Dmitry Stepanovich Bortniansky
Le faucon (“The Falcon,” 1786)
Opéra comique in 3 acts on a libretto after Boccaccio by Franz-Hermann Lafermière
(b. Glukhov, Ukraine, 1751 – d. St. Petersburg, 10 October 1925)
On 10 April 1779 Dmitry Bortniansky, then twenty-eight years old, was sent a stern directive from the Russian court: “Mister Bortniansky! You have been residing in Italy for ten years now. You have proved yourself as an artist, and you are no longer in need of the guidance of your teacher. Therefore the time has come for you to return to your homeland…. You are greatly needed here.” Return he did, and the rest is history: Bortniansky was made chapel-master of the imperial court choir in St. Petersburg, advancing to become its director in 1796. In this capacity he produced a huge amount of sacred music that has never left the Russian repertoire, and whose renown was so great that it was edited in ten volumes by none other than Tchaikovsky (1885). Indeed, ironically, a Tantum Ergo melody by Bortniansky (Kol Slaven, “Ich bete an die Macht der Liebe”) was incorporated by King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia in his country’s Grand Tattoo in 1813 and has been heard at all major military ceremonies in Germany ever since.
But before Bortniansky became the leading Russian church composer of his era, he was a polished composer of Italian and French opera, and his career seemed to point in the direction of the theater. Chosen at the tender age of seven for his beautiful soprano voice, he was sent from his native Ukraine (his father was a Cossack) to the brilliant imperial court in St. Petersburg, where he was trained to become a professional musician. The graceful boy was cosseted by Empress Elizabeth, taught all the major European languages (including, it seems, Turkish), and instructed in music by the great Italian composer Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785). He is known to have sung a lead male soprano role in an opera in 1764 (at the age of thirteen!), and by the time he finished his adolescence he was, as one biographer put it, “a polished gentleman and a learned courtier.” Galuppi then took the brilliant seventeen-year-old with him to Italy, where Bortniansky remained for eleven years and produced three Italian operas in the country’s leading musical capitals. He also worked as an art adviser, helping the Russian court to acquire Italian paintings, and, it would appear, functioned as an expert polygot diplomatic liaison in the tsar’s military campaigns in Greece and Albania.
Having returned to Russia in late 1779, Bortniansky became a favorite of Crown Prince Paul and his beautiful young German wife, Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg (later known as Maria Feodorovna), to whom he gave keyboard lessons. The Prince and his consort were confirmed admirers of western European music (they even went out of their way on their travels to meet Haydn and Mozart), and before long Bortniansky was composing opera for them at their palaces in Gatchina and Pavlovsk. The result was three further stage works in the Bortniansky canon: La fête du seigneur, Le faucon, and Le fils-rival. All three were performed privately in 1786, with the solo roles taken by courtiers active at Paul’s so-called “Little Court.” The informality of this artistic enterprise can be judged from an eye-witness account from one of these courtiers, specifically in reference to Le faucon: “Their Highnesses liked it very much: it was intriguing and conformed with fashion (that is to say, very romantic)…. The remarkable music was composed by Mr. Bortniansky, and their Highnesses were keen to see it performed…. It was read by the author himself in front of us all, one afternoon in the Grand Duke’s study. The roles were assigned on the spot, and we were ordered to study the opera.”
The libretto, written in French by Paul’s personal secretary, the Swiss savant Franz-Hermann Lafermière, was closely based on a like-named opera text by the celebrated French librettist Michel-Jean Sedaine, which had been set to music by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny in 1772. The story itself derives from Boccaccio’s Decameron, where it is recounted by Fiammetta as the ninth story on Day 5, but it has ancient roots in the Hindu and Persian traditions. The simple plot involves two pairs of lovers, one high-born and singing Italian cantilena, the other low-born and singing the lighter style of French opéra-comique. The sentimental nature of the text puts it squarely in the tradition of French comédie larmoyant, in which an impending tragedy takes a happy turn at the end, with much emotional effusions and shedding of tears (a phenomenon not unfamiliar to students of Hollywood).
Le faucon was mounted at Paul’s imperial palace in Gatchina on 22 October 1786, and was to all appearances a great success. It is also known to have been performed outside the Little Court, as is shown by the existence of five manuscript copies in addition to the original autograph score. Jeannette’s Romance in G minor, “Le beau Tirsis,” became particularly famous, and selections from the work were also arranged for wind sextet (pairs of clarinets, horns and bassoons) for performance out of doors. But being a private undertaking sung by amateurs, it never entered the repertoire, and the work was not heard again until almost two centuries later, when it was performed in Moscow in 1971. Shortly thereafter it was edited and translated into Russian by A. Rozanov and published as Sokol (“The Falcon”) in volume 5 of Monuments of Russian Music (Moscow, 1975). At the time the libretto was known only in fragmentary form, and Rozanov had to reconstruct its missing second half from Sedaine’s opera text of 1772. Since then the full libretto has been rediscovered in the library of Count Vorontsov, and the work can now be heard as originally intended. Revivals have taken place in Moscow with the Chamber Musical Theater (1979), in New York at Avery Fisher Hall (excerpts, 1988), and in Kiev, where it was performed in Ukrainian translation in 1995.
Read full preface / Komplettes Vorwort lesen > HERE