- Léo Delibes, Jean de Nivelle: Dossier de presse parisienne (1880)
Léo Delibes (1836-91) is traditionally known as a composer of ballet, opérette, opéra bouffe, and opéra comique—in short, a composer of light, entertaining works admired for their gracefulness, wit, and charm. Jean de Nivelle represents the composer's only foray into the grand tradition of Meyerbeer and Halévy. The medieval setting, large chorus numbers, and an individual set against the panorama of history are just a few of the music-dramatic elements of grand opéra found in this work. Still, the composer does present Jean de Nivelle as an opéra comique of sorts, with spoken dialogue (later changed to recitatives), melodrama, comical scenes, ensembles, ballads, couplets, and mélodie. In spite of the work's generic ambivalence, Jean was one of Delibes's most successful lyric works. Premiered on the stage of the Opéra-Comique on 8 March 1880, Jean de Nivelle received one hundred consecutive performances in Paris and continued its successful march the following year in St Petersburg, Stockholm, Budapest, and Vienna. Following on the heels of his success at the Opéra-Comique, Delibes was appointed professor of composition at the Conservatoire on 10 December 1880 and remained within the auspices of that institution until his death in January 1891 following a stroke.
At first glance, the plot of the opera is similar to Rossini's La donna del lago of 1818 (itself based on Sir Walter Scott's novel of the same name), in which a rogue group of countrymen refuse to join the ranks of the king and thus precipitate a call to arms on both sides. We find a comparable political setting in Jean de Nivelle (libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille, the same who gave the composer Lakmé in 1883) but it is altogether confused by various comedic elements and disguises, a witch, nationalist rhetoric, and a lightning-fast conclusion that leaves one out of breath and unsatisfied.
In 1465, Jean de Nivelle, the youngest son of Jean de Montmorency, refused to help his father support Louis XI in the war against Philip the Good, the duke of Burgundy. Jean instead fled to Burgundy to escape responsibility to the French throne and to his father, who, in turn, disinherited him. (Hence, the French proverb 'Ce chien de Jean de Nivelle s'enfuit quand on l'appelle', 'The dog of Jean de Nivelle flees when it is called'.) In disguise as a local peasant, Jean falls in love with an orpheline named Arlette, who is under the care of her aunt Simone, the parish witch. Sensing that his love is not returned, Jean enlists in the military service of Philip the Good to fight against the French royal troops. Once on the battlefield, however, Jean sees the French flag and, in a flash of piety and respect for his nation, throws down his sword and emerges from the battlefield a Frenchman once more.
Within the context of the years following the Paris Commune and the premiere of Wagner's Ring at Bayreuth, many in the Parisian press (e.g. Henri Heugel, Georges Ohnet, and Camille Saint-Saëns) perceived Jean de Nivelle as a quintessentially French opera in lieu of Teutonic threats from within and abroad. In spite of its overt nationalism, however, many French critics were still confused by the lack of a clear, definitive genre and the unusual compositional style found in the work, not to mention the scattered and unconvincing libretto. Far from the style of Auber and Adam, Delibes's composition is filled with unusual harmonies, interesting orchestral accompaniment, complicated rhythms, and surprising turns of melody. The 'Ballade de la Mandragore', introduced in the first act by the witch Simone, is one such number. It begins in F sharp minor and then proceeds through a series...