|About this Recording
NBD0085V - GAVEAUX, P.: Léonore, ou L'amour conjugal [Opera] (Opera Lafayette, 2017) (Blu-ray, HD)
Pierre Gaveaux (1761–1825)
Opera in Two Acts (1798)
Léonore/Fidélio Kimy Mc Laren, soprano
Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus
Stage Director Oriol Tomas
Filmed on 23 February 2017 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College, New York
Léonore, ou L’Amour conjugal, with a text by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly and music by Pierre Gaveaux, is one of the most famous pieces of lyric theatre that virtually no contemporary audiences have ever witnessed. This opéra comique, which premiered at the Parisian Theatre Feydeau in 1798, is emblematic of a persistently neglected category of dramatic repertory—the dialogue opera of the French revolutionary period. It also, of course, provided the source material for an object of widespread renown and sustained scholarly fascination: Fidelio, the sole surviving (and much revised) opera of Ludwig van Beethoven. Bouilly and Gaveaux’s Léonore is thus a work with a uniquely bifurcated historical identity. On the one hand, its plot and musical idiom are tied closely to the time and place of its creation; it betrays a clear debt to the conventions of Classical-era opéra comique and to the specific political circumstances of the late 1790s. On the other hand, the opera’s abstract and broadly generalisable themes—of the strength of conjugal devotion and the necessity for rebellion against unjust persecution—would prove eminently adaptable, exerting an enduring hold on the popular imagination in France and throughout 19th-century Europe.
Léonore was described by its librettist as a ‘fait historique.’ The term refers to a sub-category of French opera developed during the final decades of the 18th century, featuring plots ‘ripped from the headlines’ or otherwise based upon acts of contemporary heroism. In his (sometimes spurious) memoirs, Bouilly—a lawyer turned playwright—publicised the work by emphasising its veracity. He claimed that the drama was inspired by an event that occurred during the revolutionary reign of Terror. While employed as a civil servant in central France, he had witnessed a ‘sublime deed of bravery and devotion by one of the ladies of the Touraine, whose noble efforts I had the happiness of assisting.’ The details of the incident, while plausible, are impossible to verify. And it should be noted that the author’s own reputation stood to benefit in association with that of his theatrical doppelganger—if he ‘assisted’ the efforts of a real-world Léonore, Bouilly implied that he himself served as the model for the libretto’s prime symbol of justice and authority, the benevolent minister Dom Fernand. Moreover, if Léonore contains a grain of historical truth, it simultaneously (and rather conveniently) exemplifies many of the most popular plot archetypes of contemporaneous French theatre. The theme of dramatic rescue from captivity was unsurprisingly ubiquitous in the years surrounding the fall of the Bastille, as was the dramatic condemnation of arbitrary tyranny. (Prison scenes abound in works of the period, from Monsigny’s Le Déserteur to Dalayrac’s Raoul, sire de Créqui. The evil Dourlinski in Cherubini’s Lodoïska is but one obvious predecessor to Léonore’s power-mad villain, Dom Pizare.)
Gaveaux’s score for Léonore looks both backwards and forwards, blending tuneful, old-regime idioms with more complicated numbers reflective of the rapidly evolving aesthetic of the 1790s. The stylistic language of Roc, Marceline, and Jacquino remains largely within the conventions of the pre-revolutionary age. These comic characters express themselves in a rustic patois and in a series of popularly infused strophic forms. Case in point is Marceline’s opening love song, ‘Fidélio, mon doux ami’, a set of minor-mode couplets with major-mode refrain. But Gaveaux had also thoroughly absorbed the developments of the revolutionary decade, as evidenced, in particular, by his expansive approach to choral music and his inclusion of styles borrowed from the realm of lyric tragedy. (Gaveaux was both a composer and a star actor at the Theatre Feydeau. Originating leading roles in several touchstone works of the period, including Cherubini’s Lodoïska and Medée, and Steibelt’s Roméo et Juliette, had granted him a first-hand fluency in the latest trends in modern operatic writing.) Notable in this regard is the ensemble that concludes the opera’s first act (‘Que ce beau ciel’), which is sung by male captives who gradually fill the stage, and which provides a clear model for the famous ‘prisoner’s chorus’ (‘O welche Lust’) at the parallel moment in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Also innovative are the serious, obbligato recitative and romance performed by Florestan as the curtain rises in Act II. The declamatory vocal style, dark C minor tonality, and evocative orchestral effects create a foreboding tone reminiscent of the tragédie lyrique. (Gaveaux requests the horns play ‘bell to bell’—a technique that Gluck had used to represent the soundscape of the underworld in his Parisian Alceste.) Indeed, the prison scenes of Léonore were so sombre that they threatened to compromise the very identity of the comic genre; as one commentator noted, it was a ‘strange verbal misuse’ to categorise Bouilly and Gaveaux’s work as an opéra comique.
Léonore was met with critical acclaim after its Parisian premiere. The Journal de Paris was hard-pressed to name another opera in memory that had achieved ‘so complete and universal a success’, while the Censeur dramatique highlighted the ‘astonishing’ musical effects and the ‘nuanced’ and ‘forceful’ dramatic construction of the title character. The popularity of the work soon inspired a number of adaptations for export outside of France. Ferdinando Paer and Johann Simon Mayr set Italian translations in 1804 and 1805, respectively; Beethoven received a German version of Bouilly’s libretto for production in Vienna that same year. (He would revise his opera, with new and altered texts, in 1806 and 1814.) What is perhaps most remarkable about Léonore is the manner in which its themes have been successively and broadly reimagined, divorced from the very specific historical and geographical circumstances of their initial conception. Bouilly and Gaveaux’s opera was written in the aftermath of the Revolution’s most radical phase, the Terror of 1793–94. Its metaphors of liberation should thus be read not as commentary on the fallen regime of the Bourbon monarchs, but on that of Robespierre and the Jacobins. (The Theatre Feydeau had a solid reputation for royalist sentiments, and Gaveaux was the author of a well-known, anti-terror anthem, Le reveil du peuple.) By 1814, the finalised Fidelio of Beethoven had acquired an entirely new political resonance: its plot was largely viewed as a paean to the toppling of Napoleon, and its exuberant finale as a hymn to the reinstatement of European stability after the Congress of Vienna. Central to both of these (and many subsequent) interpretations of Léonore’s fundamental themes is what the historian Paul Robinson has called a ‘right-angled conception of history’, a transition from the old order to the new that is achieved only through struggle, and therein derives much of its enduring—and inspirational—appeal.
Marceline, daughter of Roc the jailer and the laundress for the prisoners, joyously anticipates the possibility of marrying Fidélio, the young man who now works for her father. Marceline’s long-time suitor, Jacquino, arrives and tries again to woo her, but to his annoyance and Marceline’s relief, he is interrupted several times by knocking at the door. Marceline’s father Roc, enters, rebuffs Jacquino, and asks about Fidélio. Fidélio arrives, having secured a very good bargain for work Roc has asked him to arrange. Roc is especially pleased, and speaks approvingly of Fidélio becoming part of the family, indicating that it takes both love and money to make a good marriage.
Fidélio declares marriage the highest good, but also that he is disappointed Roc has not shown enough confidence in him to allow him to help the jailer with his most difficult tasks in the bottom dungeons of the prison. Roc says he is under strict orders not to let anyone see the prisoners of the state who are put there, but should the Governor of the prison, Pizare, allow Fidélio to help Roc in the dungeons, there is still one prisoner he surely will not be allowed to see, one who has been there for two years and whom Pizare has ordered Roc to slowly starve.
Pizare enters and receives a letter from an informant which says that the Minister of the region suspects there may be victims of arbitrary power held in the prison and will arrive soon for a surprise inspection. Pizare orders a trumpeter to the tower to announce the Minister’s arrival as soon as he is seen on the road, fearing the Minister may discover that Pizare has imprisoned his own personal and political enemy, Florestan. He resolves to kill Florestan before the Minister arrives.
Roc re-enters with Marceline and Fidélio, but Pizare tells Roc to follow him. Marceline speaks of marriage to Fidélio, but notices Fidélio is uncomfortable and preoccupied. Marceline leaves to do her work. Fidélio (Léonore) is left alone, pondering her choice to disguise herself as a young man in the hope that she may be able to find her husband alive in the prison. Roc re-enters again to tell Fidélio that the Governor has allowed him to take the young man to the lower dungeons so that they may quickly dig out a cistern to be used as a grave for the prisoner, whom a masked man will soon finish off.
Meanwhile, the prisoners are brought into the courtyard for their daily hour of fresh air.
Florestan, alone in the darkest and most remote dungeon, bemoans his fate, thinks of his wife Léonore, and falls unconscious. Roc and Fidélio enter the dungeon and begin to dig out the cistern. Fidélio struggles to better see or hear the prisoner. When Fidélio (Léonore) recognises that it is her husband, she keeps her identity hidden, but persuades Roc to allow her to give the prisoner a piece of bread. Pizare arrives, but masked, and orders Roc and Fidélio to leave. Before they are gone, he begins to strike Florestan, but Fidélio throws herself in front of Florestan to protect him, and reveals herself to all as Léonore, his wife. Pizare unmasks himself and orders Roc to separate Léonore from Florestan. Léonore draws a pistol, but just then the trumpet call is heard. Pizare rushes out to prepare to meet the Minister, vowing to finish off Florestan later. Roc follows, first taking Léonore’s pistol from her. Léonore faints.
Florestan calls to Léonore and she awakens. They then hear a chorus in the distance calling for vengeance, and, fearing again for their lives, prepare to die. They are joyfully surprised when it is the Minister, Dom Fernand, who arrives to set them free. Dom Fernand orders Pizare punished, and the innocent prisoners join everyone in blessing the day and celebrating the love and courage of Léonore.
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