247. La lépreuse (Lazzari)

  • Tragédie légéndaire in 3 acts
  • Composer: Sylvio Lazzari
  • Libretto: Henry Bataille
  • First performed: Opéra-Comique, Paris, 7th February 1912, conducted by François Rühlmann

ALIETTESopranoMarguerite Carré
ERVOANIK, a young peasantTenor   Léon Beyle
MARIA, Ervoanik’s motherContraltoBrohly
MATELINN, Ervoanik’s fatherBassVieuille
LA VIEILLE TILI, Aliette’s motherMezzoMarie Delna
The SeneschalBaritoneAzéma
The PriestBassPayan
Washerwomen2 sopranos 1 mezzo 1 contraltoMenard Billa-Azéma Suzanne Thévenet Villette
The ServantSopranoFayolle
Ervoanik’s sisterSopranoCarrière
Peasants2 basses 1 tenorVaurs Barthez Donval
A Peasant WomanMezzoSuzanne Thévenet
The Crowd – Peasants – Cantors – Choirboys – The ProcessionChorus 

SETTING: The Middle-Ages, in Ploumillau, Bretagne.

La Lépreuse was one of the operatic masterpieces of all time,” the critic and pacifist Georges Pioch declared in the 1930s. “Alongside Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue, it was the highest summit of French dramatic music since the beginning of the century.”

So it would be nice to hear it in full. As with many other French operas of the early 20th century, however, it has long since been forgotten. There is only one recording (Paris 1957, conducted by Gustave Cloëz). About an hour has been cut. It gives an idea of the opera, but no more. But it suggests an opera that is well-crafted, dramatic, and tuneful.

The opera is based on an 1896 play by the then-20-year-old playwright, Henry Battaille, who said the work was about Love and Death, Hatred and Pity. La lépreuse – in fact, there are two leper women in this opera: old Tili the witch, whom children throw stones at in the street, and her beautiful daughter, Aliette, who carries the disease, but shows no symptoms. Ervoanik wants to marry Aliette, despite his parents’ furious objections. However, Ervoanik already has a wife and children. When Aliette finds out, she deliberately infects Ervoanik with leprosy by sharing her glass with him. In a blasphemous allusion, her mother says: “Prenez maintenant – ceci est mon sang.” (Effectively: “Take and drink – this is my blood.”) At the end of the opera, Ervoanik is banished from the village, and confined to the “white house” for lepers. Aliette, now suffering leprosy herself, appears, and the two walk hand in hand to their exile.

Lazzari, Pioch stated, was “a master in whom heart and spirit / intellect, art and life are in perfect harmony. The exactitude of musical expression makes the characters sensitive and moving. The depth and truth of this work make Lazzari remarkable and great [like] Gluck and Wagner. Love, passion, destiny, misfortune speak here their simplest language and, nevertheless, the noblest as well as the most powerful. The music completes the work of the poetry, spiritualising a story which, if it were not magnified, sublimated by it, would only be a moment of eternal human suffering and ugliness.”

Le Monde artiste, 17 February 1912

The composer, Sylvio Lazzari, was a naturalised Frenchman, born in the Tyrol. He moved to France in 1862; encouraged by Gounod and Chausson, he studied with Ernest Guiraud and César Franck at the Conservatoire. Lazzari completed the score of La Lépreuse a dozen years before its eventual première. Albert Carré, manager of the Opéra-Comique, accepted it in 1900, but he worried that the subject matter was too grim, and so shelved it. Only after a court case (L’Affaire de la Lépreuse, which sounds like a thriller) was it produced.

Although Lazzari was a fervent Wagnerian (president of the Association wagnérienne de Paris), La Lépreuse equally shows the influence of Gounod. There is nothing Debussyan about it; Pelléas was still in the future when he composed it, in 1899. (Another source says 1901.)

Like most operas of its time, the score is divided into scenes, rather than numbers; but in effect, it is a series of distinct arias, choruses, and duets, linked by recitative. It is a relief to hear such a melodic work in the post-Pelléas period. Charles Kœchlin (Gazette des beaux-arts), for one, found the music “restful and healthy; it sounds well”. He thought the music was clear, well-written, tuneful, lively and rhythmic, using familiar chords, and not those of the (Wagnerian) Future. Similarly, Reynaldo Hahn wrote that the music “sang, lived, was abundant and generous, it came from the heart … and it was easy to understand”. Gabriel Fauré also praised the sureness of the musical writing. (The elderly Arthur Pougin, however, thought Lazzari changed key too frequently; it was almost atonal.)

La Lépreuse is also a regional work; like other Lazzari operas, it is set in Brittany, where he composed this score, drawing on folktunes (for instance, the chanson du roi Loys serves as a leitmotiv for Aliette’s leprosy). “The naïve grace of many old Breton songs veils the dark story in charm and tenderness,” Kœchlin commented.

Judging from the limited recording, Aliette’s aria in Act II is theatrically effective: she sings a lullaby to the sleeping Ervoanik, prays to the Madonna for strength, and is anguished that she can never kiss her lover.

The scene where she offers the contaminated pitcher to her lover is a strong finish to that act. Erkoanik’s farewell to his mother in Act III (“Ne me touchez pas, ma mère”), a mad scene for tenor, is deeply poignant.

La Lépreuse was performed 70 times at the Paris Opéra–Comique by the end of 1950. Was it performed elsewhere? I am not sure; Vincent Giroud states that “its shocking subject-matter may have hampered its career outside France”. But it is an opera that should be resurrected. Reviewing a 1943 performance, Arthur Honegger wrote:

“This score emanates an emotion, direct and simple at the same time, which acts on all categories of listeners. Those looking for dramatic sensations will find there many situations which are real theatre; the colour and vigour of the musical accents underline and enhance them with rare happiness. Those who, on the contrary, are more interested in the lyrical side of a work, who are sensitive to vocal expressions, to the melodic element, will also be in luck, because this score is constantly melodic. It is so with a generosity that does not exclude elegance and which adapts so intelligently to the text that one could not imagine any other.”


Listen to: Jeanne Ségala (Aliette), Jean Giraudeau (Ervoanik), Solange Michel (Maria), Louis Noguera (Matelinn), and Suzanne Darbans (la vieille Tili), with the Orchestre National de la R.T.F., Paris, 1957, conducted by Gustave Cloëz.

Works consulted

  • Arthur Pougin, Le Ménestrel, 10th February 1912
  • Rameau, Le Monde artiste, 17th February 1912
  • La Critique indépendante, 18th February 1912
  • Charles Kœchlin, Gazette des beaux-arts, 9th March 1912
  • Georges Pioch, in Histoire du Théâtre Lyrique en France – Troisième partie : De l’année 1900 à nos jours, Poste National Radio-Paris, [1939 ?]
  • Arthur Honegger, Comoedia, 10 April 1943
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
  • Sylvie Douche, “Le succès d’une œuvre maudite: La Lépreuse de Sylvio Lazzari“, Les colloques de l’Opéra-Comique, 2014

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