Cleofide: Adrien, a royally confusing musical drama

2013.01.08. 23:52


Étienne Nicolas Méhul (1763 - 1817)
Adrien, empereur de Rome (Hadrian, Emperor of Rome)
opera in 3 acts
(1799, Opéra, Paris)
Libretto - François-Benoît Hoffman (after Metastasio's Adriano in Siria)





Modern world premiere

26 June 2012
Béla Bartók National Concert Hall (Palace of Arts)
Budapest (Hungary) 

Adrien , empereur of Rome Philippe Do (tenor)
Flaminius, a consul Jean Teitgen (bass)
Emirène, daughter of Cosroès Gabrielle Philiponet (soprano)
Sabine, a Roman lady
        engaged to Adrien Jennifer Borghi (soprano)
Pharnaspe, a Parthian prince
        in love with Émirène Philippe Talbot (tenor)
Cosroès, King of the Parthians Marc Barrard (baritone)
Rutile, a military tribune Nicolas Courjal (bass)

 Purcell Choir
Orfeo Ochestra
Concertmaster Simon Standage
György Vashegyi 


Adrien, a royally confusing musical drama


The second half of the eighteenth century witnessed the decline and demise of one of the most influental stylistic currents of the baroque period. Then, the rapid and dramatic changes, which so often characterize the shifts in artistic expression led to the extinction of the French idiom, which for a long time served as a model for several foreign countries in composition and made a long lasting impression on the performance practice of almost the whole continent.

There is no point in questioning that the French-Burgundian-English musical renaissance, despite its several fresh and invigorating features, was basically incapable of furnishing pertinent answers to numerous questions raised by the Italian main stream of the renaissance and humanism. In contrast with other branches of art, neither the identification of the Burgundian style with the musical renaissance nor a false, concept-driven exaggeration of the virtues of Italian music could synthesize and unify the contemporary musical styles. Obviously, without universally admired and preserved ancient references, the music of the renaissance period could forge only ambiguous and doubtful imitations. Finally, due to its leading role in architecture, fine arts and literature, Italy "took command". However, the establishment of the principles of the musical renaissance paradoxically coincided with the beginning of the baroque period.

At the beginning of the baroque, neither England nor France could come up with characteristic and powerful alternatives to compete with the Italian stylistic current but in contrast with England, France under the leadership of King Louis XIII, XIV and XV made a point of emphasizing cultural independence, which resulted in the development of a divergent, extremely polished and mannerist musical idiom. The French style, deliberately restrained to the level of unnatural and artificial, had a huge impact on the contemporary performance practice, and also, especially in England and Germany. influenced compositional approaches and techniques. Beside performance characteristics, the French had special taste for a "dry" and acoustically transparent timbre in orchestration and highly appreciated wind instruments and the harpsichord. Further, they had their own musical forms. They usually developed from the early-baroque Italian structures adopted by Lully in Florence, but their evolution, under completely different cultural pressure, was highly divergent from the original Italian references. Nevertheless, the greatest differences can be detected in the spectacle and entertainment oriented nature of French stage music. Only these purportedly restrained musical resources made possible the balanced and seamless integration of poetry, drama and dance into the unified, opulent concept of the "tragédie en musique". Since, in France, Corneille's and Racine's refined neo-classical dramas were considered the highest achievable standard in intellectual entertainment, the robust and overwhelming vigour of Italian music was deemed rustic, unpleasant and impertinent. Therefore, the dry, often unnatural and over-complicated French artistic concept desperately relied on the genius of the best musicians (Lully, Couperin, Charpentier, Marais, Rameau, Leclair and Mondonville). In the hand of a mediocre composer these modest musical resources almost inevitably yielded tasteless and excruciatingly boring works.

Accordingly, it is not surprising that during the "Age of Enlightenment" that the musical taste of the outspoken bourgeois class did not meet the artistic hypocrisy of the "Ancien Régime". After the „Querrelle de Buoffons" (1752-54) the respected and time-honoured French style was in constant retreat, and its popularity at the dawn of the French Revolution dropped precipitously, marked clearly by the last performance of a Lully opera (Thésée, 1779). In the beginning, both in instrumental and vocal music, the stylistic changes consisted of clumsy and superficial imitations of the most conspicuous performance manners, with obvious signs of misunderstanding of the truly relevant components of the Italian style. This early transitional period featured by Corrette's, Hotteterre's, Buffardin's Blavet's, Rousseau's and Dauvergne's oeuvre was nurtured with the import of genuine Italian pieces by Corelli, Vivaldi, Leo, Pergolesi, Orlandini, Latilla and Jommelli and expanded by the compositions of naturalized French composers like Duni (Duny). However, the sincere fervour of the audience for the pedestrian Italian music also found its first French prophets, who spoke this language as their mother tongue. These composers (Monsigny, Philidor, Grétry and Dalayrac) completely adopted the Italian musical expression and looked at the traditional French musical paradigm with disdain, unlike their predecessors (Cavalli, Lully, Lorenzani, Charpentier, Campra and Boismortier), who, either due to their origin, cultural background or education, only smuggled some Italian seasoning into the French cuisine. Even the conservative opponents (Rameau, Leclair, Royer, Mondonville, François Rebel, François Francœur) of the new generations were more flexible and tried to achieve a peaceful synthesis, this also being supported by the court.

This was all in vain, since their tentative and immature efforts had already been surpassed and relegated to oblivion by the achievements of those composers who worked in the culturally transitional regions of the continent. It was Gluck, who, standing on the shoulders of his Herculean predecessors (e.g. Perez, Jommelli and Traetta), successfully filled the artistic vacuum left by the formidable stature of Rameau and Leclair. Determined, aggressive and confident, with immense experience and overwhelming armament of diverse musical resources, he simply overcome every impediment and quickly restored the prestige of "tragédie en musique". His quick success is directly tied to his unsurpassable dramatic talent and his immense knowledge of the different forms of musical drama popular in the contemporary Habsburg Empire, Italy and England. Gluck, recognizing the musical resources necessary to revitalize the cadaver of the French lyric tragedy, immediately grabbed the opportunity, and like Händel, he recycled each valuable note from his previous works. Therefore, in Paris, Gluck successfully and with great vigour crowned his earlier efforts and laid the foundation of the new European musical theatre. Of course, his achievements are heavily indebted to Calzabigi's and Quinault's adapted texts. Gluck, judiciously unified and harmonized the most appealing components of the Italian and French theatre, and to gain immediate success, he subordinated and tailored the seamlessly integrated new concept to the expectations of the Parisian audience. The "prima la parole poi la musica" prevailed, in a more melodious and less mannerist way than in the obsolete attempts by Rameau, Leclair, Mondonville, Rebel and Francœur. To increase its acceptability and attractiveness, Gluck retained all the elements of the divertissement, but not as a separate entity. Choruses, dances, permeated and supported the action and the French orchestral timbre was preserved. The harmonisation was deliberately "naturalistic" and simple. The self-borrowed and newly composed thematic materials were fitted to the taste of the Encyclopaedists. Gluck completely eradicated the "recitative secco", and recycling his "da capo" and "dal segno" materials he composed emotional outbursts, with which he successfully imitated the dramatic gravity of the French through-composed airs. Furthermore, his rustic approach, common sense and the melodiousness of the borrowed material frequently resulted in a more satisfactory result and even greater dramatic impact. However, Gluck's pot-pourris were extremely vulnerable to ignorant and sloppy performance. The effect of his nursery rhyme-like musical fragments achieved a pure and completely natural effect only in the proper hands.

At the same time Gluck also provided a solution for the problems of the Italian opera seria, which at that time, was completely dominated by hysterical and narcissistic castrati, the results leaving the audiences craving for something realistic and faithful after having been subjected to the outdated Metastasian virtues for decades. This latest generation of the Italian or Italian-trained composers immediately adopted the most popular methods of the "reform opera" and they conquered Paris and London by storm. Alongside this new intimidating wave of foreign talents (JC Bach, Piccinni, Sacchini, Salieri, Paisiello, Cherubini, Paër, Isouard, Spontini, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti) the local supply (Monsigny, Philidor, Dalayrac, Grétry, Gossec, Lesueur, Méhul, Catel, Hérold, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Boieldieu, Halévy, Auber, Adam) suffered in comparison. Periodically, with strong political and nationalistic support, the French composers were able to gain ephemeral success, but over time, practically every piece fell out of favour in short order. One possible reason is that alien composers endured a much broader and tougher selection process and therefore, generally, they were more talented and trained, "the cream rising to the surface", if you will. Second these immigrants were more sensitive and flexible and less scrupulous in the "adaptation race" for the mercy of theatre-goers. Analysing the music of the "reform period", before the advent of the "Grand Opera", it is obvious that apart from Gluck's oeuvre, the immortal part of the repertoire consists of pieces such as Piccinni's Roland and Didon, Sacchini's Renaud and Oedipe, Cherubini's Médée and "Les deux journées", Spontini's „La vestale, Fernand Cortez and Olimpie and Rossini's "Moïse et Pharaon". These works based upon the "livret"-s of the best contemporary writers such as Rousseau, Marmontel and Guillard. Hence, hardly could they be criticized from dramatic and poetical point of view.

In instrumental music, the influence of the Mannheim and the First Viennese schools led to similar deteriorating consequences, with JC Bach, Rigel, Haydn and Mozart replacing Leclair, Dauvergne, Royer, Gossec and Rodolphe Kreutzer as the most popular composers on the program of the "Concert Spirituel". The nationalistic separation, according to the different genres of stage music (Opéra, "Opéra Comique", "Théâtre-Italien"), and the bitter rivalry between the foreigners (Gluckist-Piccinnist feud) could not change the dismal outcome, which merged the French style into a pan-European homogenized musical language. The only notable example of successful indigenous competition with these foreign composers (Gluck, JC Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Stamitz, Boccherini, Piccinni, Sacchini, Paisiello, Cherubini and Spontini), was a disciple of Piccinni, the Belgian André Ernest Modeste Grétry, the greatest French-speaking melodist of the period. His oeuvre remained in the repertoire in Belgium, without interruption, and so did some individual compositions by Grétry, Méhul, Boieldieu, Halévy, Auber and Adam in France.

Therefore, it is readily apparent, that a proper evaluation of the music of the "reform period" in Paris should focus on the works of foreign composers. Unfortunately, this well-established approach has thus far neglected the less prominent, enigmatic impact of "couleur locale". However, recent interest in obscure repertoire and composers of transitional musical periods has shed light on the achievements of the indigenous composers of the period. Following this 30 year long revival, based upon the popularity of Grétry's operas and the achievements of Malgoire, Christie and Minkowski, the ever curious György Vashegyi, in collaboration with the "Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles" energetically revived a characteristic composition from the period. The selected opera was Méhul's Adrien (1799), which may seem a reasonable option for the layperson, but expert connoisseurs might have been surprised by the choice itself taking into account of Méhul's relatively good publicity. Reviewing my collection, a considerable inhomogeneity could be detected. While Monsigny, Philidor, Gossec, Lesueur, Catel, Dalayrac, Hérold and Rodolphe Kreutzer are represented in my catalogue by only a few operas and 5-10 hours of music "per capita", Méhul seems to be one of the most popular French representatives of the period. This view is supported by the following data in my collection: it contains one set of sonatas, two compilations of overtures, 3 publications (one is complete) of symphonies, songs of the revolution, a Coronation mass and 5 operas (Joseph - 3 versions-, Uthal, L'Irato - 3 versions-, Horatius Cocles and Stratonice). However, the above mentioned more than 30 hours, plus the time represented by the duplicates, did not convert me to an enthusiast of Méhul's music. Apart from the "Joseph", which is, indeed a true masterpiece and some interesting and sombre sonorities of the "Uthal" the rest simply did not profit by comparison with the tuneful works by the alien composers or Grétry's "Richard, Cœur-de-Lion", "Zémire et Azore", "Céphale et Procris", "La Caravane du Caire", Andromaque or Guillaume Tell. Of course, Grétry's special merit was already pointed out by Romain Rolland more than a hundred years ago ("Musiciens d'autrefois", 1908, in Hungarian: Romain Rolland: Lully, Gluck, Grétry, Zenei kiskönyvtár sorozat, Gondolat, Bp., 1981, 225-267. o).

Nevertheless, considering Vashegyi's always careful management, the audience may have expected a well-crafted and entertaining musical spectacle. I was especially interested in the project from dramatic point of view. Méhul, born into the system of "opéra comique" was well trained in that genre characterized by short airs, interspersed with spoken dialogues. The adjective "comique" is rather misleading, since, over a long stylistic evolution, only the formal framework was retained and the genre covered almost the complete dramatic range. One can consider it as a descendant of masque and "comédie-ballet", and the predecessor of Singspiel, operetta and zarzuela.

In Adrien however, despite his strong support by the Hoffmann adapted Metastasio drama I was afraid that Méhul may have overreached. Nevertheless, the performance was for the most part outstanding, an almost unprecedented quality in the history of Hungarian presentations of pre-romantic music. Even for the most sophisticated connoisseur, who can get access to Méhul's music in the translation of Christie and Minkowski for comparison's sake. Both the orchestra instructed by Standage and the chorus led carefully by Vashegyi performed magnificently. But the truly outstanding presentation was given by the brilliant soloists. Philippe Do's rendering of Adrien's character was a breathtaking experience. Philippe Do has a strong, shining, flexible voice of nice timbre, which is rich in overtones and therefore able to convey the full scale of human emotions. The only shortcoming was the slight but palpable weakness of artistic design. Of course, predominantly, it is related to the opus itself. Méhul, as a typical French composer of opéra-comique was unable to overcome the barrier between different genres. Therefore, to please the contemporary audience, the conductor's main duty should have been to polish the crude original and to come up with a unified concept that eliminates those distracting components, which reveal the composer's momentary helplessness. The musical texture, indeed, unveils several shaky moments and weaknesses in overall design. Seemingly, the opera is a through-composed piece, but, paradoxically it is based upon an adapted Metastasio drama. A more serious problem is the unevenness in musical expression. The first act is pioneering, gloomy, brave, rich in attractive effects but almost completely "free" of seductive and convincing melodies. It sternly and steadily progresses without offering even a slight chance of hedonistic musical delight. This dry and sober part completely blurs the borders between individual movements, and perfectly illustrates the importance of Méhul's "romantic" music in the path that led to Wagner. However, the apparent lack of large-scale planning, the inevitable, destructive impact of repeated reworking and restructuring result in a deep gash in the musical texture, after the first act. From then onwards, stylistically, the piece resembles the operas by Gluck. The atmosphere changes significantly and the work advances at a more leisurely pace. Admirable, separate solo pieces call for the audience's attention, virtuosity, melodic richness and a slight Gluck epigonism make these acts similar to Grétry's serious operas. Altogether, the conductor's most important responsibility would have been to eliminate this harsh discrepancy, mitigating the stylistic unevenness. Obviously changing or not emphasizing the accents in the first act would have blunted the radiating novelty of the piece. However, for the ordinary listeners, trained on full-blooded romantic pieces by Verdi and Puccini, these features did not necessarily reach the sensory threshold. The average spectator may have overlooked them, and, I am afraid that the beautiful, but less underscored rest of the opera, due to its obsolete characteristics, will sink into oblivion.

Despite all the virtues of this rendering, which perfectly emphasized Méhul's achievements and shed light on his importance in the history of the opera, the opus itself did not leave a lasting impression on me. Melodically it is clearly inferior to Joseph or Stratonice, and in progressivity it falls behind the recklessly revolutionary, orchestral atmosphere of Uthal. However, regarding Méhul's oeuvre, the presentation and the possible commercial release are obviously gap-filling, since thus far, it was this performance that has revived the most ambitious work by Méhul. It is especially important because, although Méhul has far less melodic gift than Philidor, Monsigny, Dalayrac or Grétry, his dramatic vein is unique in the contemporary French music. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that his operas, cast in the Italian mould, proved to be failures. Méhul, also, light-heartedly sacrificed vocal melodiousness on the altar of progressive drama and paid much more attention to the so far barely exploited capabilities of the stage orchestra. Of course, the musical orientation of his admirers (Berlioz, Weber, Schumann, and Wagner) was similar. The evolutionary process paved by Méhul's followers became more and more orchestra oriented. They ponderously ignored the intrinsic values of human voice and subordinated melodic invention to the realization and servile representation of the text. During this "third reform" the original idea of "cantar recitando" and Gluck's achievements were further developed and chiselled into the aesthetic concept of "Sprechgesang".