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ClassicsOnline Home » SACCHINI: Oedipe a Colone
Antonio Sacchini was one of the leading composers of Italian opera seria of the late 18th century. Oedipe à Colone, his last work, was extraordinarily successful, with regular performances at the Paris Opéra between 1787 and 1844. Based on Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus at Colonus, the second item in a trilogy that is one of the glories of Greek literature, Sacchini’s opera is notable for both its high drama and tender, moving lyricism. It was championed by Berlioz who considered it to be an inspired and even sublime work.
By Uncle Dave Lewis
By Robert Baxter
By Robert Hugill
Antonio Sacchini (1730–1786)
Oedipe à Colone
An Opera in Three Acts
based on the second of the three Theban plays of Sophocles
Oedipe - François Loup
Antigone - Nathalie Paulin
Polynice - Robert Getchell
Thésée - Tony Boutté
Eriphile - Kirsten Blaise
Une Athénienne - Kara Morgan
Grand Prêtre - Jonathan Kimple
Un Hérault - Jason Kaminski
Un Coryphée - Philip Cave
Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus
Ryan Brown, Conductor and Artistic Director
The son of a cook who followed the Infante Don Carlos to Naples, Antonio Sacchini was born in Florence. Taken to Naples at the age of four, he entered the Conservatorio S. Maria di Loreto there at the age of ten, studying with Francesco Durante. His first Intermezzo, Fra Donato, was performed successfully at the conservatory in 1756, followed by another work of the same kind the following year, earning him a local reputation. In 1758 he was appointed to the unpaid position of maestro di cappella straordinario at the conservatory and in 1761 he became secondo maestro, the date of his first opera for the Teatro San Carlo, Andromaca. The following year he moved to Venice and then to Padua, winning growing success with new operas, which allowed him eventually to abandon his position in Naples. In 1768 he was appointed director of the Conservatorio dell'Ospedaletto in Venice, where he also acquired a reputation as a singing teacher, with Nancy Storace among his pupils. With an increasing international reputation, he superintended productions of his work in Stuttgart and Munich and in 1772 moved to London, his home for the next ten years. In the judgement of Charles Burney 'He remained too long in England for his own fame and fortune. The first was injured by cabals … and the second by inactivity and want of economy' (ed. Abraham Rees, The Cyclopedia; or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, quoted in The Letters of Dr Charles Burney, ed. Alvaro Ribeiro). Sacchini, in fact, ran into financial trouble in London, where he had at first had considerable success. In 1781 he moved to Paris, where he won the support of the Queen, but met intrigue and opposition from the musical establishment in the quarrel between supporters of Gluck and adherents of Piccinni, eventually seeming to please neither one nor the other. The patronage of Marie Antoinette aroused further prejudice, in view of the Queen's known predilection for foreign music. Sacchini attempted to fulfil the demands of French taste, and his opera Dardanus succeeded when it was staged at Fontainebleau in 1785. The Queen was unable to have Oedipe à Colone staged, as she had hoped, at Fontainebleau in 1786, a disappointment to which some attributed Sacchini's death in October that year. In the event the new opera, regarded as Sacchini's masterpiece, was staged at the Opéra in 1787 and remained in the repertoire of the house for many years. During his career of some thirty years Sacchini had enjoyed great fame, notably as a composer of Italian opera seria. The decline in his reputation may in good part be attributed to the neglect of a form in which he had excelled. His skills were most notably deployed in Oedipe à Colone, a work in which he was able to unite the rival trends of contemporary opera within a French dramatic structure.
A note on the opera
Historical gems are being unearthed frequently now, so it is rare to be presenting one of the first modern revivals of a work that had as successful a performance history as Sacchini's Oedipe à Colone. Presented regularly at the Paris Opéra between 1787 and 1830, and then revived in 1843, Sacchini's work later lapsed into relative obscurity. There are not many operas based on the three Oedipus plays of Sophocles, and the second of them, Oedipe à Colone, has been set only a handful of times. Yet the story in this operatic setting struck a special chord with the Parisian public for many years, and resonates freshly today.
The first edition score, published in 1787 just after the composer's death, and the second, probably published very early in the nineteenth century, are identical with regard to the inclusion and order of century and the performing materials from the Paris Opéra are similar to the first two editions, but the parts suggest that at times much of the divertissement in the first act and the chaconne at the end of the opera were cut or other dances were put in their place. On the other hand, the exquisite trio from Act III had a performing life of its own, as evidenced by the many separate vocal and orchestral parts for it at the Opéra.
Opera Lafayette created its own edition for this recording based upon the second edition. This second edition is clearer than the first, rectifies many of the misprints in the earlier edition, and includes a greater variety of expression marks. In addition to the cuts mentioned above, there are smaller changes that accrued during the opera's 583 performances that are reflected in the parts. Though generally we did not choose to adopt them in our performance, some may be interesting to note. The performing materials include, for instance, trumpet and trombone parts for the overture, the choeur des soldats, and the final grand scene of Act I, as well as for Oedipe's hallucinations in his Act II recitative and air. Regarding changes in the libretto, it is fascinating to speculate why the poet Guillard's pre-revolutionary phrases describing the "peuple téméraire" and "ses cris factieux" were replaced with more innocuous sentiments in later sources but not in the second edition. Our only departure from the second edition's text was to have Polynice sing 'Fier ennemi', as some later performing material indicates, rather than Guillard's 'Faible ennemi', since we found it a more effective evocation of his usurping brother Etéocle.
Hector Berlioz was an astute critic of this work, and had the occasion to write about it in 1843. He had great enthusiasm for Oedipe à Colone, and was very specific about which parts of the opera he felt were inspired and even sublime. His admiration for a particular modulation or a deft piece of orchestration is always cited with the verse of the poem it characterizes, and he points out that the relative modesty of the orchestration has the virtue of never covering the words, "… mérite réel pour un opéra quand les paroles sont dignes d'être entendues" (a meaningful quality for an opera whose words are worth listening to). Berlioz cannot resist the pleasure of citing the complete verses in Act III, scene III, beginning with "Qui? Moi!, que j'applaudisse à ton zèle inhumain!" (Who, me? I should approve your cruel enthusiasm!), and goes on to write that "Cette transition subite de la fureur à l'attendrissement, le contraste poignant établi par Oedipe entre le frère et la soeur, ses malédictions pour l'un et ses bénédictions pour l'autre, ne pouvaient, je le crois, être mieux rendues par le compositeur, et l'air sublime: 'Elle m'a prodigué!' couronne son oeuvre." (This sudden change from rage to tenderness, the heart-rending contrast Oedipus makes between the brother and sister – his curses for the former and his blessings for the latter – could not, it seems to me, have been rendered any better by the composer; and the sublime air "Elle m'a prodigué!" is the crowning moment of his work). Indeed, these lines are set by Sacchini in an especially dramatic and beautiful manner, and the forceful rhetorical freedom and the tender lyricism which François Loup as Oedipe brings to these passages does full justice to the composer's genius.
The opera is distinguished in part by its extensive accompanied recitatives and by the fluidity and variety of its forms, which always follow the dictates of the drama. The way Sacchini completely changes character in the midst of an air, as in 'Filles du Styx' in Act II, is wonderful. Also inventive and powerfully written are the dramatic dialogues between individuals and chorus, suggesting that the work was as exciting visually as musically. (Our recording is made from a concert performance and additional sessions; one hopes that Oedipe will receive a modern staging soon.) It is extraordinary that Sacchini, like Gluck whom he so admired, was also able to absorb the French language and operatic forms in such a way as to produce at the end of his life a work so original and moving that it lived in the hearts of the Parisian musical public for 43 years. It is a pity that he himself did not live to hear it.
[CD 1 / Track 1] The opera opens with a sonata-form Overture.
[1/2] Theseus, ruler of Athens, pledges his support of Polynice, one of the sons of Oedipus, in his claim to the throne of Thebes, offering the hand of his daughter Eriphile in marriage.
[1/3] Polynice replies with compliments on the beauty of Eriphile and the strength that Theseus will give him in his struggle against his brother Eteocles, whom he challenges.
[1/4] Theseus announces to the people of Colonus and of Athens that he has chosen Polynice as his son-in-law and friend. Soldiers join in a pledge to take Thebes, and a herald bids them follow Polynice.
[1/5] The women wish Eriphile happiness in her marriage.
[1/6] They dance in celebration of the coming wedding.
[1/7] An Athenian woman regrets Eriphile's departure, but tells her that her new subjects will be conquered by her beauty.
[1/8] The women join again in a dance of celebration.
[1/9] Eriphile expresses her sadness at parting, pledging her continuing friendship.
[1/10] Theseus calls on Polynice to go with him to the temple so that the daughters of the Styx may confirm their vows. Polynice is uneasy, but Theseus urges him to seek the gods' blessing. Eriphile notices the unease of Polynice, who now admits that he has sinned in sending his father into exile. Theseus asks what has become of Oedipus, but Polynice cannot tell him; an exile himself, after his brother Eteocles had usurped the throne of Thebes, he has repented, eventually finding a place for himself at the court of Theseus and in the virtue of Eriphile.
[1/11] Theseus assures him that remorse brings innocence, and Eriphile tells him that he will see his father and be forgiven. All pray together for the mercy of the protective goddesses and a celebration of marriage and peace.
[1/12] The High Priest and people join in a hymn, seeking mercy, a prayer offered by Theseus and Polynice, seeking to appease the goddesses. The High Priest announces their displeasure, to general consternation.
[1/13] Polynice, now alone, laments his situation, betrayed by his subjects, cursed by his father, the horror of heaven and earth. He would appease his father, who would surely have forgiven him. At this moment he sees Oedipus approaching, seemingly accompanied by a slave.
[1/14] Oedipus approaches, blind and weary, led by his daughter Antigone. He tells her that all his troubles fall on her, but she tries to encourage him. The gods have guided his steps, but he inveighs against his disloyal sons, against cruel Polynice. She tries to divert his train of thought, but Oedipus thinks that death must be near, regretting the suffering that she bears for his sake. Antigone, however, tells him that her happiness lies only in serving him.
[1/15] Oedipus is consoled for the moment, and asks Antigone where they are. She tells him that they are near an ancient temple, but he imagines at once the vengeful Eumenides and their hissing serpents; this was where he killed his own father, Cithaeron. He imagines the out his own eyes and now wanders in misery, rejected by all. He begs the Eumenides to take him, while Antigone prays to them for mercy. Oedipus imagines Polynice is with him and bids him go, but finally recognises again his daughter Antigone, who hears someone drawing near.
[1/16] People approach, seeking to know what mortal has profaned the sacred place, while others accuse the stranger of bringing on them the anger of the gods. One of them comes forward, and asks the old man why he has entered a place sacred to the Furies. Antigone tells them that the old man with her has trespassed by chance and simply seeks refuge. Questioning elicits the fact that this is Oedipus, enemy of men and gods, and he must be banished at once.
[1/17] Theseus enters, intervening, as the people try to take Oedipus away. He offers Oedipus his help, an act of charity applauded by Antigone, giving him a place of peace.
[2/1] While Oedipus and Theseus are together, Polynice speaks with Antigone, expressing his fear for Oedipus; the people of Colonus are suffering from plagues and seek to cleanse their city by sacrificing Oedipus. Antigone reminds him that Theseus will defend him, but Polynice fears the people.
[2/2] Antigone tells her brother that Oedipus is weighed down by age and sorrow; she would continue to serve and protect him in every way she can.
[2/3] Polynice regrets his own guilt, and offers to renounce his throne and his bride, if he may expiate his guilt and serve his father. She promises to intercede for him, as he sees Theseus and Oedipus approaching.
[2/4] Theseus offers Oedipus his continued support and will go to deal with his disaffected subjects. From Antigone he awaits an answer to his request.
[2/5] Oedipus seeks to know what Theseus wants from her. He senses the approach of Polynice, a sign that Antigone has betrayed him. Polynice begs his father to hear him, exiled by his usurping brother Eteocles. He seeks his father's help in regaining Thebes, where Oedipus may be restored. Oedipus rejects both sons, only having a place for his daughter Antigone.
[2/6] Oedipus calls down the vengeance of the gods on Polynice and Eteocles, wishing them both to die before the walls of Thebes. Polynice pleads his own remorse, seeking death as punishment. Antigone tries to intercede for her brother, in his sorrow.
[2/7] Oedipus declares that the gods alone can tell if Polynice is sincere; he accepts his son's remorse and embraces his two children.
[2/8] Oedipus expresses his joy that his son has returned to him, feelings echoed by Polynice and Antigone.
[2/9] The High Priest now declares that the anger of the gods has been calmed and that there is no obstacle to the marriage of Polynice and Eriphile. Polynice seeks his father's blessing, his remorse inspired by his bride. Theseus joins in asking Oedipus to bless the match, supported by the plea of Eriphile. Oedipus has at last found peace and the plague has now left the land.
[2/10] The people celebrate in a final dance.
The French libretto with English translations is available at http://www.naxos.com/libretti/oedipeacolone.htm
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SACCHINI: Oedipe a Colone