- Lalo’s Fiesque
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Édouard Lalo’s Fiesque is an opera in three acts, composed between 1866 and 1868, but never performed in the composer’s lifetime. In fact, Fiesque had its world premiere only in 2006, in a concert performance with Roberto Alagna in the title role and Alain Altinoglu conducting; the performance was recorded and issued in 2011 by Deutsche Grammophon, and to date remains the sole recording of the work (DG 476 454-7). Although Lalo is perhaps best known for his virtuosic Cello Concerto and the Symphonie espagnole, this earlier dramatic work laid the foundation for the vigorous rhythmic drive pervading his later compositions. The opera’s long journey from a scandal-ensuing third-place finish in an 1869 competition to Hugh Macdonald’s elegant critical edition for Bärenreiter’s L’opéra français series is worth briefly recounting here.
Lalo was forty-three when his second wife Julie-Marie-Victoire Bernier de Maligny, herself a singer, seems to have persuaded her husband to compose a stage work. Lalo chose Charles Beauquier, an anti-Imperial politician and writer, as the librettist. As Macdonald notes in the edition’s introduction, it was probably Beauquier’s and Lalo’s shared republican leanings that drew them to Schiller’s Die Verschwörung des Fiesco zu Genua (1782–83) as the material for an opera.
Schiller’s tragedy is based on the conspiracy led by Giovanni Luigi di Fieschi, Count of Lavagna, against the Genoese ruling family of Doria in 1547. Beauquier reduced the main action of the opera to three conflicts: the republican Fiesque and his colleagues are determined to overthrow the ruling Dorias, although the actual reasons for the overthrow are only briefly stated at the onset of the opera (p. xvi). Verrina, a zealous republican one generation older than Fiesque, distrusts his younger compatriot’s motives and is determined to prevent his rise to power. Finally, Léonore, Fiesque’s wife, is jealous of her husband’s involvement with Julie, daughter of Andrea Doria. The Moor Hassan, a basso buffo, appears as the comic character in both Schiller’s tragedy and Beauquier’s libretto. Hassan is ready to do anyone’s bidding for money, changing allegiance at the toss of a seguin. As Macdonald observes in an earlier publication entitled “A Fiasco Remembered: Fiesque Dismembered” (in Slavonic and Western Music: Essays for Gerald Abraham, ed. Malcolm Hamrick Brown and Roland John Wiley [Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985], 163–85), Lalo characterizes Hassan through a staccato vocal line in or , over a lightly textured accompaniment (see for instance, act 2, pp. 334–44). His rapid-fire syllabic declamations recall those of Bartolo in Il barbiere di Siviglia, or—to mention an exotic precedent—those of Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
Political revolution served as operatic subject matter even before the Second Empire, in such successful, albeit controversial, works as Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Auber’s La muette de Portici. However, politics could not have been the only determining factor for Beauquier’s and Lalo’s choice of story; Macdonald notes that in 1864 Jules Barbier had written a Fiesque libretto for Charles Gounod that was never set to music (p. xiii). Lalo was friendly with the older composer, even calling upon him to vouch for a production of Fiesque in Brussels. However, nothing came of Gounod’s interventions; in a letter to Lalo’s mother-in-law Gounod explained that “a theatre director is in a way constrained to bet on a sure thing; instead of having faith in the public, he caters...