Félicien David’s Herculanum at the Wexford Festival: Opera Grand and Melodious

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Émile Pierre Metzmacher. Portrait of Félicien David, 1858.

Émile Pierre Metzmacher. Portrait of Félicien David, 1858

Music festivals often pride themselves on reviving works that, for whatever combination of reasons, have fallen out of the repertory. One important French grand opera of 1859, Herculanum, by Félicien David, got its first recording two years ago and reached the opera stage—for the first time in nearly a century—at Wexford Festival Opera this past October. Reviewers of the recording, including New York Arts contributor Ralph P. Locke, were struck by the melodic richness of the music, the keenly characterized solo roles, and the imaginative use of orchestra and chorus. Reviewers of the Wexford production were more muted, though perhaps the modest-scaled production had something to do with that. (Wexford’s new opera house is on the small size: the auditorium seats fewer than 800, whereas the Met in New York can hold close to 4000.) Locke, who is a professor emeritus of musicology at the Eastman School of Music, contributed an essay to the WFO’s program book that gives a sense of this fascinating work. We reprint it here with the festival’s kind permission.

Herculanum: Opera Grand and Melodious

by Ralph P. Locke

Herculanum, by Félicien David, is a particularly successful example of French grand opera. The genre began in the 1820s, with Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Auber’s La muette de Portici, and went on to include such notable works as Halévy’s La juive, Meyerbeer’s Le prophète, and Verdi’s Don Carlos. The performances of David’s Herculanum at Wexford Festival Opera in October-November 2016 were almost surely the first since the late nineteenth century. They testify to the remarkable merits of a composer whose name is nowadays nearly unknown to most opera lovers and, indeed, to most musicians.

The fact is: by the early twentieth century, the music of Félicien David (1810-76), aside from a few arias and perhaps a song or two, had ceased to be performed. David’s output began to receive renewed attention in the late 1980s, at a time when performers were looking into the works of other unjustly neglected nineteenth-century composers, such as Hummel, John Field, Spohr, and Gottschalk, and—among opera composers—Weber, Meyerbeer, Glinka, Donizetti, and the young Verdi (e.g., Ernani and Luisa Miller).

In the past five years, the Félicien David renaissance has greatly picked up pace, thanks to scholarly and financial support from the Center for French Romantic Music, located at the Palazzetto Bru Zane (located in Venice). Commercial CDs are now available of the three piano trios, the four string quartets, many remarkable songs, and Lalla-Roukh, an enchanting comic opera based on a book by the Irish writer Thomas Moore. David’s Le désert (The Desert) is now available in two accomplished recorded performances. (More on that unusual, and unusually influential, work below.)

Even so, few would have predicted the wave of enthusiasm that greeted the recent recording—the first ever—of David’s sole non-comic opera when it was released in 2015. Herculanum was composed for the Paris Opéra and was performed there no fewer than 74 times during the years 1859-68, to full houses and sustained enthusiasm. Herculanum was also staged in Brussels, Venice, and St. Petersburg. Then it disappeared from sight, except for one aria: Lilia’s stirring Credo in Act 3.

Dozens of reviews of the 2015 recording, most of them full of delight, were published in France, Italy, the UK, and North America. (My own appreciation can be read online. See the bibliographical note below.) To be sure, some reviewers felt that the music for the volcanic eruption that brings the opera to a devastating close is too brief and insufficiently violent—at least for home listening, in the absence of all requisite stage effects. But many reviewers were pleased to note how well David’s musical decisions support the unfolding drama elsewhere in the work, how attractive the melodies are, and how carefully suited the vocal writing is for each on-stage character and for the two “peoples” played by the chorus: early Christians in Act 2 scene 1; pagans in the rest of the work.

In fact, the record reviewers’ observations often resembled those made by the music and theater critics after the work’s Paris premiere. The hardcover book that comes with the recording features an important essay (by Gunther Braam) that offers substantial excerpts from many of those opening-night reviews, notably Berlioz’s thoughtful and laudatory one. One unusually detailed review—written by the composer and critic Ernest Reyer—is not mentioned in that essay. It includes this passage (which I translate freely, for the sake of clarity):

Many people have long insisted on considering David solely a skillful composer of symphonic and other instrumental works. Well, any doubts that they may have had about his ability to handle a work for the stage have now surely vanished [after last night’s premiere]. The melodies in Herculanum are so easy to recall—and I have stored so many of them in my own memory—that I could have filled the ten columns of this review with musical notation, were it possible for a review to be printed on five-lined manuscript paper!1

The Long Journey to Fame

David’s musical talents—including that affinity for lyrical melody—were first discovered during his boyhood spent in the small town of Cadenet and in nearby Aix-en-Provence. Friends and relatives noticed his lovely singing voice and his comfortable command at the piano. He was therefore enrolled in the choir school of the Aix cathedral, where he received musical instruction and began to compose mellifluous short motets and—despite being very young—to conduct the choir.

When David was nineteen, an oboist from the Paris Opéra, vacationing in the region, recommended that the young composer be sent to the Paris Conservatoire. David thus “went up” (=”monter” as the French say) to Paris, where he began to study at the Conservatoire and to attend concerts and operas. After little more than a year, he dropped his studies, having become deeply drawn to the Saint-Simonian movement, a utopian-socialist organization that based its plans for massive—yet peaceful—societal reform on the writings of the late Henri Rouvroy, Count of Saint-Simon.

The Saint-Simonians quickly noticed David’s unusual musical talent and keen responsiveness to poetic texts. Some of the movement’s members wrote texts for him to set. The resulting pieces were performed at the movement’s gatherings and public lectures.

Early in 1832, the Saint-Simonians’ lecture hall was locked shut by the government, in large part because the movement’s leaders had proposed that French laws grant more rights to workers and to women. In response, David and some forty other male Saint-Simonians formed a celibate commune just outside of Paris. There David assembled a four-part men’s chorus to sing his proselytizing hymns, many of which the movement published as a further way of spreading its ideas.

In 1833, when the movement’s leaders were sent to prison, David and some of the other “apostles” (as they dubbed themselves) travelled to Turkey and Egypt. They tried to put their social ideas into practice, not least by starting a school in Cairo to help local girls receive a Western education. During the two years that David lived in Egypt he collected tunes that he would use a decade later in Le désert.

After Egypt was hit by plague in 1835, David returned to France, and to relative obscurity. Over the next nine years, though, he gradually developed a small career singing, in fashionable homes, songs that he had recently written. (He accompanied himself at the piano.)

Finally, in December 1844, the premiere of Le désert made David truly renowned. Le désert is an hour-long secular oratorio for tenor, men’s chorus, orchestra, and a narrator who reads descriptions in verse. The work portrays a caravan moving through a desert somewhere in the Arab-speaking world. Berlioz’s much-noticed review called the work a “masterpiece” and drew particular attention to the work’s many evocative passages: e.g., a March of the Caravan, a sandstorm, and a muezzin’s call, the latter sung in Arabic (including the phrase “Allāhu akbar”). Le désert was soon performed in concert halls across Europe and the Americas. Often the vocal solos and choral parts were sung in translation, but the tenor generally still performed the muezzin’s call using the traditional Arabic words.

David followed up this success with several further concert works that—like Le désert—involve voices, orchestra, and an implied plot. The most successful of these, Christophe Colomb (1847), vividly re-enacts a mutiny aboard one of Columbus’s ships, and does so without the aid of sets, costumes, or stage action.

For a French composer at the time, however, true success was achieved in the opera house. During the 1850s and 60s, David composed four comic operas, two of which were performed to great acclaim: La perle du Brésil (The Pearl of Brazil; 1851)—known to vocal fanciers ever since for a single number: the coloratura-soprano aria “Charmant oiseau,” with obbligato flute—and the aforementioned Lalla-Roukh (1862). David’s other two comic operas—still largely unknown today—are Le saphir (The Sapphire; 1865) and La captive (The Woman Held Captive; first performed in1883, fourteen years after the composer’s death).

In 1859, in the middle of his “operatic” years, David dared to test his skill with what would be his first and last contribution to the genre of French grand opera. Herculanum is a fully serious four-act work that makes extensive use of chorus and elaborate sets and staging. The original production featured some of the best opera singers of the day. Freely based on historical accounts of the persecution of early Christians by the masters of the Roman Empire, Herculanum tells of a chaste young couple: the Christian maiden Lilia (soprano) and her intended spouse Hélios (tenor), a Greek prince who has converted to her religion. These pious innocents are brought to the court of a pagan queen, Olympia, at her palace in Herculaneum (in French: Herculanum), near Pompeii. Olympia’s brother, Nicanor—recently named a proconsul by Rome—is also present. The siblings come from territory near the Euphrates River (which flows through regions of what are today Turkey, Syria, and Iraq). They are deviousness personified, in part through their lower-range voices—mezzo-soprano and bass-baritone—and their readiness to launch into flashy coloratura.

Olympia and Nicanor, having made common cause with the Romans against the nascent Christian movement, take advantage of their new-found power to pursue their own selfish agendas. Nicanor is killed by a bolt from Heaven in Act 2, and Satan promptly appears and disguises himself as Nicanor in order to stir up trouble in the rest of the opera. (The two roles are sung by the same bass-baritone.) Heaven finally punishes Olympia and her whole pagan community.

Dangerous Delight

In Herculanum, David blends elements from Italian and French operatic traditions. The harmonic language is straightforward and the phrase structure is often based on a four-bar norm, familiar to opera lovers then and now from Italian operas of the day such as Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The lavish coloratura in Olympia’s vocal line seems at once a tribute to Italianate models—the role was first sung by an Italian woman, with a somewhat distracting accent—and an emblem of the character’s high social status, great beauty, and mendacious charm. The roles of the two young lovers, Lilia and Nicanor, demand a strong legato—as in, say, Bellini’s Norma—combined with the acting skills and trenchant declamation that had long been central to French operatic tradition (Lully, Rameau, Gluck, or—closer to David’s day—Cherubini’s Médée). The double-role of Nicanor/Satan shifts in its vocal demands from moment to moment, as befits the drama’s two most slippery characters.

The structure of the musical numbers is likewise freely indebted to Italianate models. Two major duets—for Lilia and Nicanor in Act 2 and for Lilia and Hélios in Act 4—are multi-movement “grand duets” in the Italian manner. Both duets close with a cabaletta: an emphatic, up-tempo movement of the sort that ended nearly every aria or duet (or indeed larger ensemble-number) in Italian operas of the day.

These Italianate structures are sometimes significantly altered to serve a dramatic purpose. In Act 1, after Hélios takes the love potion, he sings a multi-movement “Air de l’extase” (Aria of Ecstasy). Surprisingly, a cabaletta-like movement—“A toi, reine ou déesse! Je cède à mon ivresse! ” (“To you, queen or goddess! I surrender to my rapture! ”)—opens the aria instead of ending it. This reversal of expectations emphasizes the intensity of his desire and also allows the concluding movement of the aria to provide a contrast: a slower, yet still impassioned melody in 6/8 meter over a softly pulsing orchestral accompaniment.

Hélios, utterly smitten by Olympia and her splendid garden, sings this concluding melody twice, both times with the same words: “Je veux aimer toujours / dans l’air que tu respires” (“I want to love forever, in the air that you breathe”). The second time through, Olympia entwines his tune—and, in a sense, also entwines Hélios and the audience—with luscious countermelodies.

Lilia left the stage earlier in Act 1, but the trusting maiden finally gets to learn of Hélios’s betrayal in Act 2, when Satan—now having taken Nicanor’s place—shows her, by means of a magical vision, Hélios reclining at Olympia’s feet and singing this same song to the pagan queen. Now, though, Hélios’s vocal part is gently cushioned by a dreamy vocal backdrop provided by the women and men of Olympia’s court: wordless chords whose floating quality makes clear that the once-principled prince has lost his way.

Various other melodies and phrases likewise recur to powerful effect in Herculanum. The minor-mode tune by which, in Act 1, Lilia and Hélios introduced themselves to Olympia and Nicanor and described their faith and simple way of life in seclusion from the world (“Dans une retraite profonde”) is restated in Act 3 by a English horn while, over it, Lilia pleads with Hélios to return to God and to her. In the postlude to Act 4 scene 1, after Satan has urged the slaves of Herculaneum to rebel against their masters, Satan’s menacing coloratura runs are recalled, in eerie hushed tones, by the strings, prefiguring the town’s doom.

Throughout the work, David’s orchestration contributes substantially to the dramatic effect. (The players in the Paris Opéra were some of the best anywhere.) The instrumentation and figuration is often interestingly varied in repeated passages. Cornets brighten several passages involving the full brass. And the English horn performs two eloquent quasi-duets with Lilia: in the Act 3 scene discussed above, and in the first act. The melancholy sound of that unusual instrument enriches our sense of Lilia’s modesty and—in Act 3—of her unmerited suffering.

Just before that Act 3 “duet” for Lilia and English horn, Olympia, Nicanor, and Lilia struggle over Hélios, each urgently informing him what he should now do. A propulsive figure, grimly orchestrated for bassoons and strings in unison, keeps modulating from key to key, leading the beleaguered man to cry out to them all: “For pity’s sake, leave me alone!”

Particularly imaginative—as Berlioz, an expert orchestrator, was pleased to note—is the orchestral passage in Act 1 as Hélios, smitten by Olympia’s beauty, drinks the love potion she has offered him. Were we to close our eyes, we would still know, by hearing alone, that some magical enchantment is coursing through his veins. Similarly, the orchestral prelude to Act 2 leads the listener, before the curtain rises, from the superficial gaiety of Olympia’s court to the desert retreat of the devout, beleaguered Christians. David also invents wonderful orchestral sonorities for the coup de théâtre, later in Act 2, when Nicanor is struck dead by divine thunderbolt and, immediately afterward, Satan—his alter ego—slowly arises from the bowels of the earth.

Some recent commentators have suggested that Herculanum continues the peaceful social message of the Saint-Simonians: the fact that the call for revolution in Act 4 comes from Satan is, from this point of view, an imaginative but still straightforward continuation of the message of the Saint-Simonians, who had always urged the businessmen, managers, and workers in France to cooperate with each other and thereby to avoid violent uprisings (such as had occurred in 1789, 1830, and—after the Saint-Simonian movement had declined significantly—1848).

Other commentators prefer to see the work as reflecting the reconciliation in France in the 1850s between liberal politicians and the Catholic Church. They point to the fact that a priest-like Christian figure, Magnus, twice appears on stage, urging the pagans to repent, and that the opera ends with the pagans being crushed by their falling mansions while the two young Christians (Hélios has by this point returned to Lilia and to God) sing joyfully of their imminent ascent into Heaven.

Of course, many operas are marked by complex implications that flow in several different directions at once. A basic tension between impersonal historical forces and individual desire is central to a number of beloved works in the repertory. It is a delight to see and hear such tensions played out in fresh and imaginative ways in this once-forgotten work from mid-nineteenth-century Paris.

The performances at Wexford presented the work in its near-entirety. The only omissions were the instrumental ballet numbers, which—though rich in exotic color, a feature scarcely to be found in the rest of the opera—do little to advance the plot.

Listeners at Wexford (or those who heard the BBC broadcast/podcast) encountered Olympia’s “Hymne à Vénus,” the only aria that was omitted from the recent recording (because the mezzo-soprano became ill toward the end of the recording sessions). This aria, in which Olympia praises Venus, goddess of beauty, is the coloratura highlight of the entire score. The whole role of Olympia also reminds us how damnably appealing physical beauty, vocal command, and the alternately sultry and glinting qualities of the mezzo-soprano voice can be, a fact that not just Hélios but also other operatic tenors—Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Bizet’s Don José, Saint-Saëns’s Samson—learn too late and to their dismay.


More on Félicien David and on Herculanum:

This essay is a lightly reworked version of one commissioned by Wexford Festival Opera for their 2016 program book.

The premiere recording of Herculanum, released last year on 2 CDs, comes with a small hardcover book and is published by the Palazzetto Bru Zane, in conjunction with Ediciones Singulares. Excerpts can be heard at YouTube.com. Lilia’s ’Credo’ can be heard at http://www.bru-zane.com/?pubblicazioni=herculanum&lang=en. A trailer for the recording, including video excerpts from a concert performance, is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUCyk3P7Kyc.

The Palazzetto will soon be releasing a 3-CD “Portrait” of Félicien David, containing previously unrecorded works, notably Christophe Colomb and Le jugement dernier (The Last Judgement). The latter, a scene for two contrasting choral groups and orchestra, dramatizes the fates of the damned and the blessed. Originally intended as a grand finale for Herculanum, it was removed before opening night.

David’s life and works are discussed with great insight in Dorothy V. Hagan, Félicien David, 1810-1876: A Composer and a Cause (Syracuse University Press, 1985). The interaction of David’s career with his political ideals is treated in my book Music, Musicians, and the Saint-Simonians (University of Chicago Press, 1986). The latter is also available in French translation: Les Saint-Simoniens et la musique (Mardaga, 1992).

  1.  Toutes les préventions que pouvaient avoir contre son aptitude dramatique ceux qui s’obstinaient à le considérer seulement comme un symphoniste habile, doivent avoir disparu aujourd’hui. Les mélodies d’Herculanum sont si faciles à retenir, et j’en ai retenu une telle quantité, que j’aurais pu en noircir les dix colonnes de ce feuilleton, si un feuilleton musical s’imprimait sur du papier à musique. Je voudrais bien savoir le nom de l’éditeur qui, dans ce cas là, aurait eu le droit de me faire un procès, car un éditeur ne peut manquer à une si belle œuvre.
About the author

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is a professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (located in Rochester, New York, USA). He is the founding editor of Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by the University of Rochester Press. His writings include Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (2009) and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (2015) (both from Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book. His essays and reviews can be read in American Record Guide and at OperaTodayMusicology Now, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His 18 articles for New York Arts have included pieces on slavery in Mozart’s operas and on a 3-CD set of surprisingly inventive works by Marie Jaëlla major composer and pianist closely associated with both Saint-Saëns and Liszt. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music.

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