concert performance

La Reine de Chypre

by Fromental Halévy (1841)

Grand opéra in five acts on a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, premiered on 22 December 1841 at the Opéra de Paris

7 June 2017 – 7:30 p.m.
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
Tickets 5 to 85 € Book

Co-production Bru Zane France / Théâtre des Champs-Élysées / Orchestre de chambre de Paris

The opera will be recorded for the Palazzetto Bru Zane’s “Opéra français” CD-books series

If Halévy’s name entered French musical history thanks to the success of La Juive in 1835, several voices were raised to designate La Reine de Chypre (The Queen of Cyprus), composed six years later, as his masterpiece. Wagner, in particular, deemed its music, ‘noble, feeling, and even new and elevating’; so much so, indeed, that he devoted a detailed analytical article to the work. Even the composer’s detractors were forced to acknowledge the qualities of this new work, among them George Sand who told Delacroix of ‘the beauty and pomp of the spectacle’. Premiered on 22 December 1841, Halévy’s opera offered the limelight to Rosine Stoltz in the title role: she was the only woman in the cast, for it had been found preferable to isolate her, following her incessant disputes with the other female singers in the company. Alongside her, the tenor Gilbert Duprez shone in the role of Gérard. Unlike the grands opéras of the 1830s, La Reine de Chypre includes not only a substantial bass part (Andrea Cornaro) but also an extensively developed role for high baritone (Lusignan). The story takes the spectator on a voyage from the palaces of Venice to those of Cyprus. The publisher Maurice Schlesinger, always on the lookout for novelties, is said to have paid the enormous sum of 30,000 francs for the rights to the opera. But despite an initial success confirmed by a number of translations and adaptations that appeared shortly after the first run (notably Lachner’s Caterina Cornaro in 1841 and Donizetti’s opera of the same name in 1843), the work has not been seen in a European opera house for nearly a century and a half.

Hervé Niquet music director
Nicolas André assistant music director

Catarina Cornaro Véronique Gens
Gérard de Coucy Sébastien Droy
Jacques de Lusignan Étienne Dupuis
Andréa Cornaro Christophoros Stamboglis
Mocénigo Éric Huchet
Strozzi Artavazd Sargsyan
Un Héraut d’armes Tomislav Lavoie

Venetian Terreur, French Heroism and Fated Love in Halévy’s Historical Grand Opéra, La Reine de Chypre

by Diana R. Hallman

The tales of history, so captivating to French readers and theater-goers of the early 19th century, flourished on the stage of the Paris Opéra in grand opéra portrayals of intimate tragedies set against events and conflicts of the distant past — from the 1647 revolt of Neapolitan peasants against Spanish rule in Daniel Auber’s La Muette di Portici (1828) to the 1572 Saint-Barthélemy massacre of Huguenots in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1836). Fromental Halévy (1799-1862), a leading grand opéra composer who had depicted the historical Cardinal Brogni and Council of Constance of 1414-18 in Eugène Scribe’s invented story of Jewish-Christian romance and opposition in La Juive (1835), would again be drawn to 15th-century history in his third grand opéra, La Reine de Chypre, written in collaboration with the librettist Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges (1799-1875). In setting Saint-Georges’s reimagined story of the Venetian-born Cypriot queen Catarina Cornaro, Halévy undoubtedly sensed the theatrical appeal of Catarina’s thwarted marriage, the conflicted rivalry of exiled French chevaliers who claimed her hand, and the musical-dramatic colors promised by exotic, festive scenes in Venice and Cyprus. Moreover, he may have been touched by nostalgia for Italy, a country that he had enthusiastically explored during his early Prix de Rome years. But, according to the composer’s brother, artistic partner, and biographer Léon Halévy, an important inspiration for this opera of 1841 was the “sombre et mystérieuse terreur” of Venice, an image that tapped into a rich vein of politically charged representations of the Venetian republic that either alluded to or overtly condemned the secretive despotism of its early patrician rulers. Léon’s reference to Venetian “terreur” appears to signal a common view of the city’s tyranny that was illustrated in plays, operas and histories of the period and that bore reminders of abuses of power closer to home.
As historian James H. Johnson has noted, an important drama of the long 19th century that helped to create the “myth” of Venetian tyranny was Antoine-Vincent Arnault’s Blanche et Montcassin, ou Les Vénitiens (1798), a drama with ideological links to Napoléon’s revolutionary rhetoric and military actions to liberate Venice from the Council of Ten and State Inquisition during the Italian campaign of 1796-97. This political association, along with the play’s dedication to Napoléon and his modification of its original happy ending to a tragic one, would lead to the banning of Arnault’s work after the Hundred Days, the dismissal of the dramatist from the Académie française, and his exile from France until 1819. Arnault’s drama clearly portrays an oppressive Council and depicts Blanche’s father as a Council member who forces her to abandon her beloved Montcassin, a Normand, to marry a politically viable suitor. An opera based on the play, Gioachino Rossini’s and Felice Romani’s Bianca e Falliero, o sia Il Consiglio dei Tre, first performed at La Scala in 1819, obscures the Council’s political despotism so evident in Arnault’s work. The famed Romantic author Lord Byron, using rhetoric more sharply resonant with Arnault’s messages, castigates Venice in his 1821 play Marino Faliero about the 14th-century Doge who was arrested and beheaded for his coup d’état against ruling aristocrats. In another treatment of Faliero’s ill-fated tale, Gaetano Donizetti’s Marino Faliero, an 1835 opera set to Giovanni Emanuele Bidera’s adaptation of Casimir Delavigne’s tragedy rather than Byron’s play, offers little critique of Venetian institutions, but Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco-Maria Piave would more strongly portray Venetian repressiveness in their reworking of Byron’s play The Two Foscari as I Due Foscari, first performed in Rome in 1844.
Corresponding with the politicized commentary of many of these Venetian dramas, as well as the anti-authoritarian bent of La Juive, Les Huguenots, and other grand opéras preceding La Reine de Chypre, the opera’s retelling of Catarina Cornaro’s history against the backdrop of Venetian-Cypriot alliances reverberates with similar images of Venetian tyranny. Napoléonic, or Revolution-inspired, ideology emerges in the opera’s sinister portrayal of Pietro Mocenigo, a member of the Council of Ten who threatens the patrician Andrea with death if he does not follow Venice’s command to prevent the marriage of his niece Catarina with the chevalier Gérard de Courcy. To convey Mocenigo’s menacing authority, Halévy creates a recurring motive built on an ominous, repeated-note ostinato, first sounding in C minor in his parlante exchanges with Andrea, who is forced to defy his original blessing of Caterina’s and Gérard’s betrothal as he gives her hand to the Cypriot king, Jacques de Lusignan, thus securing Venetian power in Cyprus. The parallel to Arnault’s plot choice of a broken engagement and politically forced marriage strongly implies a source connection to his 1798 play, a possibility that becomes more probable if one ponders the close association between Arnault and Halévy’s brother Léon, as well as the dramatist’s renewed prominence in the Académie during the early July Monarchy. Also intriguing to consider is a possible subtextual allusion to France’s own repressive acts in the previous exiling of Arnault and banning of his work.
The intent to depict Venetian terreur in La Reine de Chypre is made explicit by the printing of an historical excerpt in the preface to the libretto’s first edition. Included is a passage from Histoire de Venise (1838), one of two published histories of Venice by le comte Pierre-Antoine-Noël-Bruno Daru, a soldier and homme d’État who served as commissaire in Napoléon’s Northern Italian campaign. Reflecting Napoléonic views similar to Arnault’s, Daru writes of Venice’s power over the Cypriot king, a possible Venetian conspiracy behind his likely poisoning, and Catarina’s courageous refusal to submit to Venetian control in the excerpt, and further emphasizes the malevolent authority of “le conseil des Dix” in other passages of Histoire, noting that “ce tribunal monstrueux” closely monitored the populace and authorized public and hidden deaths.
Daru’s interpretation of the Council’s absolute power and murderous conspiracies corresponds with both implicit and explicit references in the score and libretto. In addition to Mocenigo’s recurring motive, Halévy creates authoritative, dotted-rhythm bass lines to symbolize Venice’s threatening control, including a repeated motive of ascending octaves that includes the “devil’s interval” of a tritone in C minor at the end of Act II, as Catarina falls to her knees at the anguish of rejecting Gérard and as Mocenigo gestures toward waiting assassins, reminding her of the threat to her lover’s life. In Act III’s casino gardens of Cyprus, Venetian seigneurs taunt Cypriot revellers that Venice’s enemies will face death or slavery and then sing, to the rising octave motive of Act II: “Venise de sa terrible voix domine l’univers!” In Catarina’s poignant recitative of Act V, she ruminates on Lusignan’s succumbing to “un mal inconnu” shortly after Mocenigo’s sinister Act I motive is heard; later Gérard directly accuses Mocenigo of poisoning the king, and the Iago-like character admits, “Oui, Venise a brisé cet instrument rebelle,” but threatens to blame Catarina and Gérard for the crime. In the final scenes, the dying Lusignan revives to defend the pair and unite the Cypriots to fight for victory over an oppressive Venice.
Close in time to the creation of the five-act La Reine de Chypre and its premiere on 22 December 1841 at the Paris Opéra, a wave of Cornaro operas appeared in European theaters, all related to Saint-Georges’s libretto but with some mitigation of its political elements. Even before La Reine’s premiere, Franz Lachner’s adaptation, the four-act opera Catarina Cornaro, Königin von Cypern, premiered at the Munich Hofoper on 3 December 1841. A few years later, Alfred Bunn reworked the Parisian libretto for Michael William Balfe’s The Daughter of St Mark, presented in 1844 at Drury Lane Theatre in London. In the libretto’s preface, Bunn noted that he purposefully avoided following Saint-Georges’s depiction of “those fearful events” of the Venetian-Cypriot conflict “too faithfully imitated on the Parisian stage,” knowing they would be “repugnant of an English audience”. Despite shunning visceral confrontations, Bunn features Venetian oppression in his libretto: in Act I, Caterina’s lover Adolphe sings that “plots by tyranny at freedom hurled,/Have rendered Venice hateful to the world” and Caterina’s uncle refers to the “hated presence” of Mocenigo. In the same year, Gaetano Donizetti’s and Giacomo Sacchèro’s two-act adaptation, Caterina Cornaro, had its premiere at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and, in 1846, Giovanni Pacini’s and Francesco Guidi’s version, the four-act La regina di Cipro, was produced at Turin’s Teatro Regio.
Within a two-year period before La Reine’s premiere in Paris, Halévy’s composition of the opera coincided with a crucial turning point in his career. In June 1840, five years after the triumph of La Juive, the composer resigned from his Opéra position as premier chef de chant, which he had held since 1833. Shortly before, Halévy had also relinquished his four-year position as assistant director at the Opéra under Edmond Duponchel, who was prodded to accept a short-lived co-directorship with Léon Pillet. Through press accounts, Halévy explained that he had stepped down to devote time to composition (not mentioning the mounting accusations that he had held too much power at the Opéra). With Pillet primarily in charge, Halévy undoubtedly lost the flexibility and influence that he had enjoyed under Duponchel, and, as he completed the opera, he was pressed to report to Pillet frequently and to apologize profusely for delays in the anticipated rehearsal schedule. In a letter of 24 May 1841, Halévy assured the director that he had finished most of the first three acts, and would soon meet with Saint-Georges about the final act. Less than a month later, on 22 June, he admitted that he had not yet given the Opéra copyist, Aimé Leborne, one number from Act 2 nor the end of Act 3, and explained that Saint-Georges was too busy with the ballet Giselle to send him the remaining acts. More updates followed in Halévy’s correspondence, along with placating reminders that he was at work on arias or duets that would display the talents of the mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz, Pillet’s mistress who would create the role of the Cyprian queen. He also emphatically stated that “jamais je n’ai travaillé à un ouvrage avec autant de désir d’un vrai et durable succès”.
Despite tensions and delays that surrounded the work’s creation and six-month rehearsal period, the first production of La Reine de Chypre at the Opéra was a critical success. Many Parisian journalists who attended the premiere and early performances of late December 1841 effusively praised the opera’s libretto, music, and mise-en-scène. Although a few writers complained of Halévy’s sombre, monotonous music, several critics labelled the beautiful, complex score a true “sœur” of his masterwork La Juive, while others believed that it surpassed the composer’s earlier operas. In Le Temps, Paul Merruau lauded the “ingénieux, profond, savant et aimable” composer for “la finesse et l’à-propos des idées”. Admiration for his skilled and effective orchestration emerged in many reviews, even those that concentrated on details of the opera’s plot. The critic for Le Corsaire (“A.”) exclaimed: “Jamais M. Halévy, si prodigieux instrumentiste, n’avait rassemblé de plus merveilleux effets, des combinaisons à la fois plus hardies et plus entraînantes.” In Le Journal des débats, Berlioz described many nuances of orchestration as well as the formidable “pompe musicale” created by dual orchestras in Act IV, with many instruments sur le théâtre. Richard Wagner, who arranged the opera’s vocal score for publisher Maurice Schlesinger during his early Paris years, would praise Halévy’s opera for its development of a richly diverse, path-breaking style in four articles published in la Revue et Gazette musicale of 1842.
Among the numbers that stimulated exuberant responses from critics and audiences was Act II’s opening chœur de gondoliers, a haunting barcarolle sung dans la coulisse by alto, tenor, and bass soloists and chorus, introduced by a repeated pizzicato six-note descent in the cellos. J. Arago of La Tribune dramatique found the number “d’une ravissante originalité”; Wagner went further in calling it “une des conceptions les plus originales” written by the composer. The extended Gérard-Lusignan duet that ends Act III, sung after the masked king has saved his rival and compatriot from assassins’ swords, was another favorite — its effect on the audience was “irrésistible”, wrote “A.” of Le Corsaire. Particularly admired were the characters’ patriotic salute to France and their shared melancholia as exiled Frenchmen “sur la terre étrangère” in the cantabile, “Triste exilé” (whose main theme returns in Act V as the dying Lusignan recalls their bond). Berlioz lauded the cantabile’s “expression pénétrante”, as well as the poignancy of the Act II love duet of Catarina and Gérard, particularly Gérard’s “chant désolé”. Like Wagner, Berlioz was deeply affected by the sublime beauty of the Act V quartet, stating that it placed the act next to Robert le diable and Les Huguenots “pour l’importance musicale”.
Critics consistently applauded the early performances of the three leading singers, mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz (1815-1903), tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez (1806-1896) and baritone Paul-Bernard Barroilhet (1810-1871). Stoltz, one of the most important French mezzo-sopranos before Pauline Viardot, had already performed in Halévy’s La Juive, singing the role of Rachel (originally written for soprano Cornélie Falcon) at her Opéra debut in 1837; the mezzo-soprano would then create the courtesan roles of Ricciarda in Halévy’s Guido et Ginevra in 1838 and Léonor in Donizetti’s La Favorite in 1840. In La Reine, as the Venetian-born Cyprian queen who eventually resists Venice’s dominance of her adopted island, Stoltz symbolizes a French heroine fighting for freedom (less than two years later, she would portray the Jeanne d’Arc figure of Odette in Halévy’s thoroughly patriotic grand opéra, Charles VI). Although some critics bemoaned the lack of a soprano role, or a second principal female role that had come to be expected in French grand opéra, many admired the depth of Stoltz’s characterization and the beauty and power of her voice. Henri Blanchard praised Stoltz as “la seule tragédienne lyrique de l’époque,” designating her “une nouvelle Desdemona nous rappelant [Giuditta] Pasta et [Maria] Malibran dans [Rossini’s] Otello.” Several writers sensed that Halévy had molded his writing to showcase her talents, tessitura, and two-octave range, creating starkly unadorned melodic lines and giving her long passages of dramatic recitative, short rising phrases to agogic accents, and extended phrases in her chest voice. Critics remarked on her passionate and “pathétique” expression, particularly in the second and fifth acts. One anonymous critic in Les Coulisses, however, objected to her “anguleuse” singing, which he likened to screaming.
In Duprez’s performances as the French chevalier Gérard, critics found the tenor at the peak of his powers. The role came four years after Duprez’s debut at the Opéra in 1837, when he first thrilled audiences with his “ut de poitrine” and dramatic singing that contrasted with the silvery tones of Adolphe Nourrit (Duprez’s singing of Nourrit’s roles in fact triggered his predecessor’s departure from the Opéra). His appearance as Gérard followed his creation of Guido in Guido et Ginevra and Fernand in La Favorite. Attending La Reine’s premiere, a reviewer in Le Charivari declared that Duprez was “le héros de la soirée” and remarked that “[j]amais sa voix n’avait été plus belle, plus large, plus sonore.” Arago, in La Tribune dramatique, agreed that “Duprez est à son beau jour de gloire.” His voice was so suited to the role that a critic in Le Corsaire stated: “Il est impossible même qu’on puisse le doubler dans ce rôle, tant il est marqué à sa voix et empreint de cette grandeur d’effets à laquelle seule il atteint.”
The baritone Paul Barroilhet, who had performed Alphonse in La Favorite and would appear, in 1843, as the poet Camoëns in Donizetti’s Dom Sébastien and the mad king in Halévy’s Charles VI, drew praise as both singer and actor. In La Presse, Théophile Gautier found his interpretation of Lusignan “très beau” and Arago described him as “un chanteur de premier ordre, un tragédien d’élite.” Critics lauded his ensemble singing, especially in the Act III duet with Duprez, with Gautier comparing their “belles luttes de chant” to those of the beloved Italian singers Giovanni Rubini and Antonio Tamburini at the Théâtre-Italien. Among other highlighted moments, Barroilhet’s entrance in Act V was deemed “magnifique” by Auguste Morel in Revue et Gazette des théâtres. Of Barroilhet’s fellow baritone, Eugène Massol (1802-1887), Berlioz felt that “sa voix de fer” matched “le personnage impassible et odieux de Mocenigo parfaitement”, while others found Massol’s characterization inadequate.
In the early critical reception of La Reine de Chypre, overall assessments of the opera’s historical import were rare, although many writers briefly recounted Cornaro’s history, with a few complaining of historical distortions in the libretto. Among scattered statements about the opera’s political implications, Jean-Toussaint Merle, in the clerical newspaper La Quotidienne, chastised the Opéra for allowing “l’abus sacrilège” of the Catholicism in La Reine’s “parody” of religious ceremonies, as in La Juive and other operas of the 1830s. One writer did insist that the opera was “trop politique”. The scarcity of such comments does not necessarily confirm that the opera was viewed through an apolitical lens, however. The straightforward descriptions of Mocenigo’s sinister dealings, for example, might well suggest that opera-goers accepted the validity of the Daru- and Arnault-inspired depictions of a tyrannical Venice, even conveying a re-embracing of the heroic tales of Napoléon’s “liberation” of Italy.
In La Reine de Chypre, the interweaving of actual historical events, a tragic tale of love and honor, colorful spectacle and intricate, haunting music clearly tapped into the period’s fascination with history and grand, melodramatic expression. But, more pointedly, the opera served as a reenactment of France’s heroic past: in the patriotic oaths of exiled French chevaliers, the Cypriot victory led by Caterina, the soundscape of ceremonial music — compared by Berlioz to “le bruit solennel des grandes fêtes nationales” — and the emblematic use of “trompettes antiques” that had been played in Napoléon’s own funeral procession. In 1841, at the beginning of the second decade of the July Monarchy, this historical grand opéra succeeded not only as an homage to French heroism, but as a reminder of the nation’s triumph over, and continuing struggles with, the forces of tyranny and terreur.

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