246. Monna Vanna (Février)

  • Drame lyrique in 4 acts
  • Composer: Henry Février
  • Libretto: Maurice Maeterlinck
  • First performed: Académie Nationale de Musique, Paris, 13 January 1909, conducted by Paul Vidal

MONNA VANNA, Guido’s wifeSopranoLucienne Bréval
PRINZIVALLE, General in the pay of FlorenceTenorLucien Muratore
GUIDO Colonna, commander of the Pisan garrisonBaritone or bassVanni Marcoux
MARCO Colonna, Guido’s fatherBassJean-François Delmas
VEDIO (page)TenorGeorges Nansen
BORSO, Guido’s lieutenantTenorConguet
TORELLO, Guido’s lieutenantBass or baritoneTriadou
TRIVULZIO, Commissioner of the Florentine RepublicBassJoachim Cerdan
Lords, Soldiers, Peasants, PopulaceChorus 

SETTING: The end of the 15th century. Acts I and III: Pisa; Act II: outside the city.

Maeterlinck again! But Monna Vanna was a departure for the Belgian Symbolist playwright. His 1902 play is a historical drama in the vein of Victorien Sardou; the characters’ motivations are clear; and the situations are strong and dramatic. Unsurprisingly, it was Maeterlinck’s greatest theatrical success. Pierre Kaminski (1001 opéras) believes this “well-made play”, designed to be successful, showed the decline of Maeterlinck’s artistic ambitions. But, for my money, it has a much better story than either Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy, 1902) or Ariane et Barbe-bleue (Dukas, 1907), and its operatic adaptation is better musical theatre.

The town of Pisa is besieged by the Florentines; the starving Pisans have turned against the garrison commander, Guido Colonna, and call for his death. But the Florentine general offers a lifeline: a convoy of food will bring enough food to feed the town for months – if Giovanna, Guido’s wife, spends one night with him. When Vanna goes to Prinzivalle, she learns that he was once her childhood companion. Now where do her loyalties lie: with her cruelly jealous husband, or with the boy who had a crush on her?

Following the success of the Monna Vanna play, Maeterlinck decided to turn it into an opera, set by Henry Février (1875–1957). (Sergei Rachmaninoff composed Act I and began work on Act II before learning that Maeterlinck had given the rights to Février.)

Février, the son of an eminent architect, had studied with Massenet and Fauré at the Conservatoire, and with André Messager, a family friend. Jacques Tchamkerten calls him “the French composer most similar to the Italian verismists because of his innate sense of dramatic situations and his melodic instinct”.

Monna Vanna was Février’s most successful opera, performed 80 times at the Paris Opéra by May 1949. It was also staged in Europe and America (Boston, New York, Buenos Aires), where it led to a commission from Chicago (Gismonda, 1919, with Mary Garden).

Wagnerian leitmotif and rich orchestral substance, slightly noxious sensuality à la Massenet, and veristic pathos go hand in hand in a score that lacks neither breath, nor panache, nor above all skill in writing for voices, but which a lack of originality has – temporarily? – shelved,” Kaminski commented.

The opera has only been recorded once, in Rennes, 1958. That recording, however, is frustratingly incomplete. The ends of Acts II and III and all of Act IV were not recorded. The rest of the score has several cuts (sanctioned by Février in the score). The sound is boxy, and the orchestral detail difficult to hear.

Février’s music is more conservative than Debussy or Dukas’s, but he knew what he was doing. Indeed, Pierre Lalo (Le Temps) remarked, its chief characteristic was a sureness of craftsmanship. The style is similar to late Massenet, his master: it is through-composed; much of the vocal line is declamation, with occasional lyrical passages; and choruses and arioso are folded into the scene. Throughout, the text is intelligently set.

Nevertheless, there are few standout moments, which may be one reason why the work has been forgotten. Critics admired Février’s elegant melodic ideas, his adroit and refined harmony, his skilful orchestration (Lalo). Arthur Pougin (Le Ménestrel) unreservedly praised the instrumentation, “remarkably restrained, but capable of vigour”, and was struck by the excellence of the woodwind writing.

But the music seemed secondary to the text. “The music in Monna Vanna follows the story rather than seizing it; it translates the words more than it expresses souls; and there is little music,” Lalo thought. Similarly, Charles Kœchlin (Gazette des beaux-arts) thought the music added nothing to a play complete in itself. “Commentary, illustration of the story, but not a deep expression of feeling.”

However, Février’s music is always dramatically appropriate, and depicts the characters well. Act II is excellent, especially the dialogue between Monna Vanna and Prinzivalle, in which they reminisce of their Venice childhood. Similarly, the scene in Act III where Monna Vanna tries to save Prinzivalle from her husband seems effective. (The recording cuts out here.)

But these are only fragmentary impressions.

Monna Vanna badly needs a complete recording.


Listen to: Suzanne Sarroca (Monna Vanna), René Damiro and Pierre Fleta (Prinzivalle), Georges Le Coz (Guido), Besancon / Rennes 1958, conducted by Marcel Ficheret.

Works consulted

  • Arthur Pougin, Le Ménestrel, 16 January 1909
  • Pierre Lalo, Le Temps, 19 January 1909
  • Charles Kœchlin, Gazette des beaux-arts, 30 January 1909
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003 Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
  • Jacques Tchamkerten, “Héritage, tradition, reappropriation: Après Massenet: Les voies difficiles de l’émancipation”, in Hervé Lacombe (ed.), Histoire de l’opéra français : De la Belle Époque au monde globalisé, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2022
  • Henry Février’s Lost Opera, The Art Music Lounge, 26 July 2022

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