Saturday 27 April 2013

What's the problem with Cherubini?

Cherubini by Ingres
Cherubini by Ingres
Beethoven regarded him as one of the greatest composers and his opera Lodoiska inspired Fidelio, but Luigi Cherubini (1760 - 1842) has had something of a bad press from history. He is best known perhaps for Berlioz's comments in his Memoires. There Berlioz described Cherubini's livid rages and the way his Italian accent was made even funnier by fury. Berlioz seems to have gone out of his way to bait the older composer and for all Berlioz's humour, Cherubini comes out as a dry old pedant. This is unfortunate because Berlioz had great admiration for Cherubini's music. One aspect that needs to be borne in mind is Cherubini's age. On the restoration of Louis XVIII, Cherubini was installed as director of the re-established Conservatoire in 1822. By then he was over 60 and would be director of the Conservatoire until he was over 80. It is Cherubini's music from the 1790's which deserves our attention, dramatic, young man's music.

Cherubini owed his position at the Conservatoire partly to the fact that he had not been popular with Napoleon. The two men seem to have felt a mutual antipathy. Cherubini did write patriotic works during the revolutionary period, and Napoleon did make him director of music in Vienna in 1805 and 1806. But Napoleon preferred the music of other Italian composers, finding Cherubini's music too complex. There is a distinct slowing down in Cherubini's operatic output after 1800 and once he became director of the Conservatoire, his operatic output virtually dries up; partly this seems to be because after Les Deux Journees (1800) his operas ceased to be popular with Parisian audiences. In fact, Cherubini seems to have taken advantage of his visit to Vienna to arrange for the premiere of his opera Faniska in the city.

When he returned to Paris from Vienna, he suffered from an extended bout of melancholia which lasted a year. Depression is something that Cherubini repeatedly struggled with and it can't have made him an easy man to work with. The composer Adolphe Adam wrote that 'some maintain his temper was very even, because he was always angry'.

As director of the Conservatoire he seems to have taken refuge behind a barrage of rules and regulations. There is the story of Cherubini turning away Liszt and his father in 1823, despite letters of introduction from Metternich. Cherubini told them that the rules forbade foreigners from studying there. But by contrast in 1833 despite expressing reservations he agreed to hear the young Offenbach play and allowed him to become a student.

Whether or not Berlioz's Memoires distorted the image of the composer, they provide an entertainingly memorable one, which means that it is Berlioz's image of the composer were remember. But we should not let this distract us from his music, which is the opposite of dry and pedantic.

After arriving France in 1785 and being presented to Marie Antoinette by his friend the violinist Viotti, Cherubini receive the commission for an opera. This was to be Demophoon, a tragedie lyrique premiered in 1788. It seems to have been well received, but Cherubini still got caught up in the on-going tussle between supporters of Gluck and supporters of Piccini, about what French opera really should be.

In 1789, Viotti helped Cherubini become the director of a new theatre, the Theatre de Monsieur in the Tuileries. Following a move to the rue Feydeau, and the fall of the monarchy, the theatre became the Theatre Feydeau. Here Cherubini premiered his next opera Lodoiska in 1791. He chose to set a libretto with French dialogue and would stick with this form for pretty much the remainder of his life. The flexibility and greater immediacy of the drama perhaps appealed to him, but it also meant that he avoided further any disputes about tragedie lyrique. Whatever the reason, Lodoiska was a success, with its use of the rescue opera genre (popular in Paris at the time). The opera was popular in other European countries and was a great success in Vienna in 1802. We know that Beethoven had scores of Cherubini's other operas and the links between the plot of Lodoiska and that of Leonora / Fidelio are so significant that we must assume that Beethoven saw the opera in Vienna.

He followed this up with a series of further works all in the Opera Comique style, most notable being Medee (1797) and Les Deux Journees (1800). After 1806, further works did follow but his old age was marked by a return to religious music with his two Requiems (1816 and 1836). But, despite the admiration for his music by such as Berlioz, you can't help feeling that somehow Cherubini's time had passed. It is worth noting that he remained wedded to the opera comique form. During his lifetime he never sanctioned the use of sung dialogue in Medee and the well known version with recitative was created long after his death.

Despite the influence of his operas like Lodoiska, the importance and dramatic power of Medee, we still have not quite got to grips with Cherubini's operatic output. The version of Medee with recitatives is still all too common. It seems amazing that there are hardly any recordings of this version in the catalogue. Also, producers, directors and musical directors seem to have trouble getting the neo-classical beauty of his scores right. Cherubini is very much a pre-Romantic, his dramas prefigure the Romantic operas of the early 19th century but his writing reatins a purity of style which is very much of the 18th century. So that it is fatally easy to over-do things, to over-cook the performance, and make the opera seem overblown  Of course, it probably does not help that the title role in Medee is a pretty fearsome sing!

I've been lucky enough to hear Cherubini's Medee (in various incarnations) five times (though one of these was in concert performance, in French but with dialogue omitted). Perhaps the greatest interpreter of the role I have heard is Rosalind Plowright whom I heard in Buxton and at Covent Garden, though neither production was ideal, but both were done in French with spoken dialogue. At Buxton the producer tried to match the musically incendiary end of Cherubini's opera with pyrotechnics on stage, and Covent Garden seemed to not know what to do with the work either dramatically or musically, leaving Plowright rather marooned on stage. The best production was Opera North's, which was done in English (with dialogue), with Josephine Barstow in the title role. Rather disappointingly when it was done at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, with Anna Caterina Antonacci, it was done in the traditional Italian version with recitatives. So I am still waiting for my ideal Medee....

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