Albéric Magnard, Bérénice

By Steven Huebner

Written for the concert Bérénice, performed on Jan 20, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

“Noble melancholy” . . .

Thus did Jean Racine describe the tone he sought to create in Bérénice (1670). In a preface to the play, Racine further explained his aesthetic predilections: uncomplicated plots, heroic characters, roiling passions. A single significant event from history sufficed for tragic genres—as in Bérénice where the plot centers on the reluctant departure of the eponymous Judean queen from Rome that was ordered by her paramour Emperor Titus upon his ascent to the throne (79 CE). As staged by Racine, Titus has already decided to send his mistress away for political reasons before the curtain rises, although he will remain deeply in love with her throughout. The plot itself centers on Bérénice’s slow recognition of her fate, from intuition and suspicion to revelation. A third character, Antiochus, King of Comagene, also loves Bérénice and waits until the end of the play to reveal his feelings to Titus. Although each of Racine’s characters threatens suicide at one point or another, most unusually for a tragedy the three principals remain alive at the final curtain and merely agree to separate from one another bearing the full weight of their anguish. For Racine, the real test of powers of invention lay in forging a play with elevated sentiment and elegance of expression using a minimal amount of material.

In shaping an opera out of Racine’s premise, Albéric Magnard pared the action down even further by eliminating Antiochus. He also adjusted the temporal frame across three acts to create a sequence of an amorous tryst, renunciation, and departure. Bérénice and Titus appear in the blissful harmony of a love duet at the end of the first act, its music redolent of another great operatic couple separated by the call of duty, Berlioz’s Didon and Énée in Les Troyens. Berlioz’s “Nuit d’ivresse” becomes “Nuit de printemps”—both scenes set in lush foliage—and like their forbears, Magnard’s lovers cleave to strict parallel singing, albeit in a more chromatic harmonic idiom. Here, sounds of nature mingle with a tribute to Venus. Newly crowned emperor by the beginning of Act 2, Titus ruminates about the hatred of the populace for the queen from the East to the troubled accompaniment of a fugue. Bérénice, unlike her counterpart in Racine, understands her position instantly. Nonetheless, Magnard retains the emperor’s wavering between professions of love and fulfillment of a political imperative, expressed through the deft alternation of leitmotifs associated with each condition. At the end of the second act, Bérénice extracts a commitment from the emperor for a final meeting. Following the advice of Mucien, an old member of the Praetorian guard, Titus does not honor it, yet even at this late stage he vacillates once again by showing up at the queen’s boat in the third act to demand a final assignation. Bérénice, throughout the stronger figure, refuses to follow, even though her love for him has not diminished. Invoking Venus once again, she shears her long tresses as an offering to the goddess, a gesture to signify her permanent abnegation of sexuality. The act ends pianissimo, like the two previous ones, with a fade out of an orchestral figure that ostensibly represents the gentle lapping of waves against the side of the boat. A series of hushed curtains, once again unusual in the operatic literature, effectively translates the tone of noble melancholy that Racine attributed to his play.

The static quality of the action in Bérénice as well as its long duets and dense network of leitmotifs recalled Wager’s Tristan und Isolde to mind both for critics at the time of the opera’s Opéra Comique premiere in 1911 as well as for more recent writers. Yet the perspective and character of Wagner’s opera is much different, with its great coups de theatre, explicit sexuality, play of memory, and epic dimension almost entirely absent from Bérénice. Magnard’s characters are focused on the here and now, and with a stronger articulation of personal identity, be it the “grandeur ‘d’âme” (generosity of spirit) that Titus sees in Bérénice or the young emperor’s very different concern with Realpolitik. Magnard’s claim in the preface to the score of Bérénice to have written “in the Wagnerian style” certainly refers to the web of leitmotifs in the work but should not be overplayed in critical exegesis: he often creates declaimed vocal lines that are more independent from the leading orchestral melodies than those of the mature Wagner, thereby giving a greater impression of genuine counterpoint between voice and orchestra. If anything, the score has the stylistic character of writing by Vincent d’Indy, with whom Magnard had studied privately as a young man.

The next sentence in Magnard’s preface leaps out today even more: “Without the necessary genius to create a new form of lyric theater, I chose from among existing styles the one best suited to my very classical tastes and my very traditional musical culture.” Magnard thus implicitly identifies the writing of Tristan, perceived as cutting edge in France and elsewhere a mere fifteen years before, as classical and traditional, or at least amenable to a classical and traditional adaptation. The premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902—that is, three years before Magnard began to work on his opera—certainly contributed to this adjustment of the stylistic yardstick, as did d’Indy’s influential grounding of leitmotivic writing in past styles in his teaching at the Schola Cantorum. Undoubtedly taking a cue from Magnard’s preface, the majority of critics at the 1911 premiere described the work as classical in orientation. By this they variously meant the opera’s alleged sobriety, economy of means, intimate orchestration, avoidance of melodramatic effects, prevalence of traditional developmental techniques—or simply the idea of classical theater as manifest in the works of Racine. In a habit of journalistic criticism prevalent at the time, writers extended such assessments of the music to the character and career of the composer himself. By living in a sumptuous residence in the provinces, Magnard had isolated himself from the cultural politics of Paris. Only a single photograph of this publicity-shy composer appears to remain extant. He wrote little—mainly instrumental music—and gained a reputation as distant, aloof, and uncompromising. Some praised Magnard’s reluctance to follow after the latest musical fashion as integrity, others as reactionary obstinacy: classicism not as modern, but as weakly retrospective. Today, however, listeners unencumbered by such polemics can savor a score replete with extraordinary craft, rich in leitmotivic nuance and alert to the psychological condition of the characters.

Steven Huebner

Mr. Huebner is co-editor of Cambridge Opera Journal and is James McGill Professor at McGill University. He is the author of two books: The Operas of Charles Gounod and French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style.