André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry – Lucile
(b. Liège, 11 February 1741 – d. Montmorency, 24 September 1813)
Lucile (1769) is the sixth opera by André Ernest Modeste Grétry. It was his fourth opera written to a libretto by Jean-François Marmontel (1723-1799), and the partners’ second to be premiered by the Comédie-Italienne in Paris. Lucile was also separately produced that same year at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, where it became a frequently repeated audience favorite, and was also produced in Maestricht (1774), Toulouse (1786, 1788), and Moscow (1787).
Although less well-known today, Lucile was the first of Grétry’s long-running operatic hits, and his most-performed opera throughout the 1770s. Only in the next decade was it eclipsed by the successes of newer works like Richard Coeur-de-lion (1784) and L’épreuve villageoise (1784). Even then, however, Lucile found ways of returning to the spotlight. After a long absence from the Parisian stage, it re-entered the repertoire of the Comédie-Italienne in 1789, and continued to have occasional performances during the early years of the French Revolution. That Grétry named his second daughter (born three years after the eponymous opera’s premiere) Lucile may be a reflection of the opera’s significance to the composer.
Proof of Grétry’s melodic talents can be found in the afterlife of Lucile’s most famous song, “Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de sa famille?” (“Where can things be better than with your family?”). After the opera definitively departed the stage repertoire, the song’s melody found a new life as a popular marching tune in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, all the way up to and including the 1812 French invasion of Russia. At one point during the French retreat, the military band for Napoleon’s grenadier guards struck up the tune during a Russian assault. Napoleon, recognizing it, interrupted the band mid-combat to insist on a different musical choice, crying “Non, non, plutôt: “Veillons au salut de l’Empire!’” (“No, no, enough: [play] ‘Let’s ensure the salvation of the Empire’!”).
Strangely, despite its associations with the Grande Armée, “Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de sa famille?” found a third life during the Restoration period (1815-1830), when it was reassociated with the Royalists and used at public events to announce the presence of the French royal family. It is from this latter association that the violinist Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881), who came to Paris in 1828 as a child prodigy, most likely learned the melody. Much later in life, Vieuxtemps incorporated the song into the second (Adagio) movement of his Violin Concerto No. 5 (Op. 37, 1858-1859).
The general form of Lucile is that of a comédie mêlée d’ariettes – a spoken play with short songs. The plot is an original scenario by Marmontel that reuses character names from his popular Contes moraux (Moral Stories), but is otherwise new.
Lucile, the fiancée of the well-to-do Dorval, Jr., prepares herself on the morning of her wedding day. The jubilant preparations (and a magnificent quartet, the afore-mentioned “Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de sa famille?”) are interrupted by the news of a deathbed confession: Lucile was switched at birth with another baby and is actually the peasant Blaise’s daughter! Musical lamentations follow, starting with Lucile’s arietta “Au bien sûpreme, Hélas!” and building into a duet, then to a trio.
At this point, most composers would add a sung quartet. Part of the genius of Lucile’s pacing – and one of the things that made this opera so beloved of audiences – is that the next scene unfolds as a rapid-fire spoken quartet, quickly ratcheting up the drama with all the force of a soap opera’s big dramatic reveal. A confused Dorval, Jr. tries to get to the bottom of his would-be-bride’s misery, only to find himself being reprimanded for accidentally slighting her recently discovered actual father. Overwhelmed by these confusing revelations, Dorval, Jr. announces “Je suis perdu!” (“I am lost!”) – a line that inevitably filled the audience with laughter.
Dorval, Sr. wanders back into the scene to sing the duet “N’est-il pas vrai qu’elle est charmante” (“Isn’t it true that she’s charming?”) – later a popular recital favorite –with Timante, Lucile’s adoptive father. To everyone’s surprise, the elder Dorval has no objections to Lucile’s just-discovered peasant heritage. Although Dorval, Jr. is still confused, Dorval, Sr. and Timante give their blessings for the wedding to proceed. A peasant chorus enters for a song and dance, and the opera concludes with the wedding and its big chorus number.
Basil Considine, 2020
For performance material please contact Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden.