André‑Ernest‑Modeste Grétry – Le Tableau parlant
(b. Liège, 11 February 1741 – d. Montmorency, 24 September 1813)
Comédie-parade in one act
on a libretto by Louis Anseaume
Suave, urbane, handsome, and gifted with perfect fluency in music, speech, and writing, André‑Ernest‑Modeste Grétry dominated the late eighteen‑century European opera stage like no other composer. Known even in his lifetime as the “Molière of music,” for well over half a century his many opéras comiques were mounted wherever opera was cultivated, from the Iberian peninsula to Scandinavia, and from Russia to the New World. Between June 1769 and November 1824, despite the intervening upheavals of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Bourbon Restoration, there was only one month in which the Opéra‑Comique in Paris did not have at least one Grétry opera on the boards – a string of successes which a modern‑day stage composer such as Richard Rodgers or Andrew Lloyd Webber would be hard‑pressed to match. Yet Grétry’s extreme notoriety in his own day contrasts all the more sharply with his neglect today. The reasons lie partly in the genre itself – opéra comique uses spoken dialogue rather than recitative, and gifted singer‑actors have become, to put it gently, rarities in the world of opera – and partly in the fact that later opera composers tended to take their bearings on the towering figures of Mozart and Gluck rather than the elegant and restrained art of Grétry. That Mozart himself owed a great deal to Grétry is attested not only by his biography (he owned a score of Grétry’s magic opera Zémire et Azor and was sent Grétry arias by his father to study), but also by his music. Mozart’s great early biographer Hermann Abert itemized specifically what Mozart stood to learn from his elder French contemporary: effortless melodic writing bordering on folk song, a broadening and deepening of comic themes, variety in the handling of aria forms, the creation of large‑scale scenes from contrasting subsections, and a general flexibility of musical language with great potential for dramatic application. Those who doubt the nature and force of this influence need only compare, say, the famous Act II finale from Marriage of Figaro with the Act I finale from Grétry’s L’amant jaloux.
Le Tableau parlant, the seventh of Grétry’s more than 50 operas, originated as a sort of self-imposed challenge after the success of Lucile (January 1769), which, as befitted the genre of the comédie-larmoyant, had caused audiences to weep. As the composer later recalled in his Mémoires (Paris, 1797):
The public was by now unanimous in its opinion that the comic genre was a closed book to me; the newspapers repeated the public’s view, and I was accused of moving people to tears in a comic opera. I countered this reproach with the piece Le Tableau parlant.
Grétry then sought an appropriate libretto from Louis Anseaume (1721-1784), a seasoned man of the theater who served Paris’s Opéra-Comique alternately as sous-directeur and prompter (until 1761) and later as vocal coach and librettist (from 1762). Anseaume availed himself of a hoary subject from the Italian commedia dell’arte, not even bothering to change the names of the characters Pierrot and Colombine; but he deepened the material by giving each figure a backstory to flesh out his or her personality and by adding touches of realism to the basically farcical action. The result was a one-act comedy, Le Tableau parlant (The Talking Portrait), to which he gave the generic designation comédie-parade, a genre little-known today, but one which made the new piece briskly modern at the time of its creation. The nature of the genre was explained by the famous German-born commentator of literary France, Baron von Grimm, in his handwritten Correspondance Littéraire:
The comédie-parade is a mixture of buffoonery and mobility; actors taken from common people, making us laugh by imitating tragic declamation and corrupting the pronunciation of words in a burlesque manner. The classic authors in this genre usually put their wit and art into stuffing the dialogue with doubles-entendres, almost always to idiotic effect.
Grétry was very taken by this new task, which involved, as he put it, “ennobling the ‘cloak and dagger’ play without, so far as is possible, violating the truth; paying attention to this is extremely important for any composer who is dealing with a trivial subject.” Yet the very trivialness of the subject apparently lent wings to his ever-fluent pen:
It was in the merry days of spring that I composed Le Tableau parlant, and I can say that for two entire months singing and laughter were my principal occupation. I was so filled with my subject that one day, after a meal at the home of the Swedish ambassador, I dashed off four musical numbers in quick succession. This fecundity took even me by surprise.
Le Tableau parlant went on the boards of the Comédie-Italienne on 20 September 1769, and was an instantaneous and lasting success. The novelty of the new work was not lost on the discerning public; as Baron von Grimm remarked, “It is absolutely new music for which there has been no precedent in France.” The precedent was, of course, to be found in Italy, namely, in the comic operas of Pergolesi, which Grétry is known to have studied with delight in his youth. But the deft balance between simple emotions and more complex feelings (irony, mockery, self-importance, feigned sentiment); the rapid changes of feeling swiftly and accurately captured in the music; the contrast between sentimental melody and ironically brisk accompaniment; and the skillful blend of lyricism and farce: all of this was fairly new to the Parisian stage and helped Grétry to attain celebrity status among his contemporaries. One admirer of Le Tableau parlant was the great encyclopédiste and music theorist D’Alembert, who lamented that the comedy of the play prevented audiences from truly appreciating the depth of the music. (Grétry responded with the superior knowledge of a man fully aware of his worth: “Let them keep to the things that mainly impress them. My turn will come in due course.”) Another admirer was the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was said to have exclaimed that he had copied out one of the work’s arias at least ten times. Grétry was thunderstruck with humility:
You, Jean-Jacques, have copied out something of mine! You, the interpreter of Nature! You, who have presented, in your writings, laws for all artists of our time and the future! If only the music-lover who owns one of these copies were to prove his appreciation of my work by giving me the aria in the hand of Rousseau!
The aria is question was Colombine’s “Vous étiez ce que vous n’étes plus,” to which Grétry, perhaps inspired by Rousseau’s admiration, devotes a revealing analysis in his Mémoires that reveals much about his efforts toward theatrical realism:
In a voice as sweet as honey she says to him: “You would have to be what you are no longer.” If I had set this aria a semitone higher, or if Colombine were to say the same thing in a merry and decisive voice, Cassandre would have commanded her to stop at least by the second line: “You would have to be not what you are.” That is the psychological truth, the first thing that the composer must feel when he reads the text he wishes to set to music. […] Note, also, that the melody of this ironic aria is always trying to rise, only to descend at the end of each musical phrase. The entire first section of this aria is written in this manner.
The B section, too, is given its due:
In the second section of this aria I altered the meter – indeed, I had to alter it; the irony would have lasted too long, Cassandre would have become impatient, and the audience with him, and without this contrast I would have lost the aria’s da capo, which belongs here at all costs. An ironic or mocking inflection must never last long.
Measured purely in number of performances, Le Tableau parlant was one of the three or four most successful operas ever to proceed from Grétry’s pen. At the Opéra-Comique alone it held the stage for almost a full century and received no fewer than 636 performances. This does not even take into account the other four Parisian theaters at which it was staged, still less the many theaters throughout Europe and the New World that treated their audiences to this vibrant little comedy. All the more remarkable, then, that it has vanished so completely from the repertoire and apparently still awaits proper rediscovery. All that is available on commercial disc are the ever-popular overture and a single aria, sung by the immortal Maggie Teyte for RCA Victor in 1944. The aria is, unsurprisingly, the same “Vous étiez ce que vous n’étes plus” that left Rousseau so entranced.
Cast of Characters
Cassandre, Isabelle’s guardian – Tenor
Isabelle – Soprano
Colombine, Isabelle’s chambermaid – Soprano
Léandre, Cassandre’s nephew – Tenor
Pierrot, Léandre’s manservant – Tenor
Synopsis of the Plot
A room in Cassandre’s house, in the background an almost finished portrait of Cassandre on an easel: Léandre, Isabelle’s lover, has long since vanished without a trace. Since the death of her parents Isabelle has been living with her aged guardian Cassandre, Léandre’s uncle, who has been wooing her and wants to marry her. Her wily chambermaid Colombine tells her of ways to solve the problem, but Isabelle finds them all socially beneath her station. She has no choice but to feign acceptance of Cassandre’s proposal. He remains wary, however, and decides to put her to the test by pretending that he has to be away for a few days. In reality he wants to hide in a cupboard and spy on what goes on during his absence. Once Cassandre has officially departed, Léandre and his manservant Pierrot return by surprise. Pierrot describes their adventures in Guyana, after which he and his beloved Colombine are no less quickly reunited than Isabelle and Léandre. The day, they decide, shall end in a banquet. Léandre and Isabelle will provide the food, Pierrot and Colombine the wine. Cassandre, having heard none of this, enters the room and sees four places set at the table. He, of course, has no idea what is taking place behind his back. Livid with rage, he decides to cut the face out of his unfinished portrait in order to observe the goings-on at close quarters. The foursome return. Isabelle decides to practice informing her guardian of her love for Léandre by accosting the portrait. The portrait turns into a “tableau parlant”: when she asks it whether it consents to her marriage with Léandre, it responds with a thunderous “Yes!” While Isabelle and Léandre stammer apologies, the two servants remain unimpressed. But Cassandre gives in: the young couple shall marry and be done with it! What else is left to the crusty old bachelor than to return to his accustomed state.
Bradford Robinson, 2014
For performance material please contact Alkor Edition, Kassel.