Children of the Revolution

Classic Arts Features   Children of the Revolution
John Yohalem visits the French Revolution and its Operatic Offspring.

Wer du auch seist, ich will dich retten" - "Whoever you are, I will rescue you."

In Fidelio, when Leonore sings these words to the sleeping prisoner who may or may not be her husband, she ceases to be that stock figure of the stage, a woman risking all to save her love; she becomes a heroine for the human race. She knows that the commandant, Pizarro, is her husband's enemy, and she has seen him mistreat those in his charge; she knows that the man before her is about to die by Pizarro's own hand. She suspects it is Florestan, and all her actions have been based on that premise. But now she pities the prisoner writ large, any human being in chains. She offers her life for any victim of oppression and, if we may properly understand the ecstatic conclusion of the opera, she offers it for all. We are sent home rejoicing and reassured‹that freedom, however you define it, will always inspire heroism. If, in the intricate working out of the plot, Leonore could not succeed without human aid‹from Rocco, from Don Fernando, from the offstage King‹the music tells us otherwise, that her selfless gesture has made all the difference.

Leonore is almost too large, too superb for the ordinary, indeed ridiculous, part we are told she has been playing in the household of Rocco, the jailer. She has not merely been disguised as a boy, deceiving all eyes, she has even won the heart of Rocco's daughter. It is difficult to square these early scenes with the grandeur that follows, but the composer and his many librettists ‹ Jean-Nicolas Bouilly's original French melodrama and the translators and rearrangers with whom Beethoven fought over the three different versions of his only opera‹manage to deceive our eyes and ears by seeming to focus on everyday characters with everyday desires: greedy Rocco, his lovesick daughter, and her rejected suitor. By keeping Leonore's true nature‹and not just her gender‹under wraps, they purposely mislead us as to the nature of the drama we are about to see unfold.

The difficulty is to make Leonore superhuman without making her inhuman. She should be a symbol of something we ordinary folk might find inside ourselves, instead of a glimpse of some nature impossibly beyond us. The story underlines her humanity by opening with the absurd and clichéd premise of a woman disguised as a boy fending off a girl's advances, later by making it clear that her plan cannot ultimately succeed unassisted, but Beethoven offers his musical opinion, as it were, that no one could defeat such a woman, even so satanic a figure as his explosive Pizarro.

When Leonore has thwarted Pizarro's murder attempt, she is still in difficulties‹she does not know Don Fernando will find her, or whether Rocco will help bring the situation to light. In the early versions of the opera, and in the settings of the story by Gaveaux and Paer, there are still some shenanigans with keys and identities before she is home free, but in the opera as we now usually see it, the climaxes are timed for the same instant‹the trumpet signals rescue at the instant Leonore pulls her gun on Pizarro, and Jacquino enters the prison to announce Don Fernando's arrival.

Leonore cannot achieve her husband's liberation by herself‹and yet, in a sense, she does. All along, she has barely considered the obstacles. She does what needs to be done, and providence‹assisted by Rocco and Don Fernando‹does the rest. In a sense she has made herself the tool of benign Providence in subduing her own fears, her own nature, even transforming (briefly) her very gender. Would Providence do as much for her if Leonore were not willing to put herself on the line? This, then, is the lesson: conquer yourself, and the rest will fall into place.

The "rescue" opera was a feature of the Parisian stage long before the Revolution, but that era gave rise to a new and popular crop. And everybody wanted to know what was going on in Paris. While the American Revolution and, later, the Russian, eventually affected the entire world, both occurred at the peripheries of western civilization. The French Revolution took place at its very center, in the city that had long been the focus of ideas, tastes, and cultural fashions of every sort.

The world observed, in France, more shocks in just a few years than a nation usually digests in a century. The Bastille fell in 1789, feudalism was abolished and the church was nationalized in that fall, the republic, the metric system and an entirely new calendar were proclaimed in 1792, Louis XVI went to the guillotine and Marat, the demagogue, was stabbed in his bathtub in 1793, and the ensuing Reign of Terror climaxed in July 1794, when Robespierre, accused of tyranny, followed his king to the scaffold. In the 20 years of war that followed, not one or two states or one or two classes but every nation from Portugal to Russia was turned upside down and given a hearty shake. It was a time of bewilderment, of challenge to every settled belief‹in short, an ideal breeding ground for myth, and the artistic blossoms of myth.

The myths of the French Revolution cluster about certain events and symbols: the fall of the Bastille, the guillotine, Marie Antoinette, Marat, Napoleon, the retreat from Moscow. Each symbol had many meanings, as it was viewed through different eyes. Although only seven prisoners were there to be set free on July 14, 1789, the fall of the Bastille symbolized (and continues to symbolize) liberation from ancient tyranny; but it was the new tyranny of the Reign of Terror that inspired a fashion in "rescue" works for the stage and, later, novels and movies.

In Paris in the 1790s, the rescue opera‹often based, so it was claimed, on true stories‹enjoyed a tremendous vogue. In 1802, the Paris successes of Cherubini, Lodoïska and Les Deux Journées, became the hits of Vienna, followed there by a dozen other French operas. It is not surprising, then, that Beethoven should choose a recent French hit, the Bouilly-Gaveaux Léonore (1798), as the basis for his own essay of the form.

Two sorts of "rescue" opera were popular in Paris before the Revolution made the escape-from-the-guillotine pattern fashionable; we might call them "serious" and "comic." The serious pattern was set by Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), which departs from its source, Euripides, in order to put the climax before our eyes, rather than have it reported by a messenger: Iphigénie realizes that Oreste is her brother only in Act IV, as she is about to sacrifice him on the altar of Diana. Mutual revelation is followed by the entrance of the barbarian king, resolved to slay them both; he is frustrated by the surprise arrival of human aid and, at last, the interference of a goddess. This pattern survived into Act II of Fidelio, where the barbarian has become the evil commandant, Pizarro, while divine intervention is credited to an offstage monarch.

Opéra comique produced a more rustic sort of rescue opera, which also bequeathed traits to Fidelio. Rescue plots had been popular since 1769 when, in Monsigny's Le Déserteur, a valiant girl won a reprieve for her doomed fiancé. The hit of the 1780s had been Grétry's Richard Coeur de Lion (1784), which placed the king himself in the dungeon, rescued by a faithful troubadour.

One result of the Revolution was the liberation of the theaters of Paris from stringent regulation concerning what sort of works might be staged, and where. Stages multiplied, and genres borrowed from each other to please a new and highly vocal public. Events of all sorts were restaged and reimagined so that the people could relive their triumphs. Bouilly said he based the story of his Léonore (1798) on an incident he had witnessed in Tours.

The most famous work of this school was Les Deux Journées (1800), composed to another Bouilly libretto by Luigi Cherubini, an Italian naturalized in Paris, whom musical authorities of the day, including both Beethoven and Napoleon, regarded as the greatest opera composer of his time. Set during the seventeenth century, Les Deux Journées presents a good-hearted water carrier who defies both threats and bribes to save an aristocrat proscribed not by the king (it should be noted) but by the detested Cardinal Mazarin, claiming to rule in the king's name. It was this work that took Vienna by storm as early as 1802.

The questions behind any "rescue" drama are who is being rescued, by whom, from what and on whose ultimate authority. The message in all but the most cynical of such tales is, in a way, conservative: onstage, the prisoner is never oppressed by legitimate authority or, if so, then it is an authority itself corrupted and debased; he or she is being rescued from usurped or abused authority, and the rescue serves the purpose of reestablishing legitimate order.

If prisoners are rescued from a royal chateau, it is because the monarchy has abused arbitrary powers, and the rescue is justified by natural "Rights of Man." If the prisoners are to be rescued from the guillotine and the Reign of Terror, it is because the ruling Terrorists (a word coined at this time) have interrupted the natural order.

Leonore, Florestan, and the rest of Pizarro's prisoners are not being saved from an archaic system; they are rescued by royal authority from Pizarro's tyrannical misuse of that system. Leonore can frustrate Pizarro's plans, but he can only be destroyed by the legitimate offstage authority of the "best of Kings." It is easy to identify the all-wise, perpetually offstage King, whose name-day is an excuse for permitting the prisoners a glimpse of the light, with God; royalists would have no problem with this identification and Beethoven uses every musical means to make them appear identical. (The resemblance of the final tableau to musical representations of the Day of Judgment has often been remarked.) The King has inherited the function and attributes of the gods in classical tragedy.

Don Fernando, the royal minister who sets all to rights, represents a society in which, as we must believe, Pizarro is an aberration. His rejection is total‹he ignores Pizarro's request for "Two words" of defense. One wonders what they would be, but the cardboard villains of this genre seldom get much chance to state their case. One of the few complex such figures in opera is Gérard in Giordano's Andrea Chénier (1896), a sincere revolutionary who understands that power has corrupted him‹but not absolutely. Gérard is unusual in his self-consciousness; this saves him in our eyes, but it destroys his ability to function in a morally uneasy world.

Chénier is based on a real life, if not the true story of that life, with a libretto full of references to real persons and real events, genuine songs of the period, and a superb operatic expression of the Revolutionary Mob trope in the Act I finale: angry peasants at the French windows, aristocrats dancing a gavotte within. Chénier and his (fictitious) love die joyfully together, but their "salvation" is a sour one for us. Their offstage king cannot save them because he had been beheaded himself the year before, and if Chénier's poetry survived‹and it has‹how much more might we not have, had Robespierre fallen three days earlier?

As the century progressed, perhaps because the promises of the Revolution so often turned out to be hollow or were sternly repressed by reestablished authorities, a great pessimism transformed rescue opera. The two most popular new operas of the mid nineteenth century, Il Trovatore and Faust, both end with scenes set in dungeons, but in neither case does the attempted rescue work‹Marguerite's soul is saved as she dies; in Trovatore, everyone is destroyed. The dozens of "guillotine" operas that arose around the century's turn generally have tragic endings ‹there's no point putting a guillotine on stage if you aren't going to use it. (Mascagni's Piccolo Marat (1921) is an exception.)

The most popular of all operas connected with the era is also the most pessimistic. In the well-wound plot of Tosca (1900), all three main characters meet grisly deaths. Even devout Tosca, at the last, calls on God for justice, not salvation. There is an offstage counterrevolutionary Queen, all right, and we presume that Scarpia is exceeding her official instructions, but, as he points out when Tosca wants to go to her, this Queen will not lift a finger to save an accused rebel. Neither, evidently, will Tosca's God. Perhaps this is realism: Tosca, unlike Leonore, is risking her life only to save a particular prisoner, not all of them.

Two world wars did little to encourage anyone's optimism, but Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) is only superficially concerned with politics ‹ the true story of a priory of nuns sent to the guillotine a few days before André Chénier and Robespierre is only the backdrop for the conflict within the soul of the fictitious Blanche de la Force, who has taken refuge in the cloister from her fear of the disorder of life, perhaps her "fear of fear," as her brother suggests. If Beethoven's Leonore demonstrates that ordinary people can overcome tyranny, Poulenc's Blanche, who voluntarily chooses martyrdom, demonstrates that we can overcome the inner tyranny of fear as well.

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