222. Les Abencérages (Cherubini)


  • Opéra in 3 acts
  • Composer: Luigi Cherubini
  • Libretto: Étienne de Jouy
  • First performed: L’Opéra (salle Montansier), Paris, 6th April 1813

ALMANZOR, Moorish general, of the Abencerrage tribeTenorLouis Nourrit
NORAÏME, princess of the royal bloodSopranoAlexandre-Caroline Chevalier Branchu
ALÉMAR, vizier, of the Zegri tribeBaritoneDuparc
GONZALVE DE CORDOUE [Gonzalo de Cordóba], Spanish generalTenorJacques-Émile Lavigne
KALED, Moorish officer, chief of the Zegri tribeTenorLaforêt
ALAMIR, confidant to Alémar, of the same tribeBassHenri-Étienne Dérivis
OCTAÏR, standard-bearer of the Kingdom of GranadaBaritoneAlexandre
ABDÉRAME, chief of the Council of EldersBassJean-Honoré Bertin
A Herald  
ÉGILONE, attendant to NoraïmeSopranoJoséphine Armand
Abencerrages, Zegri, Spaniards, troubadours, people of Granada  

SETTING: The Kingdom of Granada in Moorish Spain, end of the 15th century, in the reign of Muley-Hassem.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

November has been a Cherubini month: the HD broadcast of the Met’s Medea, with Sondra Radvanovsky, and Bru Zane’s publication of Les Abencérages. While any recognition of the mighty Cherubini is welcome, neither is wholly satisfying.

Medea first and briefly. Radvanovsky is magnificent, but the Met bizarrely used a 1909 Italian adaptation, because that’s what Callas sang, rather than the proper French score. To quote Vincent Giroud (French Opera: A Short History, 2010): “It is especially unfortunate that his masterpiece … is known in a version he had nothing to do with and that does no justice to his original.”

Now onto Les Abencérages. Bru Zane’s recording is typically excellent, and a welcome chance to hear this rare work, but the opera itself is not one of Cherubini’s best.

Political intrigue in the Alhambra; a conquering hero accused of disgracing his country; and trial by combat… Promising ingredients for an opera, but Les Abencérages was not a success. Cherubini’s contemporaries thought it contained some beautiful music, but suffered from a dull libretto. The work was only performed 15 or 20 times; not even an abridged version, two years later, could salvage its fortunes. It was Cherubini’s last opera for 20 years, a few pièces d’occasion in collaboration with other composers aside.

In a preface, the libretto Jouy explained that he based Les Abencérages on two historical facts: a law of the kingdom of Grenada condemning to death the general under whose command the standard of the empire fell into enemy hands; and the hereditary hatred that divided the two tribes of the Zegris and the Abencerages. 

Almanzor, a Moorish general (Abencérage) defeats the Spanish at the battle of Jaén, but is accused of losing his country’s standard, and is sentenced to death. He has been framed by the Zegri, led by the wicked vizier Alémar; they fear Almanzor’s marriage to princess Noraïme will give him royal power. An unknown champion defeats a Zegri warrior in combat, proving Almanzor’s innocence. That champion is Almanzor’s enemy and friend, the honourable Spanish general Gonzalo Fernández de Cordoba. He returns the standard, which Alémar gave to the Christian king.

Almanzor (Nourrit), Alamir (Derivis), Gonzalve de Cordoue (Lavigne). Drawing by François-Guillaume Ménageot.

The libretto was loosely based on Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian’s novel Gonzalve de Cordoue (1791), but contemporaries felt Jouy’s changes were unfortunate. “Those who have read Florian cannot be grateful to the author of the new work for having made an opera that lacks interest and situations, when the source of the story was most fertile,” Le Mémorial dramatique wrote. “One could make better use of the loves of Abenhamet and Zoraïde, of the treachery of the Zegris at the battle of Jaen, and above all of the perfidious means Boabdil, king of the Moors, employed to destroy his rival, the leader of the Abencerages.” Similarly, Pougin thought Jouy’s treatment of the original novel was clumsy, and Fétis described the story as slow and heavy.

Le Mercure de France, however, thought Les Abencérages reunited all the different beauties one looked for in an opera: appealing situations, beautiful music, graceful dances, and picturesque decorations, while the Gazette nationale thought it offered the happiest alliance of dramatic situations and brilliant or graceful scenes.

Many, too, found the score too academic. Both the Journal de l’Empire and the Journal de Paris thought Cherubini’s music was learned and well written, but untheatrical, lacking melody, expression, momentum, and verve. “Cold calculation and long reflection are noticeable at every moment,” Le Journal de Paris wrote. Pougin commented that the score contained superb pages worthy of its author’s manly genius; unfortunately, brilliant or touching episodes seemed drowned in deplorable longueurs, and the whole work, a little too uneven, was tiring and painful to listen to.

Nevertheless, others much admired the score. “The music is rich in harmony; the choruses make a beautiful effect; several pieces gave great pleasure,” Le Mémorial dramatique reported. Le Mercure de France thought Cherubini worthily upheld his reputation as the foremost composer in Europe. Felix Mendelssohn said he could not “sufficiently admire the sparkling fire, the clever, original phrasing, the extraordinary delicacy and refinement with which the whole is written, or feel grateful enough to the grand old man for it. Besides, it is all so free, and bold, and spirited.”

Certainly, Les Abencérages seems less musically inspired and less dramatic than Lodoïska (1791), Médée (1797), or Les deux journées (1800). Much of the opera consists of static, pompous tableaux, and the music often shows Cherubini’s technique rather than his imagination.

Noraïme (Mme Branchu), Égilone (Josephine Armand), Abdérame (Bertin)

Les Abencérages is an early grand opera. Although Auber’s Muette de Portici (1828) is the first ‘true’ grand opéra, the genre really began with Spontini’s Vestale (1807) and Fernand Cortez (1809), both with libretti by Jouy. Les Abencérages continues Spontini’s approach, with its massive ceremonial tableaux – wedding (interrupted by war), trial, and combat. Jouy’s attempt to recreate Moorish Spain – “to paint the brilliant customs of a nation whose establishment in Spain for several centuries greatly influenced European civilisation” – setting scenes in the Alhambra (the Court of the Lions in Act I, the gallery of arms in Act II, the gardens by night in Act III) looks forward to the architectural verisimilitude of mid-century grand opéra, while the conflict between warring factions would become a staple of the genre.

But the story lacks drama. Later grands opéras contrasted public display with private emotions and internal conflict; some of the most exciting scenes in the genre only have two or three characters onstage – e.g., Act II and IV of Halévy’s La Juive (1835), where Rachel learns that her ‘Jewish’ lover is Christian; the love duet in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1836); the prison scene in Le Prophète (1849). Even in La Vestale, the romance is at the heart of the opera: Licinius and Julia’s forbidden love is the reason why they are condemned to die. There is little personal conflict, and hence little involvement for the listener, in Les Abencérages. The love story is secondary, and Noraïme is a passive figure, largely removed from the action. Almanzor, too, is passive: he is a character to whom things happen, rather than one who acts; his attitude is largely one of resigned suffering. The conflict is entirely factional and political – but there are no confrontations between Zegri and Abencérage until the final scene.

Act III, tableau 2 – set design by Jean-Baptiste Isabey.

Cherubini excelled at strong passions and at dramatic conflict, as Lodoïska and, above all, Médée show, while Les deux journées proved his mastery of tension and suspense. Without a gripping story to inspire him, his music here is often descriptive rather than dramatic.

For instance: the long wedding scene in Act I, encompassing choruses (the very pretty “Que l’amitié, que l’hymen vous rassemble”), a couple of ensembles (notably the ingenious “Laissons respirer la victoire”), Spanish local colour (harp-strumming troubadours), and a lot of dancing. It is attractive and skilfully done, but one can understand why the first audiences yawned. There is no excitement, and little story, until the end of the act. The finale (“Armez-vous, enfants d’Ismaël”), though, is magnificent: Almanzor is entrusted with the standard of Granada, and the Moors ride out to battle.

The ensembles and choruses, in fact, are some of the best music in the work; the trial scene (Act II) and the champ clos (Act III) both contain some impressive choruses – “Grand Dieu; quelle triste journée” (in Act III) is imposing and funereal – while the ensemble finale (“Un jour d’allégresse”) is fun.

The arias for the soloists, though, are uneven. Almanzor has the lion’s share; this is very much the tenor’s opera. In Act I, he declares his love for “Enfin j’ai vu naître l’aurore”; ardent yet somehow pure, it has the candidness of youthful love. In Act II, “C’en est fait, j’ai vu disparaître” is moving; Denne-Baron considered it “one of the most beautiful things which dramatic music has to be proud of since Glück”. In Act III, his farewell to his comrades, “Ne me plaignez pas”, has an intriguing bassoon accompaniment.

Noraïme has two arias, at the starts of Act II and III. Her first, “Ô toi, l’idole de mon cœur”, a two-part aria with chorus, is one of the best pieces in the opera; the melody reminds me of one in Salieri’s Horaces, “Que je vous dois d’encens”. The second is her farewell at her mother’s tomb, “Épaissis tes ombres funèbres”.

The lovers also have a duet in each act; all are attractive, and that in Act II, “Cher Almanzor!”, agitated and impassioned, is one of the dramatic highpoints of the opera. Contemporary audiences, however, thought them overlong.

The troubadour’s romance in Act I is exquisite, while Alémar’s vengeance aria, “D’une haine longtemps captive”, in Act III, brings its scene to a powerful close. Other pieces, though, are bland, such as Gonzalve’s aria in Act I, or Alémar’s aria in Act II. The conspirators’ trio that begins the opera (“Son triomphe s’apprete”) is rather functional and expository.

Les Abencérages, then, has much attractive music, although it remains somehow less than the sum of its parts.

Listen to

Anaïs Constans (Noraïme), Edgaras Montvidas (Almanzor), Thomas Dolié (Alémar), Artavazd Sargsyan (Gonzalve / le Troubadour), Philippe-Nicolas Martin (Kaled), Tomislav Lavoie (Alamir), and Douglas Williams (Abdérame), with the Orfeo Orchestra and Purcell Choir conducted by György Vashegyi, Budapest 2022; Bru Zane.

Works consulted

  • Libretto, Roullet, Paris, 1813
  • Geoffroy, Journal de l’Empire, 10 April 1813
  • S., La Gazette nationale ou le Moniteur universel, 12 April 1813
  • M., Le Journal de Paris, 15 April 1813
  • B., Le Mercure de France, 17 April 1813
  • Edward Bellasis, Cherubini: Memorials Illustrative of His Life, London: Burns and Oates, 1874.
  • 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
  • Arthur Pougin, “Cherubini: sa vie, ses œuvres, son rôle artistique”, Le Ménestrel, 28th May 1882
  • Bru Zane digital resource

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