Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber (1782-1871), once one of the most well-known and well-loved names in French 19th-century opera, came later in life than many famous composers to his art, yet had one of the longest and most successful careers. He studied with Cherubini after abandoning an initial attempt to establish a career in commerce, and experienced his first real triumph at the age of 38 with La Bergere Chateleine (1820). His subsequent association with the librettist Eugene Scribe (1791-1861), a collaboration that lasted until Scribe's death, became one of the most famous and successful partnerships in musical history. Works such as Le Macon (1825) and La Muette de Portici (1828) cemented Auber's popularity with the public and drew official recognition and honours. 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 grand opera La Muette de Portici (also known by its hero's name as Masaniello), a work of great significance in the history of opera, is set against a background of revolution and uprising-a situation that Auber knew only too well. He lived through four French Revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870), dying at the advanced age of 89 in the desperate conditions of the Commune, of a long-standing illness aggravated by the dangers and privations that attended the Siege of Paris. Auber had always loved his home city, and was not prepared to leave it, even after his house had been set on fire by the petroleurs et petroleuses. Ironically, a mark had been placed against the house of the composer of La Muette de Portici, a man so successful in depicting revolutionary fervour that a performance of this opera in Brussels in 1830 had helped to inspire the revolution that led to the separation of Belgium from Holland. Auber's charming and graceful overtures were once staples of the light Classical repertoire, known and loved everywhere. His gracious melodies and dance rhythms had an overwhelming influence on piano and instrumental music, and on the genre of Romantic comic opera, especially in Germany. His operas, apart from Fra Diavolo (1830), have virtually passed out of the repertoire. Contemporary audiences are not attuned to Auber's elegant and restrained art, accustomed as they are to verismo, Wagnerian transcendentalism, and twentieth-century experimentalism, but those willing to listen are rewarded by works that retain all their freshness, delicacy and charm. Le Macon, an opera-comique (opera francais) in three acts, with libretto by Eugene Scribe and Germain Delavigne, was first performed at the Opera-Comique (Salle Feydeau), on 3 May 1825. It was to become Auber's first enduring success. The opera is set in Paris, in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, around 1820. Roger, a mason, and his friend Baptiste, a locksmith, are abducted and taken blindfolded to a chateau by their kidnappers, the Turkish slaves Usbeck and Rica. They are forced to build a secret prison, but eventually help to liberate Irma, a young Greek girl, and her fiance Leon, who are being held against their will by the Turks. This opera francais, first performed a few months before La Dame blanche in 1825, represents a Parisian-bourgeois counterpiece to Boieldieu's Scottish-Romantic opera. Both book and score were equally successful, with varied situations and musically well-delineated characters. The work is related to the venerable tradition of the rescue opera, not only in its story, but also in Auber's music, especially in the use of a couplet refrain Du courage as a dramatic leading melody. The music is characterized by pointed, sharp punctuation that evokes the spirit of the revolutionary tone of the rescue opera, and resonates with the atmosphere of Scribe's libretto. The opera represents a decisive development in Auber's style, a turning away from imitation of Rossini, to Boieldieu's simplicity and thereby to a specifically French tradition. Scribe's wonderful facility was able to focus on the simplest but most basic of human activities, and derive a poetry from the ordinary. This was better acknowledged in the German title of the opera, Maurer und Schlosser, where the two ordinary heroes share equal billing. Roger, like Boieldieu's Georges Brown, is a real hero in working clothes, his honest fervour and suffering idealism expressed in the passion of his music. It is the extended ensemble scenes that contain the greatest amount of action-both physical and emotional. The act 2 finale (Malheureux arretez!) is at the heart of the opera, and a fine example of the effective creative and dramaturgical principles used by librettist and composer. The original cast was: Louis-Antoine-Eleonore Ponchard (Roger); Vizentini (Baptiste); Lafeuillade (Leon de Merinville); Mme Felicite Pradher (Irma); Darancourt and Henri (Usbeck and Rica); Mme Antoinette-Eugenie Rigaud (Henriette); Mme Marie-Julienne Boulanger (Mme Bertrand, a neighbour of Henriette's); Mlle Jenny Colon (Zobeide, companion to Irma) and Belnie (a wedding guest). The work remained in the repertoire from 1825 to 1896 and was performed 525 times. By the 1850s it had been translated into German, Danish, Swedish, Polish, Czech and Hungarian. It was performed across Europe, and in New York (1827) and Rio de Janeiro (1846). On German stages this opera, after Fra Diavolo (1830), remained Auber's most popular work far into the twentieth century, given as late as 1930. In 1826 a Romantic-comic Singspiel adaptation by Johann Gabriel Seidl (set in Italy) was performed at the Burgtheater in Vienna, while London saw the adaptation by James Robinson Planche, The Mason of Buda, for the Adelphi Theatre.
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.