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Respighi’s Marie Victoire edited by Ian Lace

Nelly Miricioiu and Alberto Gazale in a duet scene from the premiere of Respighi’s Marie Victoire (uncredited photo issued in the Italian music magazine Opera, January 2004 issue)


The world premiere of Ottorino Respighi’s opera Marie Victoire (sometimes referred to as Maria Vittoria in Respighi’s later Italian version. The original is sung in French) was staged at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome in late January and early February 2004. It starred Nelly Miricioiu as Marie Victoire de Lanjallay and Alberto Gazale as Maurice de Lanjallay with Alberto Cupido as Clorivière.

Respighi had written Marie Victoire at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century and yet it has lain unperformed until this year. It clearly possessed considerable merit for the directors of La Scala Milan and of the Costanzi Theatre (now the Opera House) in Rome were impressed and Maestro Tullio Serafin examined it; but pressures to stage other operas of Verdi and Wagner precluded its production in1913. And then the Great War intruded with consequent cuts in expenditure for new works. And so Respighi’s opera lay in the publisher’s drawer for many years and no doubt Respighi was pressed for other work.

The opera is based on the drama, Marie Victoire, by the French author Edmond Guiraud first performed at the Théâtre Antoine in Paris in April 1913. Guiraud is also credited with the libretto for Respighi’s opera. Marie Victoire holds a place at the centre of Respighi’s output (No. 100 in the Catalogue of Music by Ottorino Respighi)

Marie Victoire is a work of the composer’s early maturity and it comes between two other Respighi operas: Semirâma and Belfagor. On this occasion, the instrumental aspect of the music is more transparent than for Semirâma, the orchestra being of normal size and rather bare of percussion. The correspondent of Il Resto del Carlino, making the above comparison, wrote of Marie Victoire as being freer, lighter, less pompous or heroic; more sentimental, more intimate, more theatrical ... the singing is natural, the melody preponderant"

On might imagine that Marie Victoire would be an obvious progression from its predecessor Semirama in which Respighi had already found his own voice. Listening to the off-air recording of the first performance for the first time, one might not immediately recognise the usual Respighi ‘footprints’. Indeed, in the first act, one might be forgiven for mistaking the music for Richard Strauss. But as the opera progresses the accustomed voice of Respighi becomes more apparent. Interestingly, there are pre-echoes of melodies which would be present in subsequent works.

One of the Respighi Society members, after listening to the work said, "As I listened repeatedly, I appreciated the work more and more, recognising it as a valuable addition to Respighi’s opera canon. The orchestration, elegant and somewhat lighter than that of Semirama’s is well up to his finest standard. He repeatedly used the fascinating device of inserting pastoral ballads of the story’s period, juxtaposing them against the dramatic emphasis of his music. From time to time the subject and its treatment brought to mind Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, particularly when a Carmelite novice is to be executed. But Poulenc could never have heard it or seen the score of Marie Victoire."

"The orchestra in the Rome premiere performance was more than adequate and conveyed the constant swings of mood excellently as did the principals. I do not enjoy excessive vibrato in the human voice and sadly that took away some pleasure in this performance. At the end one recognises it is a good story, of great drama, well told and composed with fine skill."

The Plot The opera tells the story of the effect of fear and the blood-letting of the first year of the French Republic on a respectable and honourable countess; the pressures changing the behaviour, character and response of those about her. Her gardener becomes her gaoler and finally she sees him as her only family. It lasts for 2½ hours and is sung, as composed, in French.

Act 1 In her chateau ((the noble mansion of Lanjallay at Louveciennes) Countess Marie sings a pastoral ballad at the harpsichord, only to be warned by her gardener, Cloteau that it is dangerous to sing a song written for the widow of an enemy of the Republic. A quarrel between Cloteau and Kermarec another servant ensues, the music rising. Finally her husband, Maurice, urges her to continue, only to be interrupted by the drums and shouts of an approaching mob. Trying to continue, her voice is countervailed by the mob’s singing of the Carmagnole, and their demanding the death of all aristocrats. Their leader flourishes decrees authorising this and conveys that he must hear of any suspect activity. After Maurice and Simon, a Deputy of the Gironde, assures them that nobody present can be suspected, the mob leaves, singing. A charming love duet between Marie and Maurice is followed by the entrance of Clorivière bringing news that Maurice’s father is in danger in Brittany. They deplore the condition of the nation and an attendant slips away to contact the mob leader. Departing for Brittany with Kermarec, Maurice makes a fond farewell, exchanging declarations of everlasting love and Chevalier Clorivère reprises the ballad at the harpsichord. The lovely melody of the parting takes on a darker colour as Marie sings, conveying a sense of approaching doom. A violin obbligato echoes the melody sadly, the harp enhancing it. Marie weeps inconsolably, when to her horror the alerted leader returns with members of the mob and they seize Clorivière. There follows the music of a brief dance of menace, reminiscent of Belkis. Finally, the curtain falls to a gentle rendition of the ballad by the violins, then augmented by the woodwind.

Act 2 - is set in a convent chapel, in use as a prison for enemies of the Republic. Marie sits with a poet, Simon, and a sad old man, with his granddaughter, a Carmelite novice, while the Marquis de Langlade tries to interest fellow prisoners in enacting a Rousseau play. The curtain rises to a roll of drums, that is displaced by a wordless song (la, la), which becomes a minuet to be danced in the play. Marie protests at the levity, demanding respect for the feelings of those approaching death. The following dispute is quelled by the entry of Cloteau, who is now her gaoler. He promises violins for the Rousseau performance. Then, from the courtyard, comes the singing of the choir for the play, juxtaposed with sad expressions of fear by the grandfather and novice. Suddenly Cloteau announces that Maurice too is held by the Committee of Public Safety. Simon despairs that his fate will be no better than theirs; the only hope would be Robespierre’s death. The choir continues rehearsing and Maria sings to a violin accompaniment. Recalling their childhood together, Clorivière declares his love for Maria, to her consternation. Clorivière is furious when overheard, but he continues, causing an argument with Simon, which is interrupted by a roll of drums, whereupon the commissioner arrives. Cloteau reads the names of those to be executed: two Marquises, a Chevalier, Clorivière, Marie, Simon, the Abbé and the novice. A dance and song by the prisoners, precedes the grandfather’s plea to be taken in place of the novice. The drums fade to create a serene end to the scene.

Cloteau laments that Marie has been denounced and that he is now serving her tormentors. She forgives him and she departs supported by Clorivière. A planted spy begins to mock them and Cloteau challenges him and in the argument he and Simon kill him, the timpani underlining the drama.

Marie returns, her face reflecting shame and the outrage* she has suffered. She sings with deep sorrow, seeming to have no life left in her; she recognises that she is damned forever. The Marquis continues to mount the play, the violins striking up the overture and the drama commences. Then a bell chimes eleven, drums and shots are heard and an entr’acte contains music for the play, interposed with the crowd singing the Carmagnole and with music expressive of impending death and her dishonour.

This quietens to music heralding a calm dawn, the oboe prominent. A shot, tumult and drums shatter this, Cloteau shouting that Robespierre is dead. Recognising they are saved, the prisoners rush out, leaving Marie. Crying, she sings that the guillotine would have cleansed her soul and that now she must endure a dishonoured life.

Act 3 It is Christmas, six years later in the Paris boutique where Marie sells hats. Milliners tease Cloteau in a lively passage, establishing a mood far from the previous act. Emerantine enters with Marie’s five-year old son, Georges, and she quarrels with Cloteau until Marie tells him to close up. The mood has changed and she sings sorrowfully to Maurice in heaven, protesting her innocence and that she lives only to serve the needs of Georges. The music calms and Simon joins her announcing that Clorivière is coming before quitting France. She embraces her son and there is a knock on the door. The strings again establish calm, before Clorivière’s entry and Marie tells Georges to embrace the crying gentleman. On his knees before Georges, Clorivière begs him to pray for him, then leaves unforgiven, the music redolent of his grief; he had hoped for some hint of comfort. Alone with Cloteau, Marie tells him always to set another place at table, as he is now her only family. They reminisce, the mood calm, without a hint of turmoil, when an owl’s hoot alarms them and the music mounts in anticipation of further drama.

Maurice and his manservant arrive; they had gone to America assuming that Maria had perished. The strings lead through to a romantic reunion between man and wife. An explosion startles them and Georges cries out. Maurice asks if this is their son and Marie, mad with suffering, admits it is not his heir. There is the sound of frantic galloping and cries of death intervene as Clorivière enters admitting he has tried to assassinate Bonaparte. Seeing an extra place at the table, Maurice assumes that Clorivière is the father. The music mounts as they confront one another, Maurice forcing him to leave, whereupon the police, soldiers and others pour in accusing Maurice. Seeing no future for himself, he accepts the blame, as the crowd cries for blood, leaving Marie alone in the sacked boutique, the strings taking the drama to a high point as she calls out her husband’s name. The music subsides, but a rhythmic pulse emerges, leading to a slow instrumental prelude, the music presaging the drama of the final scene.

The last scene is set in the courtroom of Maurice’s trial. When he will not respond to her, Marie makes an impassioned admission of guilt in allowing herself to be violated, explaining the torment she has suffered. A drum beat punctuates her public humiliation. Tears spring to the eyes of Maurice and the judge, and the public call for Maurice to forgive her, which he does. They demand his exoneration, but Maurice refuses to indict the man who has besmirched his honour. Cloteau intervenes to name "the filthy beast" but Clorivière stands and proclaims his own guilt, while asking Marie and Maurice to forgive him. They do and Clorivière shouts his defiance of the regime, grabs a pistol and sings the ballad which opened the opera. The song and cries for his blood are cut short. He has shot himself.

* As in so many operas, much is left to the imagination. Here it is left to the listener to fill in what has happened off-stage. It must be supposed that in the witnessing of so many bloody executions, Marie, anticipating that she, herself, would shortly fall under the guillotine, had sought comfort and passion with Clorivière


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