232. Phèdre (Lemoyne)

  • Tragédie-lyrique in 3 acts
  • Composer: Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne
  • Libretto: François-Benoît Hoffman
  • First performed: Fontainebleau, 26th October 1786; Académie Royale de la Musique, Paris, 21st November of the same year

PHÈDRE [Phaedra]SopranoAntoinette Saint-Huberty
THÉSÉE [Theseus]Basse-taille (bass-baritone)Auguste-Athanase (Augustin) Chéron
HIPPOLITE [Hippolytus]Haute-contreJean-Joseph Rousseau
ŒNONESopranoAdélaïde Gavaudan, cadette
The high priestess of VenusSopranoAnne-Marie Jeanne Gavaudan, l’ainée
An important statesmanBaritoneLouis-Claude-Armand Chardin (« Chardiny »)
A huntsmanBass-baritoneMoreau

SETTING: Troezen

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Gluck’s reforms had brought terror and psychological intensity to the French opera stage, and his followers relished strong subjects. The only topics Lemoyne found agreeable for opera were incest, poison, and murder, complained Dauvergne, director of the Opéra. Lemoyne’s first work, Électre, put revenge and matricide on the stage; his second, Phèdre, depicted incestuous passion.

When I first saw Phèdre (Paris, 2017), I nodded off in the first act, and slept through most of the opera. In my defence, I was jetlagged; I had arrived in France from Australia a couple of days before, and my body was still adjusting to the 10-hour time difference. The theatre (the Bouffes du Nord, built in 1876) was crowded, and lacked air conditioning; I was perched near the top of the theatre; and the heat and stuffiness were conducive to drowsiness. The production was a cutdown version with four singers and no chorus; a static staging and a score that was largely declamation didn’t help me stay awake! My verdict at the time: OK, but the French liked it. Act III was more dramatic, and had some fine things in it. (That was the same trip I heard Halévy’s Reine de Chypre without a tenor, and attended Saint-Saëns’s Timbre d’argent where I couldn’t see the stage.)

But Phèdre – now I can hear it again on CD – is gripping music drama.

Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (1751–96) was born in Périgord, and learnt music from his uncle, the choirmaster at the Périgueux cathedral. The young man worked as a conductor in the provinces before heading to Berlin, where he studied composition with Carl Heinrich Graun and Johann Philipp Kirnberger. One of his earliest pieces was a storm scene, introduced into François Joseph Gossec’s Toinon et Toinette; it was applauded, and the prince gave him a golden snuffbox, and made him second conductor of his theatre. Lemoyne’s first opera, Le bouquet de Colette (1775), premièred in Warsaw; in it débuted Antoinette Saint-Huberty, who created the rôle of Phèdre a decade later. She was Lemoyne’s student for four years, and later his muse.

On his return to Paris, Lemoyne presented himself as a pupil of Gluck’s, whose style he apparently imitated in Électre (1782). The music was shocking: La Harpe called it “the most hideously piercing one could possibly hear” – a forerunner of Strauss’s Elektra 130 years later? So was its violence: Orestes cuts Clytemnestra’s throat onstage. “If in the tragedy, the parricide is concealed from the eyes of the spectator, all the more reason such a dreadful scene should be forbidden in opera houses,” Félix Clément declared (Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869). Fétis observes that Lemoyne only imitated Gluck’s faults without having his sublime beauties; the piece failed. Two choruses and a powerful scene in recitative were applauded, but melody was scarce, rough, and without charm. Gluck himself disavowed Lemoyne, as soon as he saw the critics attack the young man as a product of his school.

Four years later, Lemoyne returned to the fray with another Greek tragedy opera; this time, he succeeded.

Hoffman’s libretto was based on Racine’s adaptation (1677) of Euripides’s Hippolytus (428 BC), also the model for Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie (1733). Phèdre [Phaedra], wife of Thésée [Theseus], has fallen in love with her stepson, Hippolyte [Hippolytus]. Believing Thésée is dead (or imprisoned in the underworld), she reveals her love to the young man, who is horrified. When Thésée returns, Phèdre’s nurse, Œnone, tells the king that his son has tried to violate his stepmother. Thésée banishes his son, and then calls upon his father, the sea god Neptune, to avenge him. Just as Hippolyte is about to set sail, an angry monster rises out of the sea, and drags the prince down into the depths. Phèdre, distraught at what has happened, reveals that Hippolyte was innocent, and kills herself.

“The subject,” Benoît Dratwicki argues, “conducive to highly intense scenes of introspection for the three principal characters, permitted the composer to conceive superb monologues, sometimes elegiac, sometimes passionate.”

Some considered Hoffman’s turning Racine into opera (as Grétry had done with Andromaque, in 1780) was almost blasphemous. Les Affiches des Trois-Êvêchés objected strenuously to “the sacrilegious attempt to lay a profane hand on masterpieces that must be left intact”. Le Mercure de France reproached Hoffman for the thoughtlessness with which Thésée believes the imputation made against Hippolyte: in Racine’s tragedy, Phèdre herself – a beloved wife who has all her husband’s trust – accuses Hippolyte, and Hippolyte’s sword (in her possession) seems ample proof to Thésée; but in the opera, it is on the report of Œnone, a nurse, a mercenary woman, that Thésée calls for Neptune’s vengeance, without even seeing Phèdre, or seeking to ascertain from her the truth of this accusation, and without being moved by his son’s touching justification. “This device, which violates all propriety, doubtless greatly weakens the interest of the dénouement.”

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Phèdre et Hippolyte (1802)

But critics wrote encouragingly of Lemoyne’s music. “This work was successful at the first performance,” Le Mercure wrote. “We were struck by a large number of musical beauties… M. le Moine, who has already given us the music of Électre, seems to have profited greatly from the advice of the public; by discarding all system, and giving himself up more to the natural impulse of his genius, he demonstrates a most precious talent, which only needs to be encouraged.” Similarly, Les Affiches found naturalness in the singing, grace in the accompaniments, and in general a lot of sweetness and sensitivity in the expression, although perhaps there was a bit of monotony.

Like other post-Gluckian tragédies, Phèdre is almost through-composed: arias, recitative, choruses, and instrumental music are integrated to serve the scene, and (unlike Italian opera seria) recitative and aria are not easily separable. Benoît Dratwicki describes the style thus:

The scores of the Académie royale de musique at the end of the Ancien Régime are powerfully dramatic. The musical writing is divided between recitatives with ample declamation supported by figurative punctuations of the orchestra, generously lyrical arias – sometimes in a belcantist register for the cantabile, sometimes in a martial or hot-tempered register in the airs de movement –, ensembles and grandiose choruses bringing together all the masses in scenes, sometimes divided into double choruses and ensemble of soloists. The ballets take advantage of picturesque harmonies, melodies, and rhythms … and colourful orchestrations, sometimes enhanced by Turkish percussion… The overtures become true symphonic pieces and obtain great success in concerts.

“Panorama de la création à l’Académie de musique”, Histoire de l’opéra français : Du Roi-Soleil à la Révolution, ed. Hervé Lacombe, Paris : Fayard, 2021, pp. 635–36

The stately overture (YouTube) presents the three protagonists of the drama: the sensuous Phèdre (the flute), the pursued hunter Hippolyte (horns), and the fury of Thésée (trombones).

The first two acts are largely seen from Phèdre’s perspective; one of opera’s first anti-heroines, she has our pity. Her character is theatrical, Lemoyne said, in his dedication to Mme. de Sérilly, an “assemblage of passions, weaknesses, and remorse”. The novelist Nicolas Rétif de la Bretonne was astounded by the prima donna’s performance:

Saint-Huberti, one must have seen you to conceive what the grandeur, the powerful expression of lyrical Melpomene [Muse of tragedy] may be. Sublime actress, in Athens or in Rome, they would have raised altars to you. I saw you in Phèdre… How you know how to stir the soul, how artful you are in giving your accents the naturalness of spoken expression, softened, made more pleasant by melody. Before you, there were singers at the Opéra, even actresses. There was never a perfect tragédienne… O woman, who gave you this talent, tell me, who showed you Phèdre vigorously afflicted, as one was in those times of strength and energy? I came back exalted! During the evening, the night, the rest of the week, of the month, I saw only the vehement Saint-Huberti painting incestuous love in fiery strokes, and engraving her frightening remorse in my head and on my heart.

Eighteenth-century audiences found the first act slow: too many hymns and prayers inspired monotony and boredom, Le Mercure de France argued. These were later cut. Certainly, the beginning is static: choruses of the followers of Diana and Venus, marches of priestesses. But Hippolyte’s “Ô Diane, chaste déesse” (YouTube), accompanied by the hunting chorus, is beautiful. Afterwards, our attention is riveted on Phèdre and her anguish: the stepmother consumed with an incestuous passion for her stepson.

The drama begins with Phèdre’s scene in the temple, where she reveals to Œnone her shameful love for her stepson. Much of it is heightened recitative (agitated strings depict her turmoil), with a couple of arias developing organically. Le Mercure praised Lemoyne’s experiment in replacing recitative with song, “always noble, graceful, and consistent with the character and dignity of the personages”, although the journal thought it sometimes made the scenes too long and unvaried.

Act II contains the superb scene where Phèdre reveals her passion to Hippolyte. It begins with her tense, febrile monologue: “Il va venir … c’est Phèdre qui l’attend” (YouTube). The ensuing scene with her stepson is almost all in recitative, but attains a high level of dramatic interest, before erupting in the short but intense duet, “Frappe toi-même, venge un père” (YouTube). Later in the act, the aria Thésée sings when he returns, “De cent brigands j’ai purgé l’univers”, is rather fun.

Act III starts with a dramatic prelude, depicting Thésée’s wrath; and features his magnificent invocation, “Neptune, seconde ma rage” (YouTube), calling for vengeance on his son. Just as Mozart will one year later, in Don Giovanni (1787), the trombones sound like an inexorable, supernatural force of doom. Phèdre, who has learnt of the death of Hippolyte, strips bare her soul in the tragic aria: “Il ne m’est plus permis de vivre” (YouTube). (Trombones once again.) Her phrase before she stabs herself, “Jeune Héros qui dans mon âme”, is very moving. A choral lament ends this work of great power and intensity.

Phèdre was performed 60 times between November 1786 and December 1792, and revived again in 1795/96 and 1813 (two performances). It was not performed again until Bru Zane’s abridged 2017 production.

Lemoyne achieved several notable successes. With Nephté (1789), he became the first composer in France called for by the public at the end of the opening night – “An honour,” Clément remarked, “that most composers esteem poorly, and which stems from a false appreciation of their merit. They owe the public the hearing of their works, but not the exhibition of their person.” Nephté had 39 consecutive performances, and its success was only stopped by the management, to evade a regulation that granted a pension of 1,000 francs to the author of a work that reached 40 performances. Les Prétendus (1789) remained in the repertoire for 35 years, although Berlioz ridiculed it, and Fétis considered it heavy and flat, and attributed its durability to bad taste. Fétis, however, thought Lemoyne’s late works were feeble, and damaged his reputation. Les pommiers et le moulin (1790) lacked verve and gaiety; the Opéra refused to produce Elfride (1792), a cold piece; and the subsequent works seem to be one-act comedies.

“Lemoyne lacked genius, and could be no more than an imitator,” Fétis concluded. But Dratwicki disputes this judgement.

It would certainly be a mistake to deny him the merit of originality. From Électre to Louis IX en Égypte, Lemoyne’s ‘manner’ in the noble genre preserves a remarkable austerity, severity and theatrical effectiveness. If his melodies reject the pleasant charm of a Philidor or a Grétry, if his harmony surprises one with layouts or gaps that are sometimes disconcerting on the printed page, he knows how to embellish his scores with theatrical gestures, orchestral shocks and vocal outbursts that give them great intensity.

Hopefully, Bru Zane will resurrect more of Lemoyne’s forgotten operas.


Listen to: Judith van Wanroij (Phèdre), Julien Behr (Hippolyte), and Tassis Christoyannis (Thésée), with the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra conducted by György Vashegyi, Budapest 2019; Bru Zane, 2020.

Works consulted

  • Amédée Boutarel, “Ariane: introduction à l’opéra de Massenet”, Le Ménestrel, 10 November 1906
  • Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869     (www.artlyriquefr.fr)
  • Alexandre Dratwicki, “Rediscovering Phèdre”, Bru Zane 2020
  • Benoît Dratwicki, “Phèdre: a composer, a singer, a work”, Bru Zane 2020
  • Benoît Dratwicki, “Panorama de la création à l’Académie de musique”, Histoire de l’opéra français : Du Roi-Soleil à la Révolution, ed. Hervé Lacombe, Paris: Fayard, 2021
  • Julien Garde, “Gluck and Lemoyne”, Bru Zane 2020
  • Étienne Jardin, “The critical reception”, Bru Zane 2020
  • F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
  • Affiches des Trois-Êvêchés, 7 December 1786
  • Le Mercure de France, 2, 9, 23 December 1786

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