Gounod’s Sapho

Sunday, november 18, 2018
6:00 pm

Presented at Lisner Auditorium.

Below you will find the Program Notes and Synopsis for Sunday's performance.

Program Notes

By Peter Russell

“What Gounod lacks somewhat is a brilliant and ‘popular’ side. His music is like a temple: it is not open to all… Yet among that mass of talented composers who are witty in a vulgar sort of way, intelligible not because of their clarity but because of their triviality, the appearance of a musical personality such as Gounod’s is so rare that one cannot welcome him heartily enough.” So wrote the Russian author Ivan Turgenev in an 1850 letter to the French diva Pauline Viardot of the novice composer Charles Gounod, then still at work completing Sapho, the first of his oeuvre of twelve operas. The novelist who gave us Fathers and Sons penned these aperçus in a lengthy missive while Viardot was away from home touring in Germany; she had invited Gounod to use her country estate outside Paris as his writing studio to finish composing in peace, while Turgenev, one of her legion of distinguished admirers and hangers-on, kept him company and provided pro bono dramaturgical advice.

Turgenev’s observations proved in equal parts prophetic and premature. Critics indeed responded more encouragingly to Gounod’s operas from the beginning than did casual listeners, not only at the premiere of Sapho, but even during the first run at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1859 of his most famous work, Faust. With Faust, however, Gounod managed to hit the perfect balance between melodic inspiration that swiftly won over listeners at all levels of sophistication and a story that aligned perfectly with middlebrow sentiments. The seemingly inexhaustible trove of hit tunes in Faust ensures its continued presence in the international operatic repertoire. Its once inescapable popularity has significantly diminished only in part due to the daunting costs involved in mounting such a long, sprawling work. Its retelling of the first part of Goethe’s epic as a tale of Christianity at war with Satan, culminating in the redemption of an innocent maiden who has succumbed to sexual temptation, made it an ideal valentine for the Victorian era (it was, in fact, Queen Victoria’s favorite opera). With the passing of each generation, Faust seems ever more quaint as the relic of a bygone age. While Roméo et Juliette, Gounod’s 1867 operatic setting of Shakespeare’s beloved play, ranked a distant second in popularity to Faust among his works during his lifetime, it has steadily racked up enough productions in the past half-century to become nearly the most performed Gounod opera worldwide.

That struggle between religion and sensuality so boldly delineated in Faust was inseparable from Gounod’s own personal DNA. Born in Paris in 1818 to an artist father and pianist mother, he showed early talent at the keyboard, and entered the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included Fromental Halévy, composer of the grand opera La Juive. He won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1839, and spent much of his year abroad immersed in study of 16th-century sacred music, with a focus on the works of Palestrina. At this point in his life, he came very close to becoming a priest. Gounod himself wrote that a last-minute epiphany made him realize that his true calling was music; evil Parisian tongues wagged that he was booted out of the monastery for having been caught in flagrante with young women. Although Faust may have sealed his fame as an opera composer, his first undisputed success writing on a large scale came in 1855 with the premiere performance at St. Eustache in Paris of his St. Cecilia Mass, unfurling an exceptional gift for choral writing that spilled over generously into his operas. Gounod remained both very devout and a fashionable composer of liturgical music until his death in 1893. Introduced to the keyboard works of Bach by Felix Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, he came to especially revere The Well-Tempered Clavier. When both Mendelssohn siblings passed away in 1859, Gounod dedicated to their memory a setting of the C-Major Prelude from that collection with his soaring melody above it to the words of the Ave Maria, one of the most frequently performed solo liturgical works in the canon.

Upon Gounod’s return to Paris after his year of study in Rome, he steadily continued both writing music and teaching composition (his students included the young Georges Bizet). A mutual musician friend who admired Gounod’s talent introduced him to Pauline Viardot, who in turn extended an invitation to the young composer to play several of his works for her. So impressed was Viardot that she asked him on the spot why he hadn’t yet attempted opera. Hearing that he hadn’t found the right book or librettist to inspire him, but that he hankered to collaborate with his old school chum Émile Augier, by then an established playwright, Viardot offered to reacquaint the two artists and arrange for them to write a new opera together. Better yet, she promised to star in it and to make its production a contingency of her contract to appear at the Paris Opéra in the coming season. Thus were the wheels of Sapho set in gear.

It is impossible to underestimate Viardot’s stature, not only within the context of the European music world, but within the overall cultural community of her era. No opera singer of our time comes close to her celebrity and clout in an era in which “world famous” and “opera singer” have almost become antithetical. Born into a celebrated musical family (her father created the tenor lead in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia; her older sister, Maria Malibran, was herself every bit as famous an operatic leading lady as Viardot until her untimely death at age 28 in 1836), Viardot began performing professionally at age 18. A virtuoso pianist whose teachers included Franz Liszt, she sometimes duetted at the keyboard with her friend Frédéric Chopin, who particularly admired her adaptations of several of his solo mazurkas as art songs. The author and poet Alfred de Musset proposed marriage to her at age 17. Pauline’s friend George Sand, the freethinking writer who by then was Chopin’s lover and one of Musset’s exes, put the kibosh on the idea of a vulnerable female artist wedding a penniless ne’er-do-well like Musset. Instead, she steered the gifted girl toward Louis Viardot, Director of the Théâtre-Italien. More than 21 years Pauline’s senior, Viardot was genial and very rich. The two seemed to enjoy a happy marriage, producing four children. Viardot, who eventually became his wife’s business manager, tolerated her many admirers, some of whom may have also been paramours. In addition to the aforementioned Turgenev, who essentially installed himself as a member of the Viardot household for several years beginning in the 1840s, there were the portraitist Ary Scheffer, Hector Berlioz, and Gounod himself. Pauline Viardot and Gounod had a rift of nearly a decade that began around the time of his 1852 marriage; some have speculated that Gounod was the father of Viardot’s daughter Claudia, born that same year. Turgenev’s play A Month in the Country, in which a married woman of means struggles with her attraction to another man, is ostensibly based on the author’s sting at feeling neglected during Viardot’s infatuation with Gounod, whom Turgenev once dubbed, “our erotic holy father.”

In addition to her extraordinary musical and vocal gifts, Viardot possessed enormous mental acuity, theatrical savvy, and charm. By her teen years, she was completely fluent in French, Italian, German, and English, later adding Russian to the mix. While her voice would be categorized in modern times as “mezzo-soprano,” her range was such that she portrayed roles composed for both soprano and mezzo, many of them from the bel canto operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti that were so popular at the time. Giacomo Meyerbeer composed the fiendishly demanding role of Fidès in Le prophète specifically for her; Camille Saint-Saëns likewise wrote Samson et Dalila with her voice in mind (as it happened, Viardot only sang a portion of the latter in a private performance to promote backing for Saint-Saëns’ opera: by the time of its 1877 premiere, she had retired from singing).

Viardot’s talent and popularity translated into box office, and her intellectual curiosity resulted in wide-ranging interest in new music. The very “establishment” Paris Opéra was enjoying a boom by presenting five-act grand spectacles by Meyerbeer, fictionalized accounts of sweeping moments in western civilization, including Les Huguenots (1836), which climaxes in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and Le prophète (1849), in which John of Leiden provided the titular protagonist. Viardot’s personal triumph in the latter opera helped to pack in audiences. With her career at its zenith, she was ideally positioned not only to dictate that her season at the Opéra would include a new work tailored for her, even by a novice composer, but also to suggest subject material. As a reaction against the “bigger is better” grand opera style, a groundswell arose among those, Hector Berlioz at the forefront, who longed to see a return to the classical simplicity represented a century earlier in the works of Christoph Willibald Gluck, such as Alceste and Orphée et Eurydice (in the late 1850s, Berlioz himself would adapt and oversee a Parisian revival of Orphée, starring, Viardot that caused a minor sensation). In theory, this “back to basics” approach to opera would restore the art form to its roots in antiquity and mythology, and return its mission to more spiritual evocations than the bombastic spectacles of Meyerbeer. And Sappho, the storied Greek poetess about whom few facts were known, yet who had somehow come to represent ideals of truth and eloquence, was precisely the kind of vehicle to showcase Viardot’s boundless gifts.

Just as France was a canvas for political and philosophical tumult throughout the mid-19th century, so too did its arts beyond music reflect widely divergent ideas. In the same period that agnostic, polyamorous Bohemians like George Sand and Alfred de Musset were scandalizing the bourgeoisie through their writings and deeds, other artists clung fiercely to stringent moralistic viewpoints. Gounod’s choice of librettist for Sapho, Émile Augier, won audiences at the Comédie-Française initially by barely concealing his reactionary beliefs in sardonic rhyming comedies. His breakout success in 1848, L’Aventurière (literally translated The Adventuress, but here with the implication of “gold-digger”), ends with a woman of mysterious background, poised to marry a rich older man, ultimately revealed by his son to be a former actress (here translated clearly as, “sex worker”). The woman appeals to the man’s daughter to understand the plight of a single young woman faced with dire poverty, and is dressed down to filth by the daughter in a speech that can be summed up as, “Circumstances are never an excuse for loosening of rigid morals.” Forgotten today, the play had a devoted following at the time.

The courtesan Glycère in Sapho may remain alive at final curtain, but she is devious and intended to incur our resentment for her duplicity and mistreatment of our pure heroine. Pythéas, who lusts after Glycère, proves weak in the face of that attraction. Phaon, torn between true love for Sapho and the easy willingness of Glycère, has no choice but to renounce the former due to her obdurate insistence on principle and self-sacrifice. Sapho stands for all wronged females who accept, indeed embrace, their fate movingly in song, including Dido as immortalized in music by Purcell and Berlioz, and so many other heroines before and since.

While Sapho earned the composer some good critical notices at its premiere, it was not a box office success, running for only nine performances. Even insertion of a ballet (to another composer’s music) to drum up ticket sales after the opening didn’t change the overall impression. Nor did the opera ever catch on abroad. Indeed, until the juggernaut of Faust in 1859, Gounod’s track record as an opera composer reveals a consistent pattern of flops and “nice tries.” Following his lesser success with Roméo et Juliette in 1867 came a few additional workmanlike efforts. Outside of France, where Mireille (1864) and his other works receive occasional revivals, Gounod remains known primarily as the composer of Faust and Roméo. As we mark this bicentennial of Gounod’s birth, tonight’s exceedingly rare North American performance of Sapho is a notable standout given the relative dearth of major commemorative revivals of his operas internationally.

The musical writing on display in Gounod’s first opera provides an interesting mash-up of influences and originality. The more strictly formulaic “number opera” style of writing arias and ensembles, concluding with clear “buttons” signaling breaks for applause, is mostly eschewed in favor of shorter set pieces connected with the sinew of accompanied recitative. Some inkling of Viardot’s amalgam of expressivity and virtuosity can be conjured from Sapho’s winning, slightly foreshadowing ode to Hero and Leander at the end of the first act, “Héro sur la tour solitaire.” Its smoky opening legato phrases are reminiscent of Berlioz’s “Le spectre de la rose” (1841), yet its roots lie in one of Gounod’s earlier songs, “Le soir,” which had impressed Viardot. It goes on to soar ever higher in flourishes to harp accompaniment, leading directly into a fervent choral finale. The duet between Pythéas and Glycère in the second act, on the other hand, seems a throwback to an earlier French musical style, recalling Boieldieu in its light, almost operetta tone.

Scholars have written that listeners can hear the young Giuseppe Verdi finding his own identity as a composer in the final scene of his Luisa Miller (1849). In similar ways, the third act of Sapho provides us with the clearest sense of Gounod’s unique “voice.” Beginning with the first brooding, undulating “waves” in the orchestral introduction that set the mood for Phaon’s sadly nostalgic air, “O jours heureux,” we have entered a loftier “sound world.” Phaon’s aria is almost a watercolor sketch for Faust’s beloved aria, “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure.” Aside from the music for his heroine, this is some of Gounod’s loveliest and most human musical characterization in the score. While the march-like tempo that sets up the chorus of male conspirators bidding farewell to the isle of Lesbos recalls the men’s chorus in the final scene of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), it helps sustain the somber tone for the heroine’s magnificent “O ma lyre immortelle,” the work’s most famous (and frequently recorded) aria. Whatever Gounod originally had in mind for this finale, it emphatically did not please Viardot, who sent him back to the drawing board, suggesting he retool for this purpose one of his earlier songs he had originally played for her, “Le pêcheur.” In its pair of anthem-like strophes, vacillating between major and minor keys, Sapho moves through noble resignation to profound sadness in long, ascending legato lines with harp, oboe, and timpani accents. Sporadic hints of genius in the score that had prompted Viardot upon meeting him to compare Gounod to Mozart gel in one of the most moving arias ever written for mezzo-soprano. Gounod here achieves greatness on a scale worthy of his legendary heroine, and of any leading lady who portrays her.

Peter Russell is the General Director of Vocal Arts DC and co-founder,
with Stephen Crout, of Washington Concert Opera.



Temple of Jupiter, Olympia, 6th century BC

After a chorus praising Jupiter, god of the Olympic Games, the crowd departs. Pythéas asks Phaon why he has remained behind. Phaon explains he is worried about the tyrant Pittacus, but Pythéas suspects it is because he loves two women -- the courtesan Glycère and the poet Sapho. Pythéas is in love with Glycère, too. Phaon finally admits that Pythéas’ suspicions are true and that he is torn between his former lover, the beautiful Glycère, and Sapho (“Puis-je oublier” / “How can I forget”). Sapho arrives, nervous about the upcoming poetry competition, but when Phaon says she has his support and his soul, she is overjoyed. Their meeting is interrupted by Glycère, who did not know she had a rival for Phaon’s heart. In a quartet, the four would-be lovers express their feelings for each other (“Quel entretien si doux” / “What talk so sweet”). Glycère is sure she can keep Phaon’s love, while Sapho believes she alone will have his heart when she wins the poetry contest.

The poet Alcée, Sapho’s main rival in the competition, enters. He reveals to Pythéas and Phaon that he will sing of freedom and justice in order to determine from the crowd’s reaction whether the conspiracy to overthrow Pittacus has popular support (“Liberté, déesse austère” / “Liberty, austere goddess”). Phaon declares that the assembly responded favorably to Alcée’s musical appeal. But when Sapho sings her ode to love -- the heroic story of Héro and Léandre (“Héro sur la tour solitaire” / “Hero, on the lonely tower”) -- the crowd reacts even more favorably, and she is proclaimed the victor. The act ends with Sapho’s hymn thanking Venus for her victory in poetry and love (“Merci Vénus” / “Thank you, Venus”), and Phaon swears that his heart belongs only to her.


Phaon’s villa on the island of Lesbos

A group, including Phaon, Pythéas, and Alcée, is gathered for a banquet (chorus: “Gloire à Bacchus” / “Glory to Bacchus”), but the real intent is to plot the overthrow of Pittacus (“Oui, jurons tous” / “Yes, we all swear”). Phaon is chosen by a throw of the dice to kill Pittacus. Pythéas, a reluctant plotter, is given the written oath to have it copied by his slaves and posted all over the island the next day. All leave, except Pythéas. Glycère arrives and admits that she wants vengeance on both Phaon and Sapho. She

questions Pythéas about the meeting. Thrilled to have her alone, Pythéas agrees to give her proof of the assassination plot if she will come to him later in the night (recitative and duet: “Il m’aurait plu” / “I would have liked”). Glycère agrees to join him at midnight, and Pythéas tells her about the conspiracy, giving her the signed oath. She secretly sends her slave to inform Pittacus.

When Sapho arrives at the villa to meet Phaon, Glycère confronts her, promising not to disclose the plot and Phaon’s role (although she already has) if Sapho agrees to persuade Phaon to leave Lesbos and to depart without her. Sapho sadly consents in order to save his life. Phaon appears for his rendezvous with Sapho. Glycère announces that Pythéas has revealed the plot to Pittacus (trio: “Je viens sauver ta tête” / “I have saved your life”) and persuades him to flee. Phaon asks Sapho to follow him into exile; she urges him to leave, refusing to go with him. With effort, she tells him she no longer loves him. Accusing Sapho of infidelity, Phaon accepts Glycère’s offer to join him in exile (“O douleur qui m’oppresse!” / “O sadness which overcomes me”).


A windswept beach

With the plot betrayed, Phaon awaits the other conspirators and bemoans his unhappy life (“O jours heureux ou j’entendais ta voix!” / “O happy days where I heard your voice”). Joined by the others, they bid a sad farewell to their country (“Adieu Patrie” / “Adieu, homeland”). Sapho arrives, but remains hidden. Glycère asks Phaon whether he still loves her rival; he curses Sapho, who faints. The voices of the conspirators fade away as they board the ship until only a goatherd is heard (“Broutez le thym” / “Feed them thyme”). Coming to her senses, Sapho sings the most famous aria of the opera (“O ma lyre immortelle” / “O my immortal lyre”), and unwilling to live without Phaon, hurls herself into the sea.