RICHARD CŒUR DE LION
Comédie in 3 acts, in prose, mixed with ariettes
By André Grétry
Libretto: Michel-Jean Sedaine
First performed: Opéra-Comique (1re salle Favart), 21 October 1784
Richard Cœur-de-lion (Richard the Lionheart, for Anglophones) is a rarity today, but was one of the classics of French opera, by one of the most celebrated opera composers of his day.
Beethoven wrote Variations on one of the big tunes, and had the opera in mind when he wrote Fidelio. Mozart also wrote Variations, from some of Grétry’s other operas, which musicologists say influenced the da Ponte comedies. And Tchaikovsky quoted an aria from Richard in The Queen of Spades. In Paris, it was performed 621 times by 1950, with 19 performances in the early twentieth century. At least one of the arias was still a baritone warhorse mid-century.
Everybody knows that Richard the Lionheart was captured on his return from the Crusades and held prisoner in European castles. Just about every Robin Hood film shows the Saxon outlaw raising funds to ransom his master, and thwarting the plans of Richard’s slimy brother, Prince John.
History states that Leopold V, Duke of Austria, captured Richard in 1192, and stuck him in a cell in Dürnstein Castle. After the Pope excommunicated Leopold, the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, locked him up in Trifels Castle, Germany, and demanded 100,000 marks for his release. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard’s mother, moved heaven and earth to get her son released; that is, she heavily taxed the clergy and the laity, and paid the ransom. Pragmatic, but unromantic.
According to legend, the minstrel Blondel searched the castles of Europe for his master. He would stand outside the castle walls, and sing a song they had composed together. At last, he came to the castle where Richard was imprisoned, sang his party number, and the king capped it with the second verse. Blondel rejoiced, told the rest of Europe where Richard was, and the king was soon released.
That’s the basis for the opera, which shows how Blondel, disguised as a blind old man, finds his master, and rescues him from the wicked governor Florestan. (A name Beethoven gave his wrongly imprisoned hero in Fidelio.)
Blondel resolves to find his master in the once famous aria “O Richard, ô mon Roi”, sung here by the Belgian baritone Michel Trempont:
That song’s a corker. It’s vigorous, heroic, and has a great tune. It was also a Loyalist anthem during the Revolution, sung by the followers of the deposed Louis XVIII. Although Richard was first performed in 1784, five years before the storming of the Bastille, the song is prophetic: a king abandoned by all the world save his loyal servant, and his queen crushed by grief.
Equally fine is “Une fièvre brûlante”, the recognition song. The tune – beautiful, simple, and immediately memorable – runs through the opera, and musicologists point to it as an example of the motif of reminiscence (or leitmotif) decades before Wagner. Here’s Beethoven’s version:
It’s first heard in Act I, when Richard’s wife, Margaret, Countess of Flanders, and her suite arrive at the castle; Blondel plays the tune on his violin in her presence to test whether she really is Margaret. A devoted wife would never forget the song her loving husband composed for her in happier times. Satisfied that it’s Margaret, Blondel then plays the tune several times, with variations (a good way of putting it firmly in the audience’s head).
In Act II, we hear it for the first time as a song. Blondel sings it outside the castle walls – towards the top of the treble clef, high for a baritone; the aria was, though, composed by the tenor Richard. The king hears the song, and replies.
The tune is heard for the last time in the opera’s finale, at the end of Act III. This is part of a massive, multi-section choral number whose exalted joy reminds me of the sublime ending to Fidelio.
Richard himself has another impressive aria, “Si l’univers entier m’oublie”, in which the king laments his imprisonment and calls for death to end his suffering:
One sub-plot deals with the love affair between Laurette, daughter of an English exile, and the governor Florestan. Laurette sings a delicate aria, “Je crains de lui parler la nuit”, which shows the fears and uncertainty of young love. Mady Mesplé sings it here:
These are four highlights from the opera, but everywhere one hears a master. If they were on YouTube, I would have posted Blondel’s Saracen chanson, “Que le Sultan Saladin”; Blondel and Laurette’s couplets, “Un bandeau couvre mes yeux”; or the Ronde de Nuit that opens Act II.
I’m puzzled, though, why the opera isn’t a fixture in the opera house. It’s musically first-rate, it moves swiftly, and there are no longueurs. Is it that the lead role is a baritone, and there’s little love interest?
As it is, though, Richard, and Grétry’s other operas  languish in as much obscurity as the Lionheart. Hopefully a minstrel will rescue Grétry, and restore him to his full glory in the eyes of the public.
 Among them Zémire et Azor (a version of Beauty and the Beast, admired by Mozart and Thomas Beecham, recently staged in Saratoga), L’Amant jaloux (performed to rave reviews by Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera in 2015), and Andromaque and Panurge, both praised by David LeMarrec at Carnets sur Sol.
- Orchestre de Chambre de la Radio-Télévision Belge, conducted by Edgard Doneux, with Charles Burles, Michel Trempont, Jacqueline Sternotte, Danièle Perriers, Mady Mesplé, Ludovic de San, Monique Bost, Nicole Dukens, Jean van Gorp, Jules Bastin, and Jean Bussard (EMI Classics/Angel Records CD: B000063XQN, recorded 16-26 May 1977).