Gabriel Pierné – Sophie Arnould
(b. Metz, Lorraine, 16 August 1863 – d. Ploujean, Brittany, 17 July 1937)
The one-act comédie lyrique, Sophie Arnould, focuses on the life of the celebrated French singer, Sophie Arnould (1740-1802), whose wit, beauty, and vivacity secured her place as leading soprano of the Paris Opera for two decades. Although she was born into a bourgeois family, Sophie’s vibrant and intelligent mother often hosted the elite of Paris in her salon, allowing Sophie to circulate among and develop friendships with France’s exclusive, including Voltaire (1694-1778), Denis Diderot (1713-1784), and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783). Sophie studied voice at a convent and her performances of religious music attracted the favorable attention of Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), motivating the king to install Sophie in the opera at the age of 16. Sophie was notorious for her many, tumultuous love affairs, but her longest lasting relationship was with the Comte de Lauraguais, to whom she bore three illegitimate children. She reigned as the supreme diva in Paris, originating important leading roles for operas by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and others. Although bad singing habits and poor decision making cut her operatic career short, Sophie continued to host distinguished guests in her salon and enjoy the life of a wealthy courtesan. During the Revolution in 1789 she withdrew from France and had to support herself and her children. After she returned to Paris, Napoleon’s minister of police secured a pension for her remaining years, and she entertained in her salon until her death in 1803.
The French playwright, Gabriel Nigond (1877-1937), staged a short play in Paris in 1921 based on an imagined conversation between Sophie and Lauraguais during their exile from the French Revolution. The two reconnect after being apart many years and spend time reminiscing about their love affairs. Lauraguais learns about his illegitimate son to whom Sophie has been writing a letter. Sophie asks her maid, Babet, to show Lauraguais to his room, but it is unclear whether he stays or leaves. The play, Sophie Arnould, impressed the composer Gabriel Pierné, and he collaborated with Nigond to create the one-act opera of the same name. The opera premiered in Paris on 21 February 1927, with the soprano Emma Luart originating the title role. The well-received performance solicited favorable reviews from French critics, many of whom were charmed by Pierné’s score: “Charme et délicatesse, distinction et discrétion, voilà tout ce dont est fait ici l’art de M. Pierné. Ah! l’intelligente et sensible musique! Tour à tour spirituelle et tendre, sans cesse harmonieuse et limpide, de scène en scène, de parole en parole, elle court, elle chante et se joue. Il lui suffit de peu de notes, une seule parfois, d’une harmonie, d’une modulation, d’une sonorité, pour nous égayer ou nous émouvoir.”1 (“Charm and delicacy, distinction and discretion, that is all here; the art of Mr. Pierné. Ah! the intelligent and sensitive music! Alternately spiritual and tender, unceasingly harmonious and limpid, from scene to scene, from word to word, it runs, it sings and it plays. Only few notes suffice, sometimes only a harmony, a modulation, or a sound, to cheer us up or to move us.”) …
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