Opera in three acts (Running Time: 184 minutes)
Another opera by Magnard, this time the message is a bit confusing. Is it about hope for humanity? It is about human corruption? Is it both? Guercoeur was partially destroyed in 1914 by the Germans during World War 1. Although completed around 1901 it was not performed before 1931, by which time the first and third acts were re-orchestrated. Like the video for Magnard’s Berenice, the piano-vocal score in the original French is provided in the video, please follow along although warning, it does get blurry for some reason. The score is also at Internet Archive:
PLOT: Simply put, Guercoeur was a Flemish or Italian (it is vague) medieval warrior who had led his city to peace before he died and now he wants to return to earth and gets permission to do so by La Verite (Truth) to do so. He discovers that his widow Gisele, who had promised to be forever faithful (even after death) has married his best friend Heurtal. He forgives her but he realizes that Heurtal is ruining the city and he is eventually killed by the inhabitants. His faith in humanity dashed, he returns to heaven and is told by La Verite that in spite of humanity’s flaws, an age of peace, joy, love, and liberty will one day come.
ACT 1: Heaven, country of dreams, clarity, and light (52 minutes)
0: The Introduction ** starts with a series of loud cords that fly away into nothing, then brooding from the low strings. It is surprisingly a mere page of the piano-vocal score before the curtain rises and the chorus starts doing it’s thing. Very effective. The chorus is in praise of Truth. Guercoeur comes on with one word Vivre “live”. The Chorus of spirits however, is not interested and wants to stop thinking completely about anything.
9: Now something lighter **, the spirits of a Virgin and a Woman come to Guercoeur wondering why he is so sad and wants to leave their celestial company.
12: The Woman gets a short solo that becomes a rather wonderful duet ** with the Virgin as they call up their “Brother” Guercoeur.
13: Guercoeur is sad because no one understands him and he is very much alone. The spirit of a poet arrives and talks about his past-life career in a somewhat nihilistic way *. Nothingness is the only thing that is real? It ends on a low E.
20: Guercoeur feels sorry for him. They are talking about flowers a lot, and Guercoeur does not want to forget about earthly life. He misses his wife and best friend and his people and how he was their leader. He calls upon Verite *.
22: The Chorus has a brief bit of wordless singing, and she Verite (Truth) appears in a rather etherial way **. She obviously is not totally in charge though because the next bit is a brief invocation to the Christian Trinity so her role is somewhat odd, is she is metaphor or was she once a human being? The music is heavily chromatic.
25: The interview between Verite and Guercoeur** is interrupted by Bonte (Goodness) and Beaute (Beauty) but it is pretty and Guercoeur gets to his request quickly: he wants to see his wife again. Love is foolish, say the Spirits. Tyranny was dead under his watch, he wants to see things now.
33: Bonte and Beaute get a couple of tunes. Suffering (Souffrance), is a contralto and a new character *. The Chorus follows.
36: Verite tells Guercoeur that if heaven is gives him no happiness then he should return to earth **. Guercoeur is happy, but it has been two years since he died. The Chorus tells Guercoeur to be happy, he is getting what he wants, very soft mystical music.
42: Suddenly Verite explodes, anxiety abounds in the music **. She pities Guercoeur his prison of joy and sorrow, he departs and the chorus along with Verite and the other spirits return to their etherial thoughts. Souffrance has the last word. The time goes by a lot faster than the almost 52 minutes would suggest.
ACT 2: Earth: Three tableaux with special titles and specific settings. (87 minutes)
Scene 1 “Illusions”: An outdoor landscape, a hill, valley, a city in the distance (19 minutes).
0: A very lovely nature prelude flowing into an aria for Guercoeur ** who does not know where he is, but he seems to like his new surroundings. Some might think the music sounds like Parsifal, I’m thinking more Massenet’s Esclarmonde but that is just me. Remember though that Massenet was one of Magnard’s teachers. A female chorus arrives telling Guercoeur that Giselle mourned him for a while, but is now in a relationship (status vague) with his best friend Heurtal. The people have mostly forgotten him as well (in just two years? odd) There is something ugly about the chorus, but I can not figure it out.
14: Watch for the first theme from the prelude to act 1 returns * surrounded in a sea of thematic nature and sinister music as we have an intermezzo between the scene changes.
Scene 2: A room in Guercoeur’s former home (51 minutes).
19: Interesting duet between Heurtal and Giselle *, at first very lovey. This is the first not in some way supernatural scene in the opera, and it comes off a little strange. There is later a clammer from the chorus. The people are angry, Heurtal may have been given power by Guercoeur but even he freely admits to having none of the latter’s skills. It turns into a solo for Heurtal who then goes off to prepare for their wedding.
29: Giselle’s aria is a little bit better than the preceding scene **. She is in love with Heurtal, and has basically forgotten her marriage to the dead Guercoeur. I had forgotten this from my Berenice review, but here Giselle references her excitement over the possibility of becoming mother, as does Berenice in the first act of her namesake opera. A common theme of Magnard, who wrote his own stories and libretti?
36: Guercoeur arrives, terrifying his wife, but he is so happy to see her **, she not so much.
40: Giselle admits to breaking her vow to always be faithful to Guercoeur, although he is dead **.
47: Guercoeur get momentarily enraged but then forgives Giselle **. She goes on for a while and the Guercoeur again briefly, this is a little boring.
55: But then Guercoeur talks of forgiveness rather beautifully **. This is followed by some brooding music before Heurtal enter.
59: The theme from the first act prelude returns just before Heurtal finds Guercoeur and unrecognizing him attacks him and Guercoeur vanishes. Heurtal is very confused and agitated because the population wants to get rid of him *.
63: He calls to Giselle who tells him that Guercoeur has forgiven her and she can be Heurtal’s wife now without any regrets **.
64: Another intermezzo between scene changes, much more vigorous than the first ** turning into a march tune before the next scene and the first theme returns.
Scene 3: “The People”: A public square in the city. (17 minutes)
71: The chorus is agitated **, they are divided between those supporting Heurtal and those who call him a tyrant. The music develops an almost Mozart-ish sound.
74: Guercoeur comes on, the people are so unhappy he thinks **.
77: Heurtal is declared dictator, agitation in the chorus **. He calls the citizenry to order, but not very well. Guercoeur calls everyone to silence and when that doesn’t work well he reveals who he is. The crowd goes crazy. Heurtal declares that he must be mad, the people however call for blood and Guercoeur is mortally wounded.
84: An interesting little march tune with flute accompaniment * is stopped dead by the doom theme that we all know by now was the first thing we heard in the opera. Guercoeur calls out to Verite to forgive him his foolishness and he dies as the people call out once more. The act ends on a single eighth-note chord.
ACT 3 : “Hope” (47 minutes)
0: There is a long prelude, mostly made up of the agitated themes from the previous two acts. A nice flute solo. It is very symphonic and very good **.
6: Bonte leads the chorus in a prayer to the “mother” **.
11: Bonte recognizes that Guercoeur has died again ** and he is slowly brought in by Souffrance to the reaction of Bonte.
16: Souffrance gets her big number **.
17: Now Guercoeur really wants to forget everything. Verite and Bonte take turns discussing the matter with Souffrance *.
20: Guercoeur is agitated by their willingness to forgive him so quickly **, humanity is doomed, says he.
25: Verite tells him to brighten up about humanity. Yes they are not perfect, but one day there will be beauty and peace on earth ***, guided by love and liberty. You have to have hope. The orchestra flies.
34: After a sudden jolt from the brass, Guercoeur interjects “Espoir” **.
36: Verite, Bonte, Beaute, and Souffrance have a quartet *** in which they commend Guercoeur’s soul to rest.
41: Verite takes over again *** with the orchestra slowly moving through the theme from the quartet. Suddenly a stop, what happened? Verite comes back, at the end we have the theme again. The orchestra plays out, the chorus finally cries “Espoir!” “hope” as the curtain falls and we end on another whole chord.
This opera is musically lovely. The weakest point are the long scenes between Giselle and Heurtal and then Giselle and Guercoeur in act 2 scene 2. The prologue and epilogue acts set in the heavens are absolutely brilliant, especially the last twenty-two minutes or so of act 3. The most wonderful thing about the work is how life-affirming it is. In spite of the horrors that befall Guercoeur in Act 2, the postmortem betrayal of his wife, his friend forgetting him and even calling him insane, his people killing him on the second go, the overall message of the opera is not one of <<desespoir>> but of<<espoir>>. This worldview seems just as influenced by Judaism as Berenice, namely the hope of repairing the world and a future of liberty and peace. The story is very compact and rather basic, yet the opera rarely feels as long as it is, and it is three hours. But the music is consistently good and even amazing towards the end. So an A for Guercoeur, a life-affirming work that deserves greater attention.