A BIOGRAPHY OF JACQUES FROMENTAL HALEVY

by Tom Kaufman

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Sepulchre of Jacques Fromental Halévy (Photo Courtesy of David Conway) 


The 200th anniversary of Jacques Fromental Halévy's birth will be celebrated on 27 May 1999. It is, therefore, only appropriate to prepare a new brief biography of the French master based on the latest research.

The 50 plus years after the end of World War II have seen a tremendous revival of nineteenth century Italian operas, not only by composers already very well known at the start of the period (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi), but also by people with fairly familiar names, but whose music was largely unknown, such as Saverio Mercadante, Giovanni Pacini, and the Ricci brothers, but also others who were almost entirely forgotten, including Carlo Coccia, Giuseppe Apolloni, Nicola Vaccai, etc.

While this revival has been centered in Italy, great efforts have also been made in England, Eire and the United States by organizations such as Opera Rara, Opera Camerata of Washington, the Wexford Festival, OONY, etc. etc. On the other hand, the French seem to have had much less of an interest in their cultural heritage than their neighbors to the South. There has been some such activity in Compiegne, Montpelier, St. Etienne [for Massenet and Gounod], ORTF, even the Paris Opéra, but this has been far from comparable to what was accomplished in Italy.

If we look at the works of Auber, Halévy and Meyerbeer, we find that there has been some Auber in France (Gustave III, Manon Lescaut, Domino Noir, Cheval de Bronze), less Meyerbeer (the Paris Robert le Diable and the Montpelier Huguenots and Crociato in Egitto), and even less Halévy. Thus the only available recordings of performances of Le prophète originated in Berlin, Italy and New York, those of L'Africaine in Italy or San Francisco, and those of La juive in New York, London, New Orleans and Vienna. There have also been studio recordings of Le Domino Noir, Dinorah, La juive, and Les Huguenots, all of which apparently took place in the United Kingdom.

Autographed letter of Jacques Fromental Halévy 1837
from Meyerbeer Fan Club collection, donated by Jerome Margala

Paradoxically, it almost seems as if there has been greater interest in these composers in Germany and Austria than in France, a phenomenon that took place not only in the post war period, but actually occurred throughout the century. The major grand operas of the period generally lasted as long or longer in France than they did elsewhere, although there were some exceptions. La juive, for instance, was last given in Vienna on Oct. 5, 1933, (it is scheduled there for 1999) in Paris on Apr. 9, 1934 at the Metropolitan Opera on Jan. 31, 1936, but in the French provinces (i. e. Rouen), as late as the 1938-39 season, and perhaps later.

But the lighter works from the 1830s and 1840s, and especially Halevy's L'éclair present a totally different state of affairs. The documentation of opera in French provincial cities and the lesser houses of Paris is far too weak to draw any significant conclusion, beyond there being no record of a performance of L'éclair in Paris after 1899, but it is known to have been given in Berlin (Stadt Theater) as recently as 1927, and again in Neuburg an der Donau in 1977. Then, finally, in Freiburg in 1989. A tape of the Freiburg production has now surfaced, which will shortly be released on CD by the MFC for the use by its members. This will only be the second complete opera by Halévy to become available in this medium.

Actually three Halévy works, other than L'éclair and La juive are known to have survived into the 20th century in France. The first, Charles VI, was given in Marseille in 1901. The other two were given at the Gaytée Lyrique in a season (1917-18) apparently devoted to neglected 19th century French repertory. One of these was La reine de Chypre with the legendary John O'Sullivan in the role of Gérard, and the second was Les mousquetaires de la reine. But, it would not be at all surprising if there were other productions of Halévy operas in Paris or the French provinces during the early part of the 20th century. The previously mentioned lack of documentation (chronologies of French theatres) needed to carry out the research also makes it impossible to know for sure.

Halévy was born in Paris on 27 May 1799 to a German Jewish father and a French Jewish mother. In spite of the celebrated Dreyfus case (which, of course, occurred much later), anti-semitism wasn't as much of a problem in France as it was in neighboring countries, and it was quite possible for middle class Jews to succeed. And that's exactly what Halevy did. In fact, he turned out to be one of the most successful French opera composers of the mid nineteenth century. During his lifetime, his only serious rivals were Giacomo Meyerbeer (a German), Daniel François Auber (a fellow Frenchman, who, however was at his best in lighter works), Ambroise Thomas, and Charles Gounod. Hector Berlioz should also be mentioned, but his operas failed dismally at their premieres, and did not really come into their own until both he and Halévy were long dead.

Halévy entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1810, becoming a pupil and later protegé of Cherubini. He won the Prix de Rome in 1819. His first opera to be performed was L'artisan, at the Opéra Comique in 1827, but it, like his other early works was a failure. But he did become chef de chant at the Théatre Italien from 1826 to 1829, later (1829-1845) holding the same post at the Opéra. While at the Théatre Italien, he met Maria Malibran, for whom he wrote Clari , the first of his two Italian works. The great tenor, Domenico Donzelli, was also in the cast. Premiered in 1828, Clari was successful enough to be revived in the ensuing season, after which it disappeared. It had been given six times in its' first season, and four more during the second. The fact that it was not given in London, as so many works created at the Théatre Italien were, was probably due to the popularity in the British Isles of Bishop's opera on the same subject. It is described as a triumph in that bible of French opera, the Dictionnaire des Operas. La dilettante d'Avignon was moderately successful, but Halévy did not achieve real recognition until he completed Herold's Ludovic in 1833.

With La juive, in 1835, he attained not only his first major, international triumph, but gave the world a work that was to be one of the cornerstones of the French repertory. It lasted for just over a century, during which time the role of Eléazar was one of the great favorites of tenors like Enrico Caruso, Enrico Tamberlick, Giovanni Martinelli, John O'Sullivan, Leon Escalais, Paul Franz, and Cesar Vezzani. After the war, it was most often revived for Tony Poncet and, especially, Richard Tucker. La juive was one of the grandest of grand operas, with a formal ballet, major choruses, a spectacular procession in Act I, and the most impressive of celebrations in Act III. It culminated with the heroine's being thrown into a vat of boiling oil in Act V in another public ceremony. Mahler admired it greatly, stating: "I am absolutely overwhelmed by this wonderful, majestic work. I regard it as one of the greatest operas ever created".

1835 proved to be a good year for Halévy, what with L'éclair following right on the heels of La juive. It is, in many ways, the complete antithesis of the earlier opera. While La juive had been the epitome of grand opera, perhaps the grandest spectacle offered at the Paris Opéra until then, L'éclair was the exact opposite. No crowd scenes, not even a chorus, no large scale ensembles, no dramatic confrontations between any of the four leading characters. These are a pair of sisters, one, Harriet, very sentimental by nature, and the other, Mrs. Darbel on the frivolous side, There are two tenors, George an Englishman from Oxford (who never lets you forget it), who has to marry either of the cousins to get his inheritance, and the other, Lionel, a sailor who is just passing by. The opera takes place in a country villa near Boston. But the sailor is blinded by lightning and helped by Harriet, the sentimental sister. They fall in love, but, being blind, he has no idea what she looks like. He is miraculously cured, sees the two sisters for the first time, and embraces the wrong one, breaking Harriet's heart. Harriet disappears, but is still heard from occasionally. She does send two letters, the first ordering Lionel and Mme. Darbel to marry, and the second asking George to wed her, and announcing that she will soon return for the ceremony. But Lionel still loves Harriet, and, when she returns, believing that the marriage has taken place, she finds out that it was all a sham, and we get the predictable double wedding: George and Mrs. Darbel, while Lionel marries Harriet.

The four roles were created by Jean Baptiste Chollet as Lionel, Felicité Pradher being Mrs. Darbel, Joseph Antoine Couderc was George, while Cécile Camoin created Harriet. All four were important singers, especially Chollet, the leading tenor of the Opera Comique who had already created the title roles in Auber's Fra Diavolo, and Herold's Zampa, and was to eventually be the first Postillon de Lonjumeau in Adam's opera under that title. Pradher had sung Péki in Auber's Le cheval de Bronze earlier that year, while Couderc was to be the first Benedict in L'ambassadrice and the first Horace in Le domino noir. The libretto was by François Antoine Eugène de Planard and Jules Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges.

The work was a tremendous success in Paris, where it was warmly received by public and press alike, although there was some criticism of the fact that there was no chorus. The opera quickly made the customary tour of the civilized world, being translated into German for a production in Berlin on 3 August 1836. Stagings in at least 20 other German language theatres in Germany, Austria and what is now the Czech Republic followed, while the original French version was given all over France (with 311 performances in Paris by 1893), Belgium and even as far away as New Orleans, where it was first heard as early as 1837. It stayed in the repertory in that city for quite a few years, until the 1848-49 season, The company went on tour during the summer of 1843, visiting New York, Montreal and Philadelphia. L'éclair was given complete in New York, and at least excerpts were performed in Philadelphia. But it was not given in Montreal. Strangely, there is no record of an English version, nor is there any indication that it was ever given in Boston.

Musically, L'éclair is somewhat atypical of conventional opéras comiques. Probably the main reasons for this are that there are only four roles, two sopranos and two tenors--no chorus, no mezzo and no bass. However, the four roles are cleverly differentiated in that one couple (Harriet and Lionel) are serious and sentimental, but the other couple (Mme. Darbel and George) are lighthearted, gay, and even comical. The uncle who cures Lionel's blindness (a perfect excuse for a bass role) does not appear on stage. The opera is a succession of many attractive musical numbers: arias, duets, trios, and a quartet. With the exception of Lionel's aria in Act III: "Quand de la nuit", recorded by Jerry Hadley, they are virtually unknown, and yet to appear on disc. The other outstanding numbers cited by the French press at the time of the premiere include the opening duet for the two sisters, the entrance arias of George and Lionel, the first finale, and George's buffo aria in Act II. The storm scene and the love duet should also be mentioned.

After Halévy's double triumph in 1835, he became one of the leading figures of Parisian operatic life, continuing to be very active, and producing new operas at a much faster rate than Meyerbeer. Guido et Ginevra (Opéra, 1838) and Le guitarrero (Opéra comique, 1841) did fairly well, while La reine de Chypre 1841) was probably the most successful opera by a French born composer to be premiered between 1836 and 1852. It's plot is virtually identical to that of Donizetti's Caterina Cornaro, but was actually used for five different works between 1841 and 1846. Saint-Georges, one of the successful librettists of L'éclair had sold the same libretto to both Lachner and Halévy, and both their operas were to be premiered in December 1841, Lachner's in Munich on Dec. 3, and Halévy's in Paris on Dec. 22. But Donizetti was also working on his version, originally for Vienna, but switched to Naples when he learned that Lachner had beaten him to the punch in the Austrian capital. Later versions were by Balfe (in English) and Pacini, again in Italian. Fate works in strange ways, Halévy's setting was the most successful of the five in the 19th century, with 152 performances at the Opéra alone. Lachner's and Balfe's were also successful, but less so. Pacini's had only a limited number of stagings. On the other hand, Donizetti's attempt failed, with only two stagings in the 1840s followed by oblivion. Yet La reine de Chypre has not been heard since 1917, while Caterina Cornaro staged a comeback after the war, and was available at one time or another in four or more different recordings on CD.

In 1842, Meyerbeer, then already at work on Le prophète, left Paris to take over from Spontini as Kappelmeister in Berlin, leaving the field of grand opera open to Gaetano Donizetti and Jacques Fromental Halévy. Donizetti's stay in Paris was tragically too short lived. He actually alternated between that city and Vienna before returning to his birthplace, Bergamo, where he died in 1849.

The year 1843 was to see both Donizetti's Dom Sebastien and Halévy's Charles VI at the Opéra. The Halévy opera was by far the more successful of the two, running up a grand total of 61 performances at the Opéra over six seasons, but like La reine de Chypre has pretty completely disappeared not only from the repertory but even from the awareness of opera lovers. I had heard excerpts from both on 78 rpm records many years ago, was most impressed, and have always been fascinated at the prospect that they may some day be revived. Both were created by essentially the same stellar singers who had been in the premiere casts of Donizetti's Les martyrs and La favorite: Duprez, Barroilhet, and both Dorus-Gras and Stoltz singing the leading roles. They survived into the 20th century; La reine de Chypre was revived in Paris (at the Gaitée Lyrique) in 1917 with the legendary John O'Sullivan as Gérard. Charles VI was given in Marseille as late as 1901, but never achieved the career it deserved in Paris, due probably to the political incorrectness of a piece that lauded French patriotism at the expense of the British at a time when the French government was trying to improve its relations with its northern neighbor. In cities such as New Orleans where no attempt had to be made to be nice to the British (one wonders if the opposite was the case), it actually lasted much longer, being in the repertory from the 1846-47 season to the 1873-74 season, being revived several times in 1880s and as late as the 1891-92 season.

A large number of additional works followed, the most successful of which were two in the light vein: Les Mousquetaires de la reine (1846) and Le val d'Andorre (1848). The first of these was to rack up 294 performances at the Opéra Comique by 1893, while Le val d'Andorre trailed with 160. His second opera to an Italian text, La tempesta (London, 1850), after Shakespeare's The Tempest, should also be mentioned, especially since Luigi Lablache was the first Caliban. Halévy's most important grand operas in his later years were undoubtedly Le Juif errant (Opéra, 1852), which had a respectable 49 performances during two seasons, and La magicienne (Opéra, 1858). The latter had a run of 42 performances during its' first season, and another three the second, but, like Le Juif errant, was never revived. His last major triumph was the opéra comique Jaguerita l'Indienne, (Théatre Lyrique, 1855) which had a run of 124 performances over four seasons, and was given as far away as New Orleans. It was revived at the Opéra Comique in 1869, and at the Opéra Populaire in 1886.

In his final years, Halevy retired to Nice for reasons of health, dying in that city on March 17, 1862.

Considering the unexpected beauties of L'éclair, and the extent to which Halévy's other operas have been neglected by musicologists during the last 50 years, it would seem that these works should represent a gold mine for operatic archaeologists to explore and bring back to life. Among the grand operas, a truly note complete La juive is badly needed--the usual cuts, whether they be entire numbers or just internal cuts within numbers, ruin the majestic architecture of the opera, and make it impossible for us to judge it as it really is. But La reine de Chypre, once so popular, and so highly praised by Wagner, seems equally deserving of attention, as does Charles VI, a work robbed of its erstwhile success in France by political considerations. Among the lighter works, we do need a French version of L'éclair, while both Les mousquetaires de la reine and Le val d'Andorre deserve another look. Finally, with the current interest in operas dealing with conflicts, not between neighboring countries, but between cultures and civilizations, Jaguerita l'Indienne seems to be a natural. In it, a fascinatingly depicted American Indian queen in Guyana rescues a Dutch soldier she is in love with from her own warriors.

May the forthcoming recording of L'éclair be only the second of many Halévy works to be made available to the general public by means of CDs. And may Halévy's name have become a household world when the sesquicentennial of his death rolls around in 2012.

© 1998 Tom Kaufman

Halevy's Operas | NYTimes Review of OONY La Juive


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