About this Recording
NBD0119V - MESSAGER, A.: Fortunio [Opera] (Opéra Comique, 2019) (Blu-ray, HD)
English  French 

André Messager (1853–1929)
Fortunio

On 5 June 1907, the Opéra Comique hosted a thoroughly Parisian occasion: the premiere of André Messager’s new work Fortunio. The composer, wielding the baton in the pit, had just been appointed director… of the Paris Opéra!

Seven months before taking up his post at the Palais Garnier, Messager returned to the theatre that had witnessed his early development. It had been there, 17 years before, that he had gained recognition for his first major work, La Basoche. And he had gone on to be an enlightened and internationally recognised musical director there from 1898 to 1904.

That particular evening in 1907, Messager the conductor was applauded as enthusiastically as Messager the composer. Five years earlier, on the same rostrum, he had conducted the successful premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande

With his two activities Messager, more than anyone else, brought together the most antithetical facets of French music. Fortunio received its first performance three weeks after Paul Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe- Bleue. Messager, a composer of operettas, and the symphonist Dukas had virtually nothing in common. At a time when symphonic and chamber music were flourishing, Messager was one of the last composers to devote his entire career to opera, producing around 30 titles. Nevertheless, he and Dukas were friends. And what is more, Messager was able to appreciate both Vincent d’Indy and Henri Christiné!

Messager was naturally drawn to comedy. Even his admiration for Wagner, who died the year Messager turned 30, did not alter his course. With his friend Gabriel Fauré, he was one of the ‘Bayreuth pilgrims’, but did not fall into the trap of fascination. Their experience gave rise to Les Souvenirs de Bayreuth, a hilariously funny ‘fantasy in the form of a quadrille’. While a good many of his elders tried to follow or even imitate Wagner, Messager chose to write operettas as a profession, gaining a feeling for dramatic pacing and the spirit of the Belle Époque.

Universally recognised as a master, Messager never tried to prove anything in his works. His conductor’s baton earned him the freedom to produce what he liked – comedy whose levity, whilst combatting dullness, was compatible with subtlety and even profundity.

Fortunio is a comédie lyrique. This means that the dialogue in the libretto is given a continuous musical setting. On 6 January 1864, a decree had granted freedom to French theatres, and since then it had been possible to perform any genre in any venue. The Opéra Comique stopped limiting itself exclusively to comic opera. Librettists and composers came up with new formulae. With a nod to Rameau’s Platée (designated a comédie lyrique in its day), Flers, Caillavet and Messager thus revived the parameters of demi-caractère opéra comique – a bourgeois setting, colourful characters, a plot that was both risqué and romantic, passing references to life in the provinces – and injected into it Wagnerian flow combined with a thoroughly French orchestral transparency.

In keeping with contemporary taste, the libretto is an adaptation of a literary work – Le Chandelier by Alfred de Musset. The play had musical potential which Offenbach had spotted in 1850, when he wrote the incidental music for its premiere at Comédie-Française. Moreover, his famous Chanson de Fortunio remained popular and initially slightly overshadowed Messager’s operetta.

Musset had never dated. He had been dead for 50 years and had stopped writing longer ago than that, but he was still popular at the Opéra Comique. Le Chandelier had been set to music by Auber as early as 1840, under the title Zanetta. In 1872, Offenbach had written a Fantasio and Bizet had adapted Namouna in his opera Djamileh. Musset’s work injects a vibrant romantic density into upperclass society at the turn of the 19th century by virtue of its heroes who, to paraphrase Chateaubriand, inhabit an empty world with a full heart.

To this caustic yet tender play chosen by Messager, the skilled librettists added an explanatory opening act and a scene featuring a nocturnal party which was dropped after the first performance. Describing the mood of the premiere, Albert Carré, who was both theatre and stage director, mentions the ‘pleasant, genial atmosphere. “You would have said that the music was by Musset himself”, Robert de Flers wrote to me. Messager, for his part, was delighted by his librettists.’

Carré staged the show with sets by Lucien Jusseaume. The casting elevated a promising newcomer, Fernand Francell, to the title role while advertising the stars Marguerite Carré as Jacqueline and Lucien Fugère as Maître André, as well as certain singers from the first performance of Pelléas: Hector Dufranne, who had sung Golaud, in the role of Clavaroche and Jean Périer, who had sung Pelléas, as Landry. Henri Busser, Messager’s successor as the orchestra’s conductor yielded the baton to the composer. Seated in the auditorium, he applauded alongside Debussy, Hahn and Pierné, who were, he noted, ‘all delighted by this light, witty music’ – music that Fauré was to praise in Le Figaro.

What does the success of Fortunio in 1907 prove? That the spirit of opéra comique endured, and it adapted to changes in French theatrical life such as it opening up to Italian and German composers. That in essence, the Opéra Comique remained the leading opera house in France when it came to operatic premieres – a lifeblood as indispensable for the health of musical life as it was for the health of the Opéra itself, which was better resourced but had less freedom.

Crowned best opéra comique by the Académie des beaux arts’ Monbinne Prize, Fortunio remained in the repertoire until 1948, then was dropped until our 2009 production by Louis Langrée and Denis Podalydès.

Agnès Terrier / Opéra Comique 2019
Translation: Susan Baxter

 

Synopsis

Act I

A Sunday, outside the church in a garrison town. Among those out for a stroll is Landry, a lively notary’s clerk who enjoys life. He drinks to the health of his boss, Maître André, an old fogey blessed with a charming wife of unsullied reputation, Dame Jacqueline. Maître Subtil (‘Master Subtle’) and Fortunio arrive from the country – the elderly uncle wants Maître André to hire his nephew and entrusts him to the care of Landry. Fortunio dreams of love and is scared of life. Landry looks forward to educating him.

Among the officers, Captain Clavaroche, a newly arrived ladykiller, enquires about women to seduce. He settles on Jacqueline, who is leaving the church after Mass. She admits to him that marital life is very dull, then introduces her husband and gallant to each other. The notary invites the captain to dine with them. Blown away by Jacqueline, Fortunio agrees to become a notary’s clerk.

Act II

One morning, Maître André struggles to wake his wife. According to Guillaume the clerk, a man has spent the night in her room. This being their wedding anniversary, Jacqueline plays the innocent, but once her husband has left, Clavaroche emerges from the wardrobe. What to do now? Clavaroche suggests finding a ‘candlestick’ or patsy – a naive suitor to divert André’s suspicion. On the advice of her lady’s maid, Jacqueline detains Fortunio the clerk. In private, he promises her his absolute devotion.

Act III

One evening, at dinner, Maître André introduces Fortunio to Clavaroche. He has accepted Fortunio as Jacqueline’s cicisbeo in order to prove to everyone that he is not jealous. Everything is going swimmingly, except that Jacqueline is in a dream, and when they come to propose a toast, Fortunio’s song rocks the boat. While her husband and lover are playing cards, Jacqueline quizzes Fortunio and is touched by his passionate love.

Clavaroche tells Jacqueline that the notary, whose jealousy has flared up again, will post armed men under her window that very night – they might as well hand Fortunio over to them. But Fortunio has heard everything…

Act IV

In despair at having been taken advantage of, Fortunio comes to tell Jacqueline that he will walk into the trap. She then confesses to him that he alone has been able to awaken true love in her. She only just has time to hide him, as dawn is breaking. Followed by a suspicious Clavaroche, Maître André comes to apologise and tell Jacqueline that he is sending the lookout away. Then there is nothing husband and lover can do but retire. Jacqueline offers them a candlestick to light them out and remains alone… with Fortunio.

Translation: Susan Baxter


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