Le roi malgré lui (1887)

By Vincent Giroud, Visiting Professor, Bard and Vassar Colleges

Written for the concert An Operatic Rarity, performed on Feb 13, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Born in 1841 in Auvergne, Emmanuel Chabrier was three years younger than Saint-Saëns and Bizet, and Massenet’s senior by one year. Unlike them, he had an unorthodox musical training: piano lessons with two refugee Spaniards, further musical studies with a Polish-Lithuanian violinist, no Paris Conservatoire, no Prix de Rome. Instead, he became a civil servant at the Ministry of the Interior, where he remained for 15 years. After his marriage to Alice Dejean in 1873, he divided his comfortable, bourgeois existence between Paris and La Membrolle, near Tours, home of his mother-in-law, where most of the music of Le roi malgré lui was composed.

This conventional background notwithstanding, Chabrier had close ties with the literary bohemia (his first major project was an operetta on a text by Verlaine) and even closer ones with the artistic avant-garde (Manet’s Le bar aux Folies-Bergères hung above his piano). A strong, independent personality, he suffered from being considered an amateur by his contemporaries. Yet, paradoxically, the leading composers of the following generation (Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Poulenc) admired him the most.

In 1883 his popular “Spanish rhapsody,” España, premiered by Lamoureux, established his fame and became a staple of the concert hall. But he was attracted above all to the theater. In 1877, his opera buffa L’Étoile, a work of uncommon wit and refinement, was only a half-success at the Bouffes-Parisiens. Two years later, the one-act operetta Une éducation manquée, which so delighted Stravinsky, had only one performance (with piano). His next, more ambitious project was the early medieval legend Gwendoline, on an over-the-top, hyper-Wagnerian libretto by Catulle Mendès. Premiered in Brussels in 1886, its career was cut short after five performances by the bankruptcy of the theater director. It recovered, however, thanks to the brilliant young Wagnerian conductor Felix Mottl, a champion of Chabrier’s music, who conducted the work in Karlsruhe in 1889, while Hermann Levi led the Munich premiere the following year. By then Chabrier was at work on Briséïs, another collaboration with Mendès, based on a stage adaptation of Goethe’s ballad Die Braut von Korinth by Ephraïm Mikhaël and Bernard Lazare (later one of Dreyfus’s very first defenders). Debilitated by syphilis, the AIDS of the nineteenth century, Chabrier only completed the first act before his death in September 1894.

Le roi malgré lui was derived from an 1836 vaudeville of the same title, published at the time under the name of François Ancelot (1794–1854), but apparently the work of his equally prolific wife Virginie. Its hero was the 23-year-old Henri, Duke of Anjou, third son of Henri II and Catherine of Medicis, whose brief reign as King of Poland in the spring of 1574 was interrupted by the death of his brother Charles IX, whom he then succeeded on the French throne as Henri III. The play was brought to Chabrier’s attention in the summer of 1884 by his fellow composer and critic Victorien Joncières, who had toyed with the idea of setting it himself. Chabrier first conceived the work as an operetta and started it in tandem with Paul Burani (1845–1901), an occasional collaborator of André Messager. When Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique, no doubt prompted by the success of Gwendoline, accepted Le roi malgré lui in 1886, Chabrier was given a few months to complete and recast it as a full-fledged opéra-comique. He and Burani turned for assistance to the more seasoned playwright Émile de Najac (1828–1889). Dissatisfied, however, with the mediocre quality of the latter’s verse, Chabrier also enlisted the help of a friend from his bohemian days, the poet and playwright Jean Richepin (1849–1926). Though his name appeared on the playbill for the premiere of Le roi malgré lui, Richepin has otherwise remained anonymous in all printed sources.

While Ancelot’s play mostly dealt with the reluctant king’s attempts to flee from Poland, Chabrier’s librettists emphasized the two subplots, one involving the love affair between the slave Minka and Henri’s friend Nangis, the other an inconsequential flirtation between the king and Alexina, wife of his Italian-born chamberlain Fritelli (a character not in Ancelot). Censorship forbade any direct mention of Henri’s notorious homosexuality (more than hinted at in Christopher Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris), though Fritelli’s references in Act I to the king’s taste for lace and dolls may be read as an allusion.

Le roi malgré lui was premiered on May 18, 1887. The cast included, as Minka, Adèle Isaac, who had sung the soprano parts at the posthumous unveiling of Les contes d’Hoffmann six years before. Fritelli was the great buffo bass Lucien Fugère, the one member of the cast whose voice has been preserved by the gramophone; Chabrier later dedicated to him one of his famous zoological songs, Pastorale des cochons roses. Two editions of the piano-vocal score were issued in 1887. Only the first, published in May, includes Alexina’s Act I aria, which is also lacking in the orchestral score.

While the dress rehearsal had been a triumph for the composer, the premiere, if not a flop, was not a popular success either, despite a largely favorable press. Two days after the third performance, on May 25, 1887, the Opéra-Comique caught fire as the curtain went up on Act I of Mignon and burned to the ground. The future of Le roi malgré lui could have been compromised beyond repair by this disaster—in which the young Henri Matisse nearly perished, as did more than 80 people—since the orchestral parts were first thought to have been destroyed. Ultimately the work, with some cuts, was successfully revived in the fall of 1887 and the spring of 1888 in the Opéra-Comique’s provisional new home (the future Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, on the Place du Châtelet) for a total of 17 performances. Mottl conducted it in Karlsruhe in 1890 and it was heard in Dresden in 1890 and in Cologne in 1891. Yet, the stage history of Le roi malgré lui has never equalled its reputation. It has survived mostly on the concert platform (and on record) through the “Fête polonaise” and “Danse slave,” performed without chorus, a situation reminiscent of Les Troyens, long remembered solely by the “Chasse royale et orage.” From the time of the premiere, reviewers have tended to blame the plot, though it is arguably no more absurd than the average nineteenth-century libretto (while the verse, thanks to Richepin, is rather better). In 1929, Albert Carré rewrote the text for a revival at the Opéra-Comique, but it is hard to see how this version improves on the original; a similar experiment was attempted by Jeremy Sams and Michael Wilcox at the 1994 Edinburgh Festival. Admittedly, the dramaturgy of Le roi malgré lui, which looks back to the old-fashioned opéra-comique of Auber and Hérold, is at odds with a score so rich, so original, so ahead of its time that Ravel could subsequently declare that the opening chords had forever changed the course of French music.