(b. Florence, 8/14 September 1760 – d. Paris, 15 March 1842)
Lodoïska Comédie Héroïque en Trois Actes
Libretto by Claude François Fillette-Loreaux after the novel Les amours du Chevalier de Faublas by Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvrai.
First performance: Paris, Théâtre Feydeau, July 18, 1791
Four composers chose the story of Lodoïska as the subject for an opera between 1791 and 1796. Luigi Cherubini’s was the first, produced with enormous success in July, 1791 at the Théâtre Feydeau, closely followed by Rodolphe Kreutzer’s setting at the Théâtre Favart the following month. Some years later an opera by Steven Storace, and based on the libretto of Kreutzer’s work (and some of his music) appeared in London (1794) followed by Simon Mayr’s, produced in Venice in 1796 and revised for the Teatro alla Scala in Milan (1799). The popularity of the story might be explained by the political and cultural events gripping Europe in the last decades of the 18th century, culminating in revolutions in France, and continuing into the 19th century with revolutions all across Europe. Lodoïska was one of the first operas of a genre generally known as »Rescue Opera«, or French Revolutionary Opera, of which the only example commonly heard today is Beethoven’s Fidelio.
The plot of Lodoïska, adapted from Louvet’s novel in various ways to fit the stage and set in Poland, concerns the search of Count Floreski for the love of his life, Lodoïska. She has been hidden away for safe keeping by her father in the castle of Baron Dourlinski. Unbeknownst to Lodoïska’s father, Dourlinski is the villain of the story and her safe haven becomes a prison – the Count relentlessly pursues her hand in marriage and resorts to the crudest methods of persuasion. By chance, Floreski has won the admiration of a Tartar chief, Titzikan, (the Tartar’s have occupied Poland) by losing to him honorably in a sword fight just outside Dourlinski’s castle. Floreski gains admittance, along with his servant Varbel, by posing as an agent of Lodoïska’s father. As Count attempts to rescue Lodoïska, the Tartar’s attack the castle and it goes up in flames. In the melée, the lovers are rejoined and the villain gets his due.
What in the cast of Barons, Counts, and Tartars, and the convenient, coincidental, and incredible twists and turns of this melodramatic plot so fascinated the contemporary public, giving this Italian in Paris his first international success? Fed up with aristocrats gorging themselves on sweets and lounging about on their estates, the people, starved due to the high cost of bread and crushed by taxes imposed only on the poor, finally revolted in 1789. The violence of a revolution usually reflects the severity of the injustice that created it, and there had been much injustice in France. The daily life of the peasant, the bourgeois, and the aristocrat would never be the same. Citizens demanded that they be treated as human beings and theatre goers wanted reality, not arcane or Arcadian stories of gods and goddesses descending from heaven or riding in on chariots. The conventions of the primary form of French opera, the tragédie lyrique, that had reigned since Louis XIV gave way to a new realism infiltrating from the lower class opéra comique. During the revolution, no gods descended to rescue any of its victims, not even Louis XVI, although there were plenty of narrow escapes from the mob. The dangers faced by operatic characters such as Lodoïska gave an illusion of truth, and the actions of the Tartars proved that even foreign peasants could be noble. The happy ending also assuaged the audience’s ever present fear, which, as Lewis Lockwood has observed, was a major source of the rescue opera genre’s success.
The plot of Cherubini’s drama resonated with the contemporary public so much that Lodoïska held the stage at the Feydeau for 200 or more performances. What about the music, however? Lodoïska was Cherubini’s second opera for Paris. His first, Démophon (1788), had been a failure – predestined by the antique title and plot – although it taught him many lessons. Rather than attempt Italian serious opera in French, in Lodoïska Cherubini combined the realism of French comic opera with the variety of form and ensemble of the tragédie lyrique. Cherubini himself established several of the textbook characteristics of the genre, carried forward by native French composers such as Méhul (Mélidore et Phrosine, 1794; La caverne, 1797) and Berlioz’s beloved teacher, Lesueur (Paul et Virginie, 1796). A great admirer of Haydn, Cherubini used the orchestra in ways beyond anything heard from underneath the stage before, employing orchestral color and instrumental solo passages to deepen characterization, move the audience along with the plot, and illuminate the stark difference between good and evil characteristic of the stories. All of this was mostly new, although among his predecessors, Gluck had achieved psychological depth using 18th century materials, and Grétry composed music more clearly delineating his characters and evoking greater realism than heard before at the opéra comique. Cherubini would bring all of these materials together in constructing his masterpiece, Medée (1797), his only work to receive performance with any regularity today, unfortunately often in a heavily cut Italian version laden with recitatives by a minor German composer. (One other Cherubini opera, Les Deux journées (1800), contemporarily popular everywhere but in France, also has the potential to move a twenty-first century audience and is occasionally produced.) One of the difficulties for modern audiences in these works is the slow harmonic rhythm, typical also of the Revolutionary hymn, in which the basic chords of the tonality are hammered out, page after page.
Cherubini fell from favor in the early years of the Empire – he did not like Napoleon – and became disenchanted with the theatre after the failure of his opera Anacréon (1803). The political and artistic tide had changed. He produced several comic operas for the Emperor’s private theatre (including, La Crescendo, an opera about a man who cannot tolerate loud noises, said to perhaps parody Napoleon’s dislike of anything but the simplest music), and attempted to compete with the Empress’ favorite, Gaspare Spontini, whose tragic opera, La Vestale took Europe by a storm and moved France a step closer to true Romanticism. For the rest of Cherubini’s life, however, he composed sacred music, masses and requiems, for both the Empire and the Restoration, and managed the Conservatoire national de Musique, at that time the only public music school in the world. Even before the end of his life he was considered a peruque, and although he tangled with Berlioz, France’s only internationally famous composer until (arguably) the twentieth century, there was also grudging, mutual respect. Berlioz learned a thing or two from this director of the Conservatoire who had once thrown him out of the library and whose Italian accented French he lampooned in his memoirs.
Cherubini is an important composer to music history, and music would be different today if he had not lived. Beethoven owned several of his scores and considered him one of the greatest living composers. He is heavily indebted to Cherubini for Fidelio, and after the premier, at which the older composer was present, Cherubini may have helped Beethoven revise his famously difficult vocal writing. And Count Dourlinski is surely an early Polish version of Don Pizarro. The conductor Riccardo Muti has done much to bring the music of Cherubini to modern audiences with several performances and recordings of the composer’s masses. The present score makes an excellent companion to Muti’s 1991 recording for Sony Classical (S2K 47290) of Lodoïska.
David Gilbert, 2006
For performance material please contact the publisher. Boosey and Hawkes, Berlin. Reprint of a copy from the collection Tom Zelle, Chicago.