Lalo Opera In World Premiere (sic!) At Montpellier Festival
Opera lovers throughout the world owe a debt of gratitude to the Montpellier Festival in France for taking a risk by presenting the first performance ever of Edouard Lalo's Fiesque, and to musicologist and editor Hugh Macdonald for making it possible. Having completed his labors as editor in chief of the New Berlioz Edition, Macdonald focused his attention on the Lalo work, about which he writes:
Edouard Lalo composed two operas: Le Roi d'Ys enjoyed considerable success at its first performance at the Opéra-Comique in 1888, and it remained in the repertory for many years. His other opera, Fiesque, on the other hand, was not performed in his lifetime and has had to wait nearly 140 years to be heard. The performance [that took place in] July 2006 [at] the Montpellier Festival [was] a world première, remarkable though this may seem. Hundreds of operas by lesser composers were heard in Paris in the nineteenth century, but Fiesque suffered the misfortune of a scandal that kept it from the stage.
In his early years Lalo established a reputation as a composer of chamber music and songs and as a violinist and violist playing symphonic and chamber music in Paris. In 1865 he married the singer Julie de Maligny and turned his attention to opera, encouraged by a competition announced by the Minister of State. He submitted Fiesque for the prize in August 1868 and a year later it was awarded third place behind operas by Phillipot and Canoby, two composers whose names are not even to be found in the dictionaries. Phillipot's work was eventually staged in 1876 to a very cool reception.
Those who knew Lalo and his work protested in the press, claiming that the jury was prejudiced against ambitious works that would be expensive to stage, and hinting that the subversive element in the opera's plot was regarded with suspicion, especially since the librettist, Charles Beauquier, was better known as a politician and polemicist than as a librettist. This was in fact his first attempt at writing an opera and his leftish leanings were not likely to win favour in the dying years of the Second Empire.
Lalo accepted the situation without protest, relying instead on hopes of a production at the Paris Opéra. This prospect vanished with the outbreak of war in 1870, and a later plan to mount it in Brussels also came to nothing, despite vigorous support from Gounod. Certain scenes, including the overture, were played in Lalo's concerts, and the vocal score was published with a German translation included alongside the French. It still failed to attract attention, and in his later years Lalo began to dismember his opera and recycle it in his later works. The well-known Divertissement for orchestra absorbed one scene from the opera, and much of his Symphony in G minor, of 1886, was taken from Fiesque. Almost everything in the opera was put to new use, in songs and choruses and in an extraordinary "pantomime", Néron, staged with great splendour at the Hippodrome in 1891 and never heard again.
Fiesque is an opera of action and intrigue, set in Genoa in 1547 and based on Schiller's early drama Die Verschwörung des Fiesco zu Genua. The historical Fiesco led a conspiracy against the ruling Doria family, Doges of Genoa. The plot revolves around Fiesque's love for Julie, daughter of his enemy Andreas Doria, and his wife Léonore's bitter suspicion. Fiesque is also opposed by Verrina, an old fanatical republican who distrusts Fiesque's commitment to overthrowing the Dorias, especially when his involvement with Doria's daughter is known. In the final act the Dorias are overthrown; the crowd acclaims Fiesque and Léonore in a triumphal march, but Verrina refuses to allow Fiesque to assume supreme power and throws him to his death in the waters of harbour.
Fiesque is a fine tenor role. His solo scene in Act II "Le Rêve de Fiesque" is a powerful expression of his dreams, although his character is flawed by ambition and his weakness for the Doge's daughter. The two women are distinctively portrayed. There are some magnificent choruses, an attractive market scene, and a humorous character, Hassan, servant and would-be assassin. Lalo's invention is remarkable, and the orchestral writing is at times powerful, at times poignant. Its revival adds a remarkable work to the repertory of French operas.
The reviewer for MusicalAmerica.com covered the performance, writing: "If only the composer could have been there! How pleased he would have been with the audience's noisy, unanimous acclaim for his three-act opera Fiesque, dating from 1868 but just receiving its premiere, July 27 at the Radio France/Montpellier Festival. That the high-profile concert performance was broadcast live on France Musique was small compensation for the century-and-a-half of neglect Edouard Lalo's splendid score has suffered. The choruses alone were worth the price of admission. . . .the score is splendid, with strongly appealing arias, engaging duets, stirring ensembles and rousing finales from a composer in full control of his musical gifts. In the same vein as Verdi but with softer French edges and more than a dash of Berlioz's audacious musical theatrics, the score climbed into view thanks largely to the efforts of British musicologist Hugh Macdonald, whose performance edition of the opera is soon to be published by Bärenreiter."