Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber (1782-1871), the most amiable French composer of the 19th century, came to his abilities late in life. After a stalled commercial career, he studied with Cherubini. His first works were not a success, but La Bergere Chateleine (1820), written at the age of 38, established him as an operatic composer. He then met the librettist Eugene Scribe (1791-1861), with whom he developed a working partnership, one of the most successful in musical history, that lasted until Scribe's death. After Le Macon (1825) and La Muette de Portici (1828), Auber's life was filled with success. In 1829 he was appointed a member of the Institut, in 1839 Director of Concerts at Court, in 1842 Director of the Conservatoire, in 1852 Musical Director of the Imperial Chapel, and in 1861 Grand Officer of the Legion d'Honneur. Auber's famous historical grand opera La Muette de Portici (also known by its hero's name as Masaniello) is a key work in operatic history, and helped to inspire the 1830 revolution in Brussels that led to the separation of Belgium from Holland. Auber himself experienced four French Revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870). The latter (the Commune) hastened the end of his life. He died on 12 May 1871, at the advanced old age of 89, and in the pitiful conditions of civil strife, after a long and painful illness which worsened during the Siege of Paris. He had refused to leave the city he had always loved despite the dangers and privation, even after his house had been set on fire by the petroleurs et petroleuses. By some irony a mark had been placed against the house of the composer of Masaniello, the very voice of Romantic liberty! Auber's overtures were once known everywhere, a staple of the light Classical repertoire. The influence of his gracious melodies and dance rhythms on piano and instrumental music, and on the genre of Romantic comic opera, especially in Germany, was overwhelming. The operas themselves, apart from Fra Diavolo (1830), have virtually passed out of the repertoire, since Auber's elegant and restrained art now has little appeal for the world of music, attuned as it is to the meatier substance of verismo, high Wagnerian ideology, and twentieth-century experimentalism. Le Lac des fees, an opera in five acts, with libretto by Eugene Scribe and Melesville (Anne-Honore-Joseph Duveyrier), was premiered at the Academie nationale de musique (Salle de la rue Le Peletier) on 1 April 1839. The story is derived from the tale Der geraubte Schleier from Johann Karl August Musaus's Volksmarchen der Deutschen (1782-86). Musaus's collection of fairy tales was also the basis of Wenzel Reisinger's scenario for Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake (1877). The opera is set in the Harz Mountains and Cologne, in the fifteenth century. Albert, a young student, has fallen in love with a fairy, Zelia: she has been forced to live on earth because Albert has stolen her veil. At the last moment, however, she regains her veil from Marguerite, and disappears to her fairy sisters. To welcome her back, the Fairy Queen allows Zelia a wish: but she chooses to renounce immortality, and returns to Albert on the earth. Despite its five acts, the opera is not overtly concerned with the great historical themes usually associated with grand-opera, but exemplifies Scribe's third type of opera libretto (after opera-comique and grand-opera), derived from exotic or legendary material. However, the literary source is remarkable for its depiction of the rebellion of the people and students against the feudal lord Rodolphe-themes that have a strong affinity with the historical and political concerns of Auber's earlier compositions, La Muette de Portici and Gustave III, and this thematic affinity is also evident in the musical aspects of the work. Much time in Le Lac des fees is taken in elaborating the central depiction of popular festivity. Indeed, the requirements of grand-opera are realized with an original twist in the big act 3 depiction of the medieval Epiphany celebrations, with its attempt at recreating the variety of genre and mood. The composer handled this legendary and supernatural subject with a certain poetic grace and inspiration. The dramatic highpoints of the score provide impressive examples of Auber's art. Remarkable pieces include: the overture; the cavatina for Albert Gentille fee; Rodolphe's grand air Avec addresse; the Scene of the Fairies; Zelia's scene of despair in act 1 and her complaint C'en est donc fait; the extensive duet for Zelia and Albert in act 3, and Albert's mad scene in act 4. Of special note are the graceful and effective fairy choruses. There is also a very Romantic sense of tonal painting, with the moonlit serenity of the fairy lake conveyed in mellifluous orchestral detail. Richard Wagner arrived in Paris in 1839, and perhaps saw one of the last of the stagings. The influence of the final transformation scene must have affected him deeply-both as stagecraft and music. The original cast was: Gilbert Duprez; Mlle Maria-Dolores-Benedicta-Josephine Nau; Nicholas-Prosper Levasseur; Louis-Emile Wartel; Ferdinand Prevot and Alexis Dupont; Molinier; Rosine Stoltz; and Mlle Elian Barthelemy. Despite the cast of exceptional quality, Le Lac des fees was not a success in Paris, where it was performed 30 times, with no reprise. On the other hand, the German version of the work enjoyed great popularity; the opera was also translated into English and Polish, and produced in a number of European countries and in New York between 1839 and 1847, with revivals in Karlsruhe and Stuttgart in 1865 and 1871.
About the Author: Robert Ignatius Letellier has specialized in the music and literature of the Romantic Period. He has studied the work of Giacomo Meyerbeer (a four-volume English edition of his diaries, a collection of critical and biographical studies, a guide to research, two readings of the operas, as well as compiling and introducing editions of the complete libretti and non-operatic texts, and a selection of manuscripts facsimiles). He has also written on the ballets of Ludwig Minkus, compiled a series of scores on the Romantic Ballet, and produced studies of the opera-comique and Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber.