An Operatic Rarity

By Leon Botstein

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

The career of Emmanuel Chabrier (1841–1894) is intriguing. He ranks among the few notable exceptions among famous composers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Ives, who maintained professions outside the field of music. This dual career, as in the case of Ives in particular, has for some cast doubt on the technical proficiency of the music. This accusation cannot be leveled at Chabrier. Furthermore, many composers, artists, and writers have sought to maintain unrelated professions for a variety of reasons. Exigency has not always been the primary motive. In some cases what we might regard as a distraction or diversion was a creative necessity. Chabrier worked for many years in the French Ministry of the Interior as a respected civil servant known for his reliability and his elegant handwriting, a non-trivial skill in the context of public administration that is now entirely obsolete. Chabrier trained in music from the very start of his career, but only in 1881 (after nearly two decades of public service) did he devote himself wholly to music. In 1880, shortly before his retirement, he attended with friends a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Munich. Legend has it that he burst into tears at the opening A from the cellos. Five years later, Chabrier later composed what has been called the French Tristan, his opera Gwendoline (1885), with the distinguished writer Catulle Mendès.

Chabrier’s experience points to the pervasive allure that Wagnerism had for late nineteenth-century France. Wagner’s influence was not only a musical matter. The embrace of the Wagnerian began with Baudelaire’s essay, written in response to the scandal surrounding the Paris production of Tannhäuser in 1861. Wagnerian aesthetics inspired a new movement in art and literature in late nineteenth-century France. The irony of a movement of French national cultural renewal stemming from the work of an arch-German nationalist and proponent of racial thinking was never entirely lost among French participants and observers. Nevertheless, the Wagnerian penchant for symbolism and his conception of the relationship between the artwork and the viewer became crucial to the evolution of French poetry, and profoundly influenced the direction taken by French painters.

French cultural life, particularly in the mid-nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, notably in Paris, was marked by close relationships and collaborations among painters, writers, and musicians. Chabrier himself was a close friend of the painter Eduard Manet, as Vincent Giroud points out in his fine program note. By the time of his death, Chabrier had assembled an impressive art collection of works by contemporaries, as did his musical contemporary Ernest Chausson, who also had ambitions as a writer. Chabrier established himself as a remarkable piano virtuoso, achieving a level of dexterity and panache beyond that of most of his pianist-composer contemporaries, including Debussy. There are several portraits of Chabrier by Manet, but one very interesting, lesser-known portrait of Chabrier is the 1885 painting by Henri Fantin-La Tour, Autour du piano. The portrait depicts Chabrier at the piano surrounded by friends, among them the composer Vincent D’Indy. Chabrier’s other remarkable quality as a musician was his ability to write music in many styles, ranging from the Gallic equivalent of Tristanesque profundity to the humorous parody of contemporary operetta. Central to this mélange of style (much of it audible in Le roi malgré lui), is Chabrier’s love of song, which was perhaps the result of an abiding interest in and association with poetry.

For a composer living in Paris and associating with some of the leading artists of the time, Chabrier led a decidedly un-Bohemian life. He was married for most of his adult life. However, like Nietzsche, Chabrier had contracted syphilis, and it eventually killed him at age 53. Despite considerable success, Chabrier felt some bitterness toward the end of his life that his stage music had not be well enough received. Ironically, less than a year before his death, his Gwendoline had a triumphant premiere, but his mind was so far gone that he did not recognize the music as his own. Understandably, Chabrier’s musical output was not enormous. He is best known for an orchestral rhapsody called España (1883), and his piano music, including Habanera (1885), later arranged for orchestra, and the 10 pièces pittoresques (1881).

Chabrier died before Chausson completed his own operatic masterpiece Le roi Arthus, and just prior to a massive sea-change in French culture and politics. He did not live through the notorious Dreyfus affair, and did not experience the transformation of French musical language through the work of Debussy. Nevertheless, Debussy was one of Chabrier’s staunchest proponents, and as Steven Huebner has noted, Chabrier’s posthumous reputation is far greater than the standing he maintained during his lifetime. Debussy’s advocacy is not surprising, since Chabrier was one of the pioneers of the appropriation of the Spanish idiom among French composers, a tradition built upon later by Debussy and Ravel.

But it is interesting to reflect on the fact that Chabrier’s central ambition, like most of his contemporaries, was to achieve success as a composer for the stage. In part because of the unwavering allegiance to the Wagnerian, it is understandable that the premiere of his last opera Briséïs (1891; after Goethe), was premiered by Richard Strauss in Berlin, or that Felix Mottl, the great German conductor and Wagnerian, friend of Chabrier, and perhaps best known for his orchestrations of Schubert, completed the orchestration of one of Chabrier’s last works, the Bourrée fantastique (1891). Chabrier collaborated with another friend, the poet Paul Verlaine, on two operatic projects, only one of which was completed.

Gwendoline’s resemblance to Tristan (albeit transformed by a French sensibility), has unfairly excluded it from the repertoire of many opera companies. Briséïs has experienced somewhat of a modern renaissance, as has the comic opera L’Étoile (1877). The opera you will hear today, Le roi malgré lui, although revived only in 1929, has long been considered perhaps Chabrier’s most original opera and certainly one that shows the extraordinary range of his musical and expressive palette. Le roi contains some of Chabrier’s finest music at its most demanding, and its most charming. The opera has languished in relative obscurity because of its libretto, which has been proclaimed incomprehensible. It is for this reason that when the opera was revised by Albert Carré in 1929, substantial changes were made.

But the current opera revival that began in earnest during the last two decades has made it possible to reconsider long-held prejudices about the presumably failed repertoire of the past. All the lesser known operas of famous figures such as Mozart, Verdi, and Strauss have been revived, but the repertoire of great French opera written before World War I remains among the most neglected of genres. The American Symphony Orchestra embarked several years ago on a slow and painstaking effort to produce concert versions of great French opera. A concert performance of Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue has led to a fully staged production at New York City Opera next season, and a 2000 performance of Chausson’s Le roi Arthus inspired a BBC broadcast and recording that will become available later this year. Other operas that merit revival include works by Lalo, D’Indy, and Magnard.

In an age dominated by the moving picture with sound, video art, and computer graphics, the relation between the opera stage and the audience has changed from what it was a century ago. The demand for immediate theatricality or plausibility of comprehension has been displaced. We no longer approach opera the way we still approach movies, where we expect to be seduced by the illusions of realism and therefore permit ourselves, much as Chabrier permitted himself, to be overcome by some form of psychological identification generated between the listener and the stage. Perhaps with the exception of contemporary opera, we attend the opera with a candid but indulgent embrace of its evident artificiality. One might think that the ubiquity of supertitles would bring opera closer to the act of reading or movie-watching, but it has not, for we cherish opera now precisely for its inherently anti-modern strangeness. It is perhaps the only pre-modern art form that cannot be adequately represented through technological reproduction, whether CD or DVD. It is an art form that thrives on simultaneity, unpredictability and lack of routine. It therefore requires live performance and human presence on both sides of the proscenium. This holds for both staged and concert performances. Because of the self-consciousness and objectivity imposed by time and changing culture, we need not demand a rigorous verisimilitude in opera stories. We do not even require that the text of the libretto be particularly memorable. Our encounter with opera is as an experience of drama and engagement that is carried overwhelmingly by the musical shape and content. This includes not only great moments but the “long line” of musical form that opera creates (to borrow a favorite expression of the great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger). This is precisely what Le roi possessed in its original incarnation. More than a century after its premiere, there is no longer a need to revise the original version. It is this version you will hear this afternoon, performed as its composer intended. Much of what audiences in the past may have found odd is, in retrospect, delightful and engaging and quintessentially operatic. In Le roi “Chabrier the inspired composer of song” merges with “Chabrier the Wagnerian” in the integration of language and music. His ambition in this opera was to create a musical and dramatic fabric in which music carries the day, a rather appealing approach for the post-post-modern age. This is an opera that truly deserves a place back in the repertory of the world’s opera houses.