Gramophone guest blog

In defence of Salieri's failed opera, Les Horaces

Christophe RoussetTue 2nd October 2018

Conductor Christophe Rousset explains why he has recorded Salieri's French Revolution opera

I love the challenge of defending the un-defendable, of convincing singers and firing my orchestra Les Talens Lyriques’ imagination especially when they have doubts. History has unjustly maligned Antonio Salieri and Forman’s film Amadeus only perpetuated the myth. For me, Salieri has always held a fascination ever since we performed and recorded his La Grotta di Trofonio, a remarkable work, which undoubtedly inspired Mozart. 

Salieri’s Les Horaces bombed when it was premiered before the Royal Court of France (Fontainebleau or Versailles) on December 2, 1786 - it ran for three nights only. A damning review of the first performance stated: 'there cannot be a more humiliating fate for a tragedy of this kind, which, instead of moving the court to tears, drew laughter.' Why record a piece like this?  

Les Horaces however convinced the playwright Beaumarchais, who was keen to write his first opera following the notorious success of Da Ponte’s adaption of his play - The Marriage of Figaro - for Mozart. Beaumarchais saw a different side: 'Salieri has received from Nature a delicate sensibility, a true spirit, a most exceptional talent for dramatic music, and a wealth of ideas that is almost unique.' Beaumarchais chose to work with Salieri to set his first opera libretto Tarare, which would become the wildly successful conclusion to Salieri’s French trilogy.

Undoubtedly the libretto for Les Horaces was at fault. Yet the music is dramatic and not lacking in originality or inspiration. Salieri’s trilogy provides the missing link between Gluck and Cherubini. The colours of the woodwind open the door to Mehul and Berlioz. Even in Salieri’s first French opera, Les Danaïdes, you can hear the influence of Gluck, but Les Horaces is looking forward to the musical language of Cherubini’s Médée.

Les Horaces has the same flavour as Jacques-Louis David’s painting of 1785 of Le Serment des Horaces: gone is the refinement, the baroque froufrou. Comparisons with Mozart are unmissable in Salieri’s earlier overtures, but with these later French operas, the comparison vanishes. The music of Les Horaces already heralds Napoleon – pride, pomp, rigidity.

Four years ago, I had the chance to perform and record Salieri’s first opera in French, Les Danaïdes. He has adapted his style for French tastes. The final scene is so violent – a complete bloodbath – that everyone is always taken by the drama in the music at the conclusion of the opera. It heralds a violent overthrow.  

Les Horaces, too, was undoubtedly ahead of its time. The music and gory plot captures the tension in the air as the French Revolution looms. In fact, after the Revolution, the opera was revived to great success: by that time, tastes and expectations had changed. In fact, they had already shifted by his next French opera – Tarare – where Beaumarchais’ libretto proved a huge success. With Tarare, the revolution has already arrived, two years in advance of real life events - the general Tarare kills the corrupt despot. Beaumarchais’ libretto speaks out against power, church and king; the chorus sings: 'Mortal whoever you are, prince, priest or soldier, your greatness on his earth is not due to your state but because of your character.'

Les Horaces is available on Aparte. Visit: apartemusic.com

Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques will complete this trilogy of recordings next month, following performances of Tarare in Versailles on November 22, Vienna on 24, Paris on November 28 and Caen on December 9 for release in 2019

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