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. Marco Spada, an opera-comique in three acts, with libretto by Eugene Scribe, was first performed at the Opera-Comique (Deuxieme Salle Favart) on 21 December 1852. The opera is set in the Romagna around 1830. The governor of Rome is planning a journey to the Adriatic accompanied by his niece, the Marchesa de Sanpietri, and his aide Pepinelli. They become enmeshed in the intrigues of the Abruzzi bandits headed by Marco Spada. Angela, the daughter of the Baron de Torrida (really Marco Spada), offers them hospitality. Pepinelli declares his love for the Marchesa but is rejected. At a ball Angela meets her long-lost beloved Federici, the governor's nephew. The Baron is identified as the bandit chief, but only to Federici and Angela. She chooses to remain with her father despite this revelation, and renounces her beloved, who thereupon publicly announces his engagement to the Marchesa. Eventually Marco Spada is fatefully wounded in a successful skirmish with the carabinieri. Pepinelli and the Marchesa, who have been captured, are forced to marry, leaving Federici and Angela free to realize their love. The eternal brigand, so much exploited by the librettist, turns up here again. Indeed, the final scene was inspired by Horace Vernet's famous painting La Confession du bandit. But this time the recurrence of this favoured type was less successful than in Fra Diavolo and La Sirene: public reception was comparatively cool. The overture is one of Auber's most accomplished. The music has all those features that distinguish the composer's style, as skilled as it is inspired. Act 1 includes a beautiful serenade for Federici, a tender paternal aria for the Baron, and Angela's pastoral couplets. Act 2 famously includes Angela's declaration of love in four languages: Russian, English, Italian, and French. The finale is the highpoint of the opera: the grand and moving theme of the stretta already familiar from the overture. Act 3 contains Angela's chanson Fille de la montagne; and the final scene which is full of noble pathos, presaged in the very opening bars of this work. The original cast was: Charles-Amable Battaille (Marco Spada); Caroline Duprez (Angela); Jean-Jacques Boulo (Federici); Leon Carvalho (Prince Osorio); Joseph-Antoine-Charles Couderc (Pepinelli); Mlle Andrea Favel (the Marchesa Sanpietri); Bussine (Fra Borromeo); and Elias Nathan and Lejeune (Geronio and Gianetti, bandits). The relationship between the Baron and Angela, sustained throughout the opera, provided the great bass Charles-Amable Battaille and the bright high soprano Caroline Duprez (daughter of the famous tenor Gilbert Duprez), both rising stars, with the opportunity for an effective working partnership. Marco Spada played for two years only, until 1854, and was not revived. The work was destined for transformation into a ballet five years later. In all, there were a respectable 78 performances. The opera was translated into German, Polish and Swedish, and performed in Brussels, Berlin, Hannover, Dresden, Mannheim, Vienna, Warsaw and Stockholm.
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.