Alberic Magnard: Berenice (1911)

Opera in three acts, Running Time 145 minutes.

Magnard was something of an odd French composer. Known rightly or wrongly as the “French Bruckner”, he was the son of a very wealthy family that owned the French newspaper Le Figaro, and did not have to work, but he wanted to write music and operas anyways, and he wrote three operas: Yolande, Guercoeur, and Berenice. Magnard was killed in a home invasion at the age of 49 by German soldiers in 1914 at the start of World War One. His house burned down, the original orchestral (although not the vocal scores) of Yolande and Guercoeur were mostly destroyed. Guercoeur, of which the second act actually survived intact, was re-orchestrated by Guy Ropartz from what he remembered of a concert of act three he had conducted. Berenice, however, never experienced this fate and has come down to us surprisingly intact, although it has remained as neglected as her siblings. Magnard’s operas are very interesting. They confront both the good and the evil within humanity and sometimes his characters come off as uniquely morally neutral or even a wash. He does use what is considered Wagnerian leitmotif to some extent, but he sounds much more like Massenet than Wagner, and not just because he was French. The video includes the piano-vocal score in real time, so if you can read French you can follow along with the opera, also the video has track listings making it even easier to follow the number! I will probably review Guercoeur soon, although I have been planning reviews for these two operas for about two months now so we shall see. I would suggest though, that if given the time and opportunity, Magnard’s work should not be overlooked and is well worth listening to.

The PLOT: The opera concerns the Jewish princess Bernice who was the fiancee of Titus before he was crowned emperor of Rome but was forced to leave the city and her wedding plans because of public prejudice against having a Jewish empress. Each of the three acts revolves around a central duet between Berenice and Titus. The opera is rich in symbolism: Magnard was a defender of Alfred Dreyfus during the notorious Dreyfus Affair and the opera is a morality play in which the title character represents Dreyfus and Titus France. The concept of justice, and how it fails to be defended, is paramount.

Act 1: The Garden of Berenice’s Palace outside Rome. (53 minutes)

0: The Overture, a long but very good piece **, it starts off with a flowing motif which sounds a lot like Aaron Copland. It quickly turns into a heroic brass theme which builds and then the two melodies briefly mix and then we have a sad romantic theme and a nature theme in the flute. We have a lot of brooding Massenet-like music floating around, all very lovely and rather charming then around six minutes in we have some agitation all around and we have a return to the first flowing motif with some brass and then the heroic theme returns and then dies down. Then some more brooding and then a return to a more quiet theme before we have more agitation and some chromaticism in the last minute before the opera proper begins. The music of the overture flows directly into the first act on an extended whole note cord and there is no obvious conclusion.

11: Berenice waits for Titus with her nurse Lia * who is not thrilled with her mistress’s affair with the man who has destroyed Judea. Berenice likes the Roman emperor Vespasian, but the number itself is sort of all over the place musically, and starts to sound like the boring parts of Act 1 of Tristan und Isolde, which is to say 80% of it. Watch for the return of the heroic theme which must represent Titus at 19 minutes. Berenice fantasizes that if Vespasian dies she will become Titus’ wife and empress, Lia tries to take her down a peg and gives her a warning against the Romans as the flowing theme returns, then the Titus theme, thus at least two themes from the overture have already returned. Berenice sends Lia away.

24: Titus is coming! But it will take him a few moments to finally arrive which allows Berenice enough time to collapse into ecstasy to the Titus theme * and then she, strangely, calls upon the pagan gods of Rome, Greece, and “the East” to strengthen her love **.

26: Titus arrives and Berenice chides him for having stayed away from her for a month. The orchestra takes over for about a minute before the lovers embark on the first of three love duets, this one lasting 22 minutes **. Titus is sung by a specifically French male vocal type called the barytone-martin which is a very high baritone that generally lacks the ability to sing below C3, just like a tenor, but does not have the high notes of a tenor and generally peaks out at about G4 or A4, the voice tends to sit around E3 to E4. The most famous role sung by this vocal type is Pelleas in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. The music mostly consists of highs and lows, going up and down, all good but not much actually stands out, it is all of the same cloth, in fact it is actually a series of canons by octaves. At around 41 minutes Berenice rebukes Titus because she has betrayed her people by loving him and we have some foreboding * this is followed about a minute later by a four-part wordless choral effect **.

43: Titus and Berenice finally sing at the same time for once, with the chorus popping in, again wordless, for about five minutes **. The scene ends with the lovers briefing praying to Venus. Suddenly Mucien, the Praetorian Prefect arrives to tell Titus that he has just come from his father Vespasian who is very close to death, most likely to happen before dawn. This would be better if it were not less than two minutes. We barely have enough time to know what is happening before Titus departs with Mucien leaving Berenice to fantasize again about being Titus’ wife and empress briefly before the music floats away.

Act 2: Titus’ chambers in the Imperial Palace, Rome. (47 minutes)

3: There is no prelude, just 12 bars before Titus starts telling us how lonely and sad he is that Berenice is not near him now that he is emperor of Rome and the law and the people are keeping them apart. A lot of brooding, none of it bad by any means, but none of it all that amazing either, at least at first, then Titus starts talking about Rome and things start to heat up into a fugue of all things, but a good one. It is something between Wagnerian Romanticism and atonal music **.

7: Then as Mucien enters we have this foreboding brass line, very noble sounding *** and it stands out more than anything before in the opera. It also repeats a lot as he explains that Rome is at peace now, and Titus must keep the peace and not ruin things by marrying the woman Rome doesn’t like, Berenice. A series of fast chromatic scales flying up like mad.

14: A tenor officer arrives to announce the arrival of Berenice ** really well. Mucien departs.

15: Berenice arrives and greets Caesar **, it then turns explosive. They have been together for five years. Why will he not commit? He explains, everyone in Rome hates her. She offers to renounce any power or title if she can retain his love.

20: They have to separate ***, but he says he loves her as he turns from her. You call me your love? she questions. There is so much real agony here. She asks him to look at her. He declares that he loves her.

23: A male chorus cruelly mocks Berenice with the tenor officer is heard outside ***, Berenice hears, Titus tells her not to. The chorus and tenor solo returns again, Titus orders that they disperse.

28: Berenice realizes it is all over, she can not be empress, too many people would abuse her and it would harm Titus. But he begs her not to leave him **. She responds that she loves him but that the hatred of his people will keep them apart ***.

34: She is leaving for the East **. A long arioso ends with the two saying they will meet that evening. Titus bombs out.

41: Mucien returns, he warns Titus against Berenice, saying she is a witch and that he should not meet her at the dock when she leaves that night *.

46: Mucien’s briefly says how evil the East is *, weirdly upbeat and then the orchestra is morose as the act ends.

Act 3: The royal tent on the post of Ostia with the ship that will take Berenice back to Judea (43 minutes)

0: The prelude, a very sad piece, very lovely **.

4: The ship’s captain tells Berenice to give the order to leave when she wishes, Berenice seems to be thinking dawn would be a good time. Lia asks her what she is waiting for. Berenice tells her that Titus promised he would say goodbye to her. Lia says her is as dumb as a rock (literally!) They have a theological discussion about the God of Israel and Venus which ends in Berenice weeping over the last five years she has wasted on Titus and Lia embracing her *.

9: Berenice implores Venus and swears off love forever **.

14: A slave arrives and tells Berenice that an officer of the Emperor has come to salut her. Who could it be? It is Titus! There is a noble bit for Titus, but much of it is very brooding *. Why did he take five years to say what he is saying now? Titus wants her again, but she is having none of it.

22: She tells him it is over ***.

25: The time has come for her to leave, her life is over and his has just begun *.

28: The world will acclaim him, now say goodbye **.

30: Titus finally goes, and Berenice orders Lia to give the departure signal. The sailors get ready, Berenice addresses the ship cruelly *.

36: The last seven minutes of the opera start with a chromatic cord, Berenice weeps for Titus, the sailors and then Berenice, alone embarks on the final aria, addressing Venus she cuts off her hair, which she then casts into the water and boards the ship ***.

The structural parallels to Tristan und Isolde are staggering, although the stories are very different. The opera is literally formatted almost exactly like the previous work with a long opening prelude and a first scene in which a noble lady and her nurse discuss life’s realities leading into the first of no less than three love duets over the course of two and a half hours ending in a seven minute aria in which the lady mourns her lost love and moves onward. Its heavy usage of chromaticism gives even more of this away. I would propose that the similarities to Tristan und Isolde are deliberate and that, given the well known racism coming out of Wagner’s shrine at Bayreuth in the early 20th century, that Magnard’s work is actually meant to produce a moral argument while retooling a famous Wagnerian framework that has no moral value. Titus and Berenice suffer from an impossible love, which really on the face of it should not be so impossible. What is more, and in comparison to the magically induced lust of T & I, Titus and Berenice are actually genuinely in love with each other and this pain is felt in so much of the music from the second act onward. Neither has a desire to die in order to be freed from their love, or to be united in death, both want the fullness of their love now. The weakest act is most certainly the first although the work is consistently good throughout. The best parts are the first duet between Titus and Mucien in act 2, the male choruses which cruelly make sport of Berenice bookended by the second and best of the love duets, and Berenice’s finale scene in which she cuts off her hair in mourning her lost love. The only part that may be a bit boring in terms of the music is the opening scene between Berenice and Lia which is plot-wise very important so its musical blandness in comparison to the lush music that follows it may not be unforgivable. The opera does belong to Berenice as a character, although perhaps only in the first and third acts, in the second it does appear as if the world belongs to Titus and to the men, especially since Berenice is the only woman in the act and she seems to be intruding on their turf whereas the men intrude in the other two acts. Lia is somewhat musically inert, she is a strong Jewish woman who is proud of her faith and her people and ashamed for Berenice for deserting her heritage for her gentile lover. She is also not on very much, and mostly acts as a foil to Berenice when she is. The only other character that is not a walk on is Mucien who is neither a villain nor a good guy. He also gets some good (and some not so good) music in the second act. None of these four principal characters, including Berenice, is completely good or evil, resembling not Wagnerian or Christian conceptions of the human condition but Jewish ones. Berenice is more than willing to address pagan deities in prayer, but she is obviously Jewish, and her Jewish identity is in fact the only thing that actually drives the story. There is even less secondary plotting than in Wagner’s work, which is notoriously stagnant; this is not a bad thing. In fact this focus makes Magnard’s characters far more believable than the medieval puppets constantly experiencing delayed physical climax of Wagner. The music does not have designs on its listeners, it does not seek to seduce, to physically abuse, or to cause a drug-like state. It seeks to be descriptive, to tell its story, and to warn with its moral message. If it is trying to change the listener, it does so in the name of moral justice. Titus is a man torn between his duty as ruler and his duty as a husband and lover. Berenice would prefer to stay in Rome and love Titus but realizes slowly that that cannot be. The “why” is what makes it so real, and not a meaningless Celtic myth that is really just about sexual idiocy like Tristan, the societal evil of racism (in this case a pre-Christian Roman attack of anti-semitism paralleling the Dreyfus Affair) is the hopeless reality for the couple, not some obviously fictive love potion nor the neurotic and self-centred notion of a “love-death”. This makes their love so much more real, and in fact the story is based in historical reality. The soldiers’ chorus in act 2 is not just a surprising gear change from the love duet, it is the cruelty of racist prejudice tearing apart one of the most beautiful things in life, namely selfless love. It represents how seductive hatred can be. Thankfully, here it does not actually end in the death of a person, but it does end in the death of a love. Berenice must be, if just barely, an A.







One response to “Alberic Magnard: Berenice (1911)”

  1. […] Wagnerian; it’s through-composed, the musical interest often lies in the orchestra, and, as Phil’s Opera World suggests, it may be a response to Tristan.  Structurally, it’s modelled on that […]


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