Charles Gounod: Cinq-Mars (1877)

Opera in Four Acts (Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes)

Meyerbeer of all people originally intended to write a version of this opera in the late 1830s, to the same libretto. He got as far as completing the first act, and then gave up on it to work on Le Prophete. This may have been a good call….

PLOT: France, 1642. Cinq-Mars is a young French nobleman who is conspiring against Cardinal Richelieu and is systematically done away with by the Cardinal. But his interest in politics (specifically supporting the cause of the King’s mistress Marion Delorme against the Cardinal who wishes to banish her) is caused by his love for a princess, Marie de Gonzague, who is to be married off to the King of Poland. The lovers exchange wedding vows in secret but under the idea that allowing herself to marry the King of Poland will save Cinq-Mars from execution, Marie agrees to the royal wedding, but all is in vain.


Act 1 (34 minutes): A room in the castle of Cinq-Mars.

0: The overture ** starts off much like Gounod’s earlier Faust, but with a much more dramatically powerful and chromatic tune which will return soon. The violas float around in the air for a long time. Then everything is running about like mad. A motif comes up in the clarinet which is soon backed up by the strings (might this be Cinq-Mars himself?). The dramatic tune shows up again (does it mean conspiracy?). Then bang, bang, another now brooding theme comes on but it has something fetching to it which I’m not sure what it means. It ends almost mystically.

13: The long opening scene. A lot happens very quickly as noblemen discuss Cinq-Mars’ rapid rise to power. It Richelieu at work or it is the King’s doing? Cinq-Mars is more interested in Marie, Princess of Gonzague with whom he is secretly in love (he has not admitted his feelings even to her) and it appears she loves him as well. He then discusses this for a long time with his friend De Thou, who knows about Marie already through intuition. There are traces, faint, of the conspiracy theme as Cinq-Mars opens a book to predict the future, something De Thou thinks is foolish, and it opens to a tale of martyrdom. A bit in unison between the two men is rather nice if brief highlight *.

17: The Cardinal’s emissary, Pere Joseph, shows up with news that Cinq-Mars has been summoned by the King to court and that Marie is to marry the King of Poland. This allows for good ensemble in which all the characters emote their grief, joy, etc. **. Look out for the orchestration in the interactions between Cinq-Mars, Pere Joseph, and Marie right after this.

22: The stage clears and a nice chorus of young men shows up to escort Cinq-Mars to the Court *.

23: Marie returns and sings a romantic song to the night **. A lush piece and the best so far.

28: Cinq-Mars returns in a fret. She tells him she is leaving and he confesses his love for her. She begs him to remember the good times but to forget her, she is to be a queen, but she does love him *.

ACT 2: (57 minutes)

Scene 1: The King’s Chambers. (21 minutes)

4: After a sweet orchestral introduction and the arrival of Marion Delorme to a chromatic scale that sounds a lot like the conspiracy theme from the overture the first number of note is a chorus in which chorus of gentlemen lead by the Vicomte de Fontrailles bemoan the fact that Richelieu plans on having Marion banished because, well, she sleeps with the King a lot **. They all plot to conspire to get rid of the Cardinal before Marion can be booted out at a ball she will host the following night at her stylish salon. The King’s arrival prompts Marion to retire with her maid Ninon. The arrival music is fine but low key and this flows into the men conspiring in recitative and thinking about enlisting Cinq-Mars because although the King supports his match with Marie the Cardinal does not.

10: Another male choral number as they fond over Cinq-Mars*. Marie has also arrived.

13: Cinq-Mars’ song of love for Marie **.

17: Pere Joseph arrives with the whole news about Richelieu demanding that Marie marry the King of Poland. Much of this is ornery until Cinq-Mars finally sings and then there is a good rousing and furious trio * as Cinq-Mars threatens the Cardinal and the conspirators realize they have a new leader.

Scene 2: The home of Marion Delorme.

21: A nice 17th century-ish entr’acte *. Ninon and the Conspirators show up to discuss the evening’s divertissement and there is yet another trace of the chromatic conspiracy scale. Ninon declares that her mistress is now Queen of the land and will bring them to joys and delights.

24: Marion arrives in pastoral garb and entertains everyone with a nice pastoral song with some coloratura at the end *.

28: The ballet *, a series of lite dances and choruses with a storyline about a shepherd (mezzo-soprano) who is in love and how he courts his beloved with a nice sonnet. Très français and good setting/mood music but low temperature until the good rousing finale followed by a nice chorus congratulating the hostess and a 29-second Sarabande.

44: After some conspiring between Marion and Fontrailles in which the latter assures that Cinq-Mars will be among them De Thou comes on looking unsuccessfully for Cinq-Mars. A nice and quiet air *.

46: There is some good orchestral interluding while the Conspirators await Cinq-Mars **.

48: The plot is hatched in a 9 minute grand conspiracy scene ***. They want blood for all of the nobles who have been unfairly executed by order of Richelieu. Cinq-Mars tells them that the following day the King’s brother will sign a treaty with the Spanish in which they promise troops to overthrow the Cardinal and restore the King as sole power in France. De Thous shows up warning Cinq-Mars of the dangers encouraged by aligning in the Spanish, but he throws in his fate with that of his friend. The act ends with a reprisal of the conspiracy chorus.

ACT 3: A forest in St. Germain before a chapel. (32 minutes)

1: After an introductory fest of hunting sounds in the distance and some strings brooding and lite there is an a cappella male hunting chorus *.

4: De Thou gets a really nice aria ** as he contemplates that Marie is about to arrive and wed Cinq-Mars in secret before his company.

6: Maria arrives and he tells her that they all just wait for Cinq-Mars to arrive, he does and the three engage in some pre-wedding fantasy before going into the chapel **. Very lyrical.

15: Pere Joseph and his spy Eustache come on.  More conspiracy as Cinq-Mars and the party come out of the chapel and they disperse not knowing that Pere Joseph is spying on them behind the trees. Even more conspiracy as Pere Joseph thinks about how Cinq-Mars will be punished for his treason. The aria is rather all over the place *.

20: Pere Joseph frightens Marie and tells her that Cinq-Mars has tricked her into marrying him. When this fails, in fact she upbraids him for it, he tells her that Cinq-Mars will be executed for treason once his treaty with the Spanish is discovered. But she can “save him” by leaving him and marrying the Polish king. It takes a while to warm up but eventually it just rises to the level of **. The Polish ambassadorial retinue is heard in this distance.

23: There is a fine chorus of villagers before the King asks Marie for her response to the Polish ambassador. Eventually but painfully Marie relents, thinking by doing so she will save her beloved. Making the Ambassador a tenor is a rather nice touch, and a fine march ends the act **.

ACT 4: A room in the castle of Pierre Encise where Cinq-Mars and De Thou are held. (20 minutes)

0: Prelude * includes some good chromatic modulations before Cinq-Mars wakes up in an arm chair from a rather lovely dream and De Thou tries to get him to stop thinking about what he believes is Marie’s betrayal. De Thou leaves to write a final letter.

4: Cinq-Mars’ fantasy about Marie and what might have been **. He kisses a locket with a portrait of her inside but eventually gets mad again and is about to throw the locket away.

10: Marie arrives and understands his thoughts of betrayal but also reveals that she has a plan to get him out of prison. They have some nice duetting to that romantic theme you will immediately recognize ** and then De Thou arrives and she reveals the plan: she has bribed the guards and a boat will be out front at dawn the following day to take everyone to Italy. But it is all not to be for within a minute of Marie leaving the order of execution is read out to that fetching tune from the overture. Now we are in parlando-land (speech over music or melodrama).

17: Suddenly the music changes as De Thou thinks about the young martyrs from the book in act one. Their unison prayer is the most beautiful passages in the score ***. The two young men go to the block, Marie returns and is held back by Pere Joseph from following them. She screams, faints, curtain falls.


There is relatively little great music here, especially when one considers the grandeur of the subject matter. Gounod does manage two great scenes: the conspiracy coven in act 2 and the final prayer for Cinq-Mars and De Thou in act 4, but the rest is really just good if not worse falling into the rather dull vein of Delibes-style French operettics which is serviceable and mildly entertaining but only just. There is an obvious mixture of operatic genres here that doesn’t come off all that well. Is it a deformed four act grand opera or an overblown opera comique? It is too short at less than two and a half hours to be a grand opera, but the subject matter is historical and the score classical in tone. There is something about all of this that just doesn’t jell in spite of the fact that Gounod tries and rather succeeds at period atmosphere (particularly in the act 2 divertissement). Much of the music is grand (the overture, Marie’s night song, the acts 2 and 3 finales) but it just never seems to come together. This might be why Meyerbeer dropped it after the first act, although the story also lacks a vital ingredient for Meyerbeer in that Cinq-Mars is not an outsider like Robert, Raoul, Jean or Vasco and only joins a rather silly conspiracy to oust Cardinal Richelieu over romantic complications. The conspiracy itself is rather dumb since it is all about keeping Marion Delorme in Paris so the court can continue to party at her salon! So maybe the problem lies in the libretto then? It doesn’t seem to be the story which would be perfect for a movie and thus perfect for an opera, nor in Gounod’s score which is almost invariably serviceable at worst and world-class at best. Maybe the story is spread too thin. The first and fourth acts act like a prologue and epilogue respectively. The second act is 40% of the total running time. The conspiracy is most concentrated in this one act. In the first act there is only a romantic complication and that martyrdom story foreshadowing everything would work better if the opera were say, four and a half hours rather than two and a half hours. De Thou does not act like Rodrigo to Cinq-Mars’ Don Carlos as the former doesn’t really need the latter so their relationship isn’t that mutual or as compelling. Alas a B, but no worse and in spite of all I’ve been going on about this opera is well worth a listen or two.

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