Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber (1782-1871) was long considered one of the most typically French as well as one of the most successful of the opera composers of the 19th century. Although musically gifted, he initially chose commerce as a career, but soon realized that his future lay in music. He studied under Cherubini, and it was not long before his opera-comique La Bergere Chateleine (1820), written at the age of 38, established him as an operatic composer. Perhaps the greatest turning point in Auber's life was his meeting with the librettist Eugene Scribe (1791-1861), with whom he developed a long and illustrious working partnership that only ended with Scribe's death. Success followed success; works such as Le Macon (1825) and La Muette de Portici (1828) brought Auber public fame and official recognition. 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 seems to have been fated to live in revolutionary times; during his long life no less than four revolutions took place in France (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870). Auber's famous historical grand opera La Muette de Portici (also known by its hero's name as Masaniello) is perhaps unsurprisingly based on revolution, depicting the 1647 Neapolitan uprising against Spanish rule. It is a key work in operatic history, and has a revolutionary history itself: it was a performance of this work in Brussels in 1830 that helped spark the revolution that led to the separation of Belgium from Holland. It was a revolution that hastened Auber's death at the old age of 89. He died on 12 May 1871 as a result of a long illness aggravated by the privations and dangers of the Siege of Paris. He had refused to leave the city he had always loved, even after his house had been set on fire by the petroleurs et petroleuses. In a twist of fate, a mark had been placed on the house of the composer of Masaniello, the very voice of Romantic liberty! Auber's overtures were once instantly recognizable, favourites of the light Classical repertoire. His gracious melodies and dance rhythms had a huge influence, both on piano and instrumental music, and on the genre of Romantic comic opera, especially in Germany. Musical tastes and fashions have changed, and contemporary audiences are more accustomed to the heavier fare of verismo, Wagnerian transcendentalism, and twentieth-century experimentalism. The operas themselves, apart from Fra Diavolo (1830), are seldom performed, yet Auber's elegant, delicate and restrained art remains as appealing to the discerning listener as ever it was. Zanetta, an opera-comique in three acts with libretto by Eugene Scribe and Jules Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, was first performed at the Opera-Comique (Deuxieme Salle Favart) on 18 May 1840. It is set in Naples in the early l740s, and is the second of Auber's three Sicilian operas, along with Acteon and Zerline. The plot concerns the ploys used by King Charles VI to discourage his favourite, the German nobleman Rodolphe's attentions to his sister Nisida. The latter, in order to allay her brother's suspicions, conceives a plan in which Rodolphe will openly court the gardener's daughter Zanetta. The intrigues fail, and Rodolphe ends up with the humble Zanetta while Nisida marries the Elector of Bavaria. The music of this pleasant opera is notable for the amount of vocal display (created for Mme Cinti-Damoreau) and the recurrent use of the waltz rhythm which dominates the finales of the first and third acts (cf Fiorella and Haydee as works with a similar emphasis). The overture is very attractive. Mmes Damoreau and Rossi were applauded for the duet in act 2 (Contre l'hymen qu'ordonne). Act 3 contains a cavatina for the Princess (Pendant toute la nuit), and the remarkable moment of reflection for Zanetta Adieu mes fleurs cheries. All three duets are very expressive. The original cast consisted of: Joseph-Antoine-Charles Couderc (Rodolphe); Laure Cinti-Damoreau (Zanetta); Mme Rossi (Nisida); Ernest Mocker (Charles VI); Honore Grignon (Baron Mathanasius); Charles-Louis Sainte-Foy and Emon (Dionigi and Ruggieri); and Haussard (a chamberlain). The work was in the repertoire l840-41, with a total of 35 performances. It was translated into German and Danish, and produced in Amsterdam, Prague, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Brussels and London.
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, the 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.