GERTRUDE, Convent portressSopranoMme Roy
LORD ELFORT, A British diplomatBassHonoré Grignon
GIL-PÉREZ, Porter at the convent of the AnnonciadesBass (baritone)Roy
Nuns, lords and ladies of the CourtChorus 

SETTING: Madrid, 1830s


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Le Domino noir was Auber’s most popular work, performed more than 1,200 times at the Opéra-Comique by 1909. Clément[i] considered it the composer’s “wittiest score, the one in which he most abandoned himself to his charming imagination and melodic grace”. More recently, Robert Letellier (2010:34), called it “a work of great musical abundance and of ingenious and inexhaustible invention”. Richard Bonynge’s 1995 recording starring Sumi Jo was awarded a Penguin Guide rosette: “Sparkle from first to last”, while it returned it to the Opéra-Comique in 2018 to rave reviews. “A marvel!” declared L’Atelier du Chanteur; “one of the most exciting operatic productions of the season,” according to BachTrack.

Although an opéra-comique, the tone of Le Domino noir is quite different from Fra Diavolo or Le Cheval de bronze. The story is naturalistic; it is a comedy of the ‘present day’, of balls and bachelor parties, of housekeepers and porters, rather than of brigands and magic horses. Although the opera is light, the characters are more than figures in a farce; there is pathos and a tint of melancholy. It looks forward in a way to La Traviata and La Bohème. Nor is there anything buffo or Rossinian about the score; Auber’s music is elegant and nuanced, never vulgar, and sensitive to text and character. Letellier (2010:35) writes: “In realizing Scribe’s refined urban intrigue for the lyric stage, it takes Auber’s restrained, gracious and elegant style, infused with dance rhythms to a unique highpoint.”

Scenes and characters from Le domino noir, 1844.

Like Boieldieu’s Dame blanche (1825), the hero has a mysterious benefactress – a pretty girl (or supernatural agent?), with whom he falls in love, but does not discover her identity until the end. The action takes place on a hectic Christmas Eve night in Madrid. A young Spanish diplomat, Horace de Massarena, met a beautiful young woman at the Queen’s ball; although he was smitten by her, he did not learn who she was. He encounters her again the next year, but, like Cinderella, at the stroke of midnight, she flees into the night once more. Horace meets her again that morning – at a friend’s supper-party, and at a convent. The girl says she is Horace’s good fairy, an angel; or is she a demon, sprite, or sylph?

The critics of the time were unanimously enthusiastic about Auber’s new opera. Le Charivari[ii] predicted it would be as successful as La Dame blanche. Edouard Monnais[iii] (Le Courrier français) thought Auber’s score was one of his happiest creations; small music, perhaps, but in its modest proportions, it united exquisitely charming ideas with the exquisite perfection of art. In Le Constitutionnel’s[iv] opinion, Auber had rarely done anything finer, prettier, wittier, more perfect. Similarly, L’Indépendant[v] declared that Le Domino noir was a charming poem and ravishing music; Auber had never been more melodious, wittier, or more ingenious. Again, Le Ménestrel[vi] placed the music among Auber’s most melodious inspirations.

Even Berlioz (not always a fan of opéra-comique) was pleased.

Auber wrote one of his finest scores for this somewhat risqué and implausible, but lively and amusing piece. He has been criticised for his music being recognised too easily; but when so much is written, and so many theatrical scores have already been written, how could a man, of whatever talent and fecundity be he gifted, vary his style enough to escape this criticism, which does not bother the Italians at all. Yes, we recognise M. Auber’s style, but it is precisely that which best suits opéra-comique; yes, his style has undergone no transformation in this opera; but that style is light, brilliant, gay, often full of piquant sallies and coquetry. (Revue et gazette musicale de Paris[vii])
M. Auber’s music generally pleased. People found it, as ever, lively, light, and piquant. Several people of severe taste criticised it for its somewhat narrow forms, its short melodies, its vaudevillian tendency. Perhaps these faults would be less apparent if we saw it from the point of view of the musician who seeks, above all, the style most likely to act on the Opéra-Comique public… To succeed above all else, such undoubtedly was M. Auber’s goal. And he completely succeeded. (Journal des débats[viii])

The pot-pourri overture draws from the Act I duet finale (‘J’entends la danse’) and the Aragonaise; it ends with a rollicking allegro. Letellier considers it Auber’s “most subtle and refined overture … [It] sets the festal mood with a chain of rather formal dance tunes in waltz-time.” Berlioz[ix], however, thought it was hastily written; it seemed sloppy and even rambling.

The Act I ball in a 1901 Opéra-Comique production.

Act I takes place at a masked ball in the Queen’s apartments. Angèle, a novice nun, and her friend Brigitte have crept out of the convent to spend one final night on the town; the next morning, Angèle will take the veil and becomes abbess. She must leave the ball at midnight, but Horace’s friend Juliano sets the clock forward an hour to give Horace a chance to speak to her alone. Horace declares he adores Angèle; she says she is not free, but will protect him. When midnight strikes, Angèle fears she is ruined; she rushes off, forbidding Horace to follow her – but, of course, he does. By that time, however, she has vanished into the night, like a fairy.

Act I – Drawing by Eug. Forest. Source: Gallica / BNF.

Musically, this is something of a tour de force, in the line of Halévy’s Éclair (1835): only three singing characters, and no chorus. It is immediate, truthful, and shuns the hackneyed conventions of opera. Edouard Monnais (Le Courrier français) suggested that Auber wanted to do something he had never done before: no introduction, no long finales, almost no choruses in his opera, not even duets, trios, quartets cut in the ordinary form; but on the other hand, couplets, many couplets of every character, every measure, and then a few pieces cut according to the needs of the piece, difficult to place in an exact category. (Monnais may have had in mind the numbers in Acts II and III that combine short romances or arias with choruses, linked by recitative.)

The first number is a Trio, ‘Tout est-il préparé?’, in which Horace pretends to sleep while he eavesdrops on the ladies’ conversation; in the middle, there is Angèle’s andantino romance, ‘Le trouble et la frayeur’, delicately written for the soprano; before the trio resumes as a bolero. Angèle’s Couplets (No. 3), ‘Qui je suis? une fée, un bon ange’, are exquisite. The act ends with the couple’s Duo (No. 4), ‘Parlez, quel destin est le nôtre?’, Auber’s music is always appropriate to the situation; it also contains a delightful allegro section, ‘J’entends la danse’ (heard in the overture). That movement, Edouard Monnais[x] (Courrier français) noted, “triggered that murmur of pleasure more significant than thunderous applause”.

Act II. Source: Gallica / BNF.

Act II is set in Juliano’s dining-room, later that night. Angèle, lost in the night, and unable to return to the convent, takes refuge; she pretends to be the housekeeper Jacinthe’s niece Inésille, a servant girl from Aragon. Horace, arriving late, is stunned to recognise Angèle, and even more stunned to learn she is a maid. For modern audiences, the situation may be uncomfortable: the young men try to kiss Angèle, an almost defenceless young woman; Horace steps in to protect her. When the convent porter, Gil-Pérez, arrives to cook dinner (and enjoy an amorous evening with the housekeeper), Angèle seizes the opportunity to obtain the convent keys from him; the terrified porter believes she is a ghost. When she is gone, all search for “Inésille”, now known to be an impostor, and possibly a demonic manifestation.

The act opens with Jacinthe’s Couplets (No. 5), ‘S’il est sur le terre un emploi’, an agreeable character number. Midway through the act, we hear the first chorus in the opera (No. 7): the vigorous allegro of the carousing young men, ‘Reveillons l’amour et les belles’. Juliano flirts with the pretty ‘serving-maid’ in an andantino duet of almost Mozartean delicacy, ‘D’où venez-vous, ma chère?’.

The centrepiece of the act is Angèle’s brilliant Aragonaise (No. 8), ‘La belle Inès fait flores’, accompanied by castanets, sung to entertain Juliano’s party.

The Aragonaise in a 1901 Opéra-Comique production.

The Act II finale (No. 9) is the most complex number in the score. It contains Gil-Pérez’s couplets, ‘Nous allons avoir, grâce à Dieu’, with their deo Gratias refrain, which delighted the critics of the day; his duet with Angèle, ‘Téméraire! impie! où vas-tu?’; Angèle’s prayer cavatine, ‘L’heure, la nuit, tout m’est propice’; Horace’s cavatine, ‘Amour, viens finir mon supplice’; and a rousing finale, ‘La bonne affaire’ – one of my favourite pieces by Auber.

Act III takes place in the convent. The mystery of Angèle is cleared up immediately: Brigitte, Angèle’s friend, has returned; we learn Angèle is the queen’s cousin, and has been appointed to the richest abbey in Madrid; she will take the veil that day, and become Abbess of the Annonciades. Angèle returns, pale and exhausted, but manages to conceal she has been away. A minor scandal distracts the nuns: Gil-Pérez, the convent porter, has slept outside the gates. The nuns look forward to the ordination ceremony and the feast to follow. Horace arrives, and, while the nuns pray, he is amazed to hear Angèle’s voice; can this mysterious woman be everywhere? But he does not recognise Angèle when she enters, wearing her veil; unaware he is speaking to the woman he loves, Horace tells her the Duke of San-Lacar wants him to marry his daughter, but he cannot; he loves another. At the last moment, a royal letter saves the day: Angèle announces the queen does not want her to be Abbess; ordered to marry that day, she chooses Horace, and all ends happily.

Act III in a 1901 Opéra-Comique production.

Le Constitutionnel[xi] thought it the finest act: “A real masterpiece for the fineness of the ideas and the perfection of form.” Brigitte’s Couplets (No. 10), ‘Au réfectoire, à la prière’, an ironically pious andantino, wittily describe the gossiping, flirtatious nuns.

Angèle’s Air (No. 11), ‘Je suis sauvée enfin!’, describes her misadventures: hiding from tipsy soldiers, rescued from a thief by a student who kisses her. (Berlioz[xii] thought it too much like vaudeville music.) For the second section, a brilliant bolero (allegro), Auber used the music of a dance, the Jaléo de Jéres, that had been inserted into a later production of La Muette de Portici.

The chattering chorus of nuns (No. 12: ‘Ah! quel malheur pour nous!’) was much praised; Berlioz[xiii]thought it was oneof Auber’s best ideas, a charming stage effect, and delightful music, while Le Ménestrel[xiv] called it a real masterpiece of opéra-comique. The number contains a lovely ensemble, ‘Les cloches argentines’, as the bells ring for matins.

The Cantique & choeur (No. 13), ‘A ces accords réligieux’, is a lovely andante, accompanied by organ and harp. The final scene, in Le Charivari’s[xv] opinion, was learnedly written, and more elevated than the rest of the score, while Le Ménestrel[xvi] thought the prayer scene was admirable. Berlioz[xvii], however, was unimpressed; Horace was half-mad with passion, but his vocal part was an accessory, a not very melodic filler part inserted into the hymn, like the alto part in Pleyel’s symphonies. The Finale (No. 14), ‘Mes soeurs, mes chères soeurs’, ends this light, witty opera on a jubilant note.


Recordings

Listen to: Sumi Jo (Angèle), Bruce Ford (Horace), Isabelle Vernet (Brigitte), Jules Bastin (Gil-Pérez), with the London Voices and English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Richard Bonynge, Decca, 1995.

Watch: Sophie Fournier (Angèle), Alain Gabriel (Horace), conducted by Michael Swierczewski, Compiègne, 1995.


Works consulted

  • A.C., Le Charivari, 4 December 1837
  • Edouard Monnais, Le Courrier français, 4 December 1837
  • A., Le Constitutionnel, 5 December 1837
  • L’Indépendant, 7 December 1837
  • Hector Berlioz, Journal des débats, 10 December 1837
  • Le Ménestrel, 10 December 1837
  • Robert Ignatius Letellier¸ Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: The Man and His Music, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010

[i] Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869 : « Le Domino noir est l’opéra-comique le plus original d’Auber, celui dans lequel il s’est le plus abandonné à sa fantaisie charmante et à sa grâce mélodique. »

[ii] A.C., Le Charivari, 4 December 1837 : « En résumé, sous le rapport de l’éclat et de la durée du succès, le Domino noir sera pour l’Opéra-Comique une véritable Dame blanche. »

[iii] Edouard Monnais, Le Courrier français, 4 April 1837 : « La partition de M. Auber est aussi l’une des créations les plus heureuses que ce fertile maître ait tirées de son cerveau. Petite musique diront quelques gens : eh ! oui certainement, petite, très petite, pourvu que vous nous accordiez que l’artiste l’a voulu faire telle, non par impuissance, mais par calcul, et que dans ses proportions modestes cette musique réunit le charme exquis des idées à l’exquise perfection de l’art. »

[iv] A., Le Constitutionnel, 5 December 1837: « M. Auber a rarement fait quelque chose de plus fin, de plus joli, de plus spirituel, de plus achevé. Excepté deux ou trois morceaux au premier et  au second actes, qui ne se distinguent peut-être point par la même goût et la même nouveauté, tout le reste est marqué au coin du génie brillant et spirituel du célèbre compositeur. »

[v] L’Indépendant, 7 December 1837: « Au total, enfin, le Domino noir est un ouvrage charmant, comme poème, ravissant, comme musique. … Nous nous bornerons à dire que M. Auber n’avait jamais été plus mélodieux, plus spirituel, plus ingénieux.

[vi] Le Ménestrel, 10 December 1837 : « La musique de cet opéra est digne d’être rangée parmi les plus mélodieuses inspirations de M. Auber. »

[vii] Hector Berlioz, Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 10 December 1837: « M. Auber a écrit sur cette pièce tant soit peu risquée et invraisemblable, mais vive et amusante, une de ses plus jolies partitions. On lui reprochait de se laisser dans sa musique trop facilement reconnaître ; mais quand on écrit tant et qu’on a déjà tant écrit de partitions de théâtre, comment un homme, de quelque talent et de quelque fécondité qu’il soit doué, pourrait-il assez varier son style pour échapper à cette critique, dont les Italiens s’inquiètent si peu. Oui, on reconnaît le faire de M. Auber, mais c’est précisément là celui qui convient le mieux à l’opéra-comique ; oui, son style n’a subi dans cet ouvrage aucune transformation; mais ce style est léger, brillant, gai, souvent plein de saillies piquantes et de coquettes intentions »

[viii] Hector Berlioz, Journal des débats, 10 December 1837 : « La musique de M. Auber a généralement plu. On l’a trouvée, comme toujours, vive, légère et piquante. Quelques personnes d’un goût sévère lui reprochent, il est vrai, ses formes un peu étroites, ses mélodies courtes, sa tendance vaudevillique. Peut-être ces défauts seraient-ils moins remarqués si l’on voulait se placer au point de vue du musicien qui cherche, avant tout, le style le plus propre à agir sur le public actuel de l’Opéra-Comique, et à ne pas sortir du cercle musical dans lequel les usages et les moyens d’exécution de ce théâtre ont enfermé l’art pour ne plus lui permettre d’en sortir. Réussir avant tout, tel a été sans doute le but de M. Auber. Et il a complètement réussi… »

[ix] Berlioz, Journal des débats, op. cit.: « L’ouverture paraît accuser aussi la précipitation avec laquelle l’auteur l’a sans doute écrite ; elle annonce au début une certaine originalité et une ampleur de formes qu’on ne trouve pas à la fin. »

Berlioz, Revue et gazette musicale, op. cit. : « Nous n’en dirons pas autant de l’ouverture, qui nous paraît peu soignée et même décousue. »

[x] Edouard Monnais, Le Courrier français, op. cit.: « le mouvement de danse, du finale, ont soulevé ce léger murmure de plaisir plus significatif que des tonnerres d’applaudissements… »

[xi] A., Le Constitutionnel, op. cit.: « Il faut distinguer cependant le troisième acte des deux premiers. Celui-là a paru irréprochable ; c’est un vrai chef-d’œuvre pour la finesse des idées et la perfection de la forme. »

[xii] Berlioz, Revue et gazette musicale, op. cit. : « Le récit que fait Angela des dangers qu’elle a courus dans son excursion nocturne nous plaît infiniment moins : la couleur de ce morceau est par trop vaudevillique ; on ne reconnaît plus la novice espagnole amoureuse dans ce babil de grisette ; et sans doute l’émotion véritable qu’éprouve Angela pouvait se traduire en musique d’une autre façon. »

[xiii] Berlioz, Revue et gazette musicale, op. cit. : « Le chœur des nonnes, au troisième acte, est peut-être une des plus heureuses idées de M. Auber ; c’est charmant d’effet scénique, et le résultat musical en est délicieux. »

[xiv] Le Ménestrel, op. cit.: « Le troisième acte est à notre avis le plus remarquable : là se trouve un caquetage de nonnes, véritable chef-d’œuvre d’opéra-comique… »

[xv] A.C., Le Charivari, op. cit.: « La grande scène finale tout entière, qui est d’une savante composition et se recommande par les mérites plus élevés que le commun des morceaux de la partition. »

[xvi] Le Ménestrel, op. cit. : « Là brille surtout cette grande scène où l’orgue se mêle à la voix de l’abbesse et où, éperdu de nouveau, Horace se jette à genoux et fait entendre ces accents touchants : Filles de Dieu, priez pour un pauvre insensé ! Cette situation est admirable et fait honneur au poète autant qu’au compositeur. »

[xvii] Berlioz, Journal des débats, op. cit. : « Il nous semble aussi que la partie du chant d’Horace, au moment où sa voix se mêle aux chœurs des religieuses pendant la cérémonie de la prise de voile, n’a pas, à beaucoup près, le caractère exigé par la situation ; c’est une partie accessoire plutôt qu’un accent de passion, et le placage en est trop évident. »

Berlioz, Revue et gazette musicale, op. cit. : « Nous ne sommes pas aussi contents de la scène où Horace mêle au chant des nonnes, dans la chapelle, sa prière passionnée à celui qui peut seul lui rendre la raison. Les accents de ce jeune homme, à moitié fou d’amour, sont fort loin de ceux que le cœur dicte en pareille circonstance. Horace, au lieu d’un chant passionné, n’a qu’une partie de remplissage, assez peu mélodique même, intercalée dans l’hymne religieux, comme la partie d’alto dans les symphonies de Pleyel. »

8 thoughts on “211. Le domino noir (Auber)

  1. Thank you for writing about this. To me, this is the most perfect opera comique ever written. At least until the unfortunate element of tragedy was introduced into the form several years late, by no less than Auber himself. The plot is straightforward and uncomplicated — the libretto exactly matches up to Scribe’s “well-made play” formula. The music is quality, light, memorable, and suits the action exactly. There is enough tension to keep things moving along without ever seeming to stall. The soprano gets her showpiece, but here it is integral to the action — and its breathless profusion of notes and runs precisely expresses the meaning of the words. In short, a masterpiece that needs to be reintroduced into the repertoire.

    This recording — the only complete recording of the score, though missing much of the dialogue — is superb. Sumi Jo is dazzling, but no one ever mentions Bruce Ford. He has a gorgeous voice, has done many recordings for Opera Rara, and never disappoints.

    In my youth, Richard Bonynge was often disparaged by the musical press. Never for his musical achievements, which are many and remarkable, but for who he was — namely Joan Sutherland’s husband. “Mr. Joan Sutherland” he was called. How absurd. He is a committed and gifted musician with a particular talent for theater music of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Disc after disc of lively interpretations of bel canto, operetta and ballet, and more recently the long-forgotten genre of British opera. He has created countless performing editions of this music and has rediscovered and made available music that most record companies are unwilling to finance. I, quite selfishly, want him to live forever.

    Like

    1. My pleasure, Gregory! I thought you’d like it.

      You’re not a fan of Haydée (or Carmen)?

      As an Australian, Richard Bonynge was considered a major conductor in his own right. I attended performances of him conducting Lucia di Lammermoor and Lakmé 15 (?) years ago; great evenings! My mother bumped into him on the stairs at the National Library a couple of days later.

      Like

      1. I have never heard Haydée and didn’t know that a recording exists! I will have to seek it out. Of course Carmen is a masterpiece, but I seem to be at odds with the entire Classical Music Establishment and the Classical Music Recording Industry in that I don’t take a lot of comfort in hearing the same things over and over again, even if they are performed by different people. I’ve seen Carmen five times (at least), and that’s enough — though I would never turn down free tickets. I would much rather see or hear something that is new to me. This is why I enjoy your blog. Most of the operas here are unfamiliar and rare.

        All those serious collector types, who spend fortunes on Big Boxes, probably look down on me because I don’t appreciate the few subtle nuances between between Karajan’s 1959 recording and the 1972 recording he made of the same work. I just don’t get it. Opera is different because of the singers, but I would rather just have one great recording of an opera and spend the money with which I could have bought four more recordings of the same work on four other operas.

        Of course NOW Richard Bonynge is considered a major conductor. All the snark happened way back.

        Like

      2. I’ll review Haydée in a fortnight. Compiègne put it on 20 years ago. I have the DVD, but it’s also online: https://www.operaonvideo.com/haydee-ou-le-secret-compiegne-2004/

        Agreed! I’d much rather hear something I haven’t than go to see a warhorse. They’re good, but there’s so much more out there! I suppose directors feel the same; that’s why we get Regietheater. They’re bored of putting on Traviata or Butterfly or whathaveyou for the 90,000th time.

        Have you visited Phil’s Opera World? It’s an excellent site, in which he discusses even rarer operas. https://philsoperaworld.music.blog/

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.