Ferdinand Herold: Le pre aux clercs (1832)

Opera Comique en trois actes. Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes. The recording under review is not the Bru Zane release but a live performance from Wexford with many of the same cast members as on that recording (the female soloists are all the same as is the tenor singing Cantarelli). It is about six minutes shorter but this appears to be due to the fact that the two recordings have different conductors and cuts to the dialogue here. The score is available in various versions at the Petrucci Music Library website. The featured image is from a chocolate box advertisement depicting the off stage duel in act 3.

PLOT: Etampes and Paris, 1572. There are seven primary characters: Nicette is the god-daughter of Marguerite de Valois and in engaged to Girot, owner of the infamous Pre aux clercs which is known as a rendez-vous for lovers and for duels. Marguerite is worried that her confidant Isabelle is being forced into marring the swordsman Comminge whilst being in love with the Huguenot nobleman de Mergy. Cantarelli is an Italian hired by the Queen-Mother as an entertainer who is also Isabelle’s deportment tutor and is blackmailed into acting as a go between by the three women. With three sopranos, three tenors, and a baritone among them, you know that romantic complications will ensue….



0: The overture is a jolly ride **. After some dramatics it scurries along before going mildly glum but it bounces back quickly with a marching tune before going back to the scurrying tune once more as it gets dramatic and after some more marching about it climaxes with sweet deliciousness.

ACT 1: Nicette’s inn. (39 minutes)

6: The first number is a rather Rossinian choral opener in which the people salute the engaged couple Nicette and Girot. It is jovial and happy, and starts us off on the right foot, but it isn’t much more than that *.

10: After Girot and Nicette give us some explanations: namely that Marguerite is her godmother only because she happened to be playing with her like a doll (Marguerite was two or three) when Nicette was a baby and wanted to go to church to attend the baptism and that her husband the king of Navarre owes Girot money for the last dinner he had at his inn the affianced couple has a cute duet about how once they are married they will do nothing but entertain the rich and the nobility at the Pre aux clercs, watch as young chevaliers duel and lovers have their trysts. It is a mild cart drive down a country road, albeit with a little coloratura from Nicette *.

18: After Mergy arrives, pays, mildly annoys Girot and successfully flirts with Nicette and reveals that since he is a Huguenot messenger of the King of Navarre, so she can serve him a chicken even if it is Friday, he gives us a fetching air ** with a slightly Beethovenesque quality as he fantasizes about meeting up with Isabelle again after so many years and, I’m not sure, finally get it on?

22: Girot rushes on as a band of soldiers with their corporal act like hellions all over the place. Things are made worse when Nicette comes in with the chicken and the soldiers decide to engage in some religious persecution (they call Mergy a “Calvin cow” among other things). It is a rather bouncy number and it lacks a great tune but you will like it *.

34: Cantarelli shows up in the midst of the previous number and in the following dialogue reveals himself to be Isabelle’s tutor and that she has only one suitor, Comminge. He also has no problem with eating chicken on Fridays. Mergy leaves after revealing to Cantarelli that he knows Isabelle. Comminge comes on and is annoyed by Cantarelli. Marguerite and Isabelle come on, the latter revealing how unhappy she is. She  hates everything about Marguerite’s lifestyle except for Marguerite herself. She also doesn’t want to be married off to Comminge. She wants to return to the land of her childhood, Bearn, or die **.

39: Mergy shows up and Marguerite notices the instant change in Isabelle: she becomes happy again. There is a shuffle in the music ** (the first of several in the next few minutes). Comming and Cantarelli show up and the same thing happens. Next, the chorus making up the royal hunting party show up. Marguerite reveals that she will give Nicette a dowry, but she must come to the palace to collect it. Girot is excited by this, naturally.

43: The last part is simply mad-cap as everyone except the lovelorn Isabelle and Mergy is ecstatically happy and dance out of the inn. Mergy remains alone at the door gazing at Isabelle as the curtain falls **.

ACT 2: A hall on the ground floor of the Louvre.

0: A sweet entr’acte that turns into a mini violin concerto *.

4, 8: Isabelle’s air of her childhood ** and her petition to God * to strengthen her so that she might only ever belong to Mergy if she is to belong to any man are rather lovely if the latter is rather dance-like and symbolically resembles Mergy’s air in the first act. She ends well with some fine coloratura though.

15: Marguerite comes on and tells Isabelle that she has to marry Mergy in secret. She enlists Cantarelli via blackmail (a letter with love poetry by Cantarelli found by the Queen’s page in the rooms of a marquise). Isabelle starts off a trio by reminding Cantarelli that it was he who has always instructed her to take hold of true love in the flower of ones youth so as to attain the most pleasure by it. It alternates between moments of * and **, but it finishes well.

25: Cantarelli gets into deep trouble by telling the enraged and jealous Comminge that Mergy is having an affair, but with Marguerite, not Isabelle. This is prompted by Comminge threatening to kill Cantarelli following a dinner date with Catherine da’Medici. When the music finally starts up again it is for an utterly amazing choral Masque *** as the debouched French court (including monks, astrologers, girls etc.) engage in a rather disgusting orgy. Nicette comes on and begs Cantarelli that they stop, Girot (bizarrely ashamed of her) makes excuses but Cantarelli is very sympathetic and ends up singing a low (for a tenor) A below low C. But still the court goes on with its rapidly vile drunken sexcapade. Marguerite encounters Cantarelli but then everything stops as Mergy arrives on the King’s orders to fetch Isabelle and everything freezes in time. The orgy has one last smaller outburst before fading away along with Mergy and Isabelle as to they attend to the King, leaving Marguerite and Nicette who plan to have Mergy and Isabelle married at the same time as Nicette and Girot (who will be married by Marguerite’s personal chaplain). Comminge returns and tells Marguerite that the King has ordered that he wed Isabelle. This causes her to fly into a rage and storm out of the room which confirms for Comminge that it is the Queen who is Mergy’s lover. When the latter returns Comminge reveals that he “knows” who Mergy is having an affair with and at first he does not mind but Mergy is disgusted by Comminge and challenges him to a duel.

39: The two men vow to kill the other at Pre aux clercs the following day ***. This could easily turn into a tenor scream fest as Cantarelli shows up and tells the two other men that Isabelle has almost fainted while dancing with the King. The courtiers lead her back to the hall, but then decide just as quickly to leave her alone until the party the following night. Isabelle sees Mergy and swoons, Marguerite tells Nicette to watch Mergy who tells the Queen that he is leaving the following day. Marguerite speaks privately to him which only convinces Comminge further of their having an affaire.

47: The end of the act ** is mass confusion. Marguerite tells Cantarelli to come with her and hear out her plot to get Isabelle and Mergy wed as Nicette, Girot, and the courtiers all anticipate the wedding. The two lovers are desolated and Comminge bent of blood.

ACT 3: The Pre aux clercs on the banks of the river Seine opposite the Louvre palace.

0: Slightly scary prelude music leads to a rather excited choral number that is not a hundred miles away from the masque in the previous act **.

3: Nicette comes on as mistress of the “domain” and when the Nightwatchman asks her for a dance she gives him and all present a five minute, three part rondo * about a village girl named Georgette who is taken by the seductive dance of a village boy named Robert. It is obviously filler, but it is entertaining. The Nightwatchman sees some boats and everyone leaves so that Nicette can get scolded by Girot but she ends up getting the upper hand when she tells him that her stares at Mergy are all a part of the Queen’s plan to have Mergy married off to Isabelle and that idiots like the Girot family should think twice when marrying the goddaughters of queens and that yes, the Queen did show up at the wedding and give Nicette her dowry, voila! They go off.

9: Mergy, Isabelle, and Marguerite come out of the chapel and declare that their vows have been declared to the most amazing patter trio ***. Cantarelli shows up and complains to the Queen that he hasn’t slept in 24 hours because the Queen-Mother forced him to sing until midnight. Mergy manages to get the two women to leave and tells Cantarelli that he is about to fight a duel with the dreaded Comminge.

14: The finale consists of almost ten minutes of musical madness beginning with the three tenors shouting at each other to the force-10 ** before an Officer arrives and tells them that dueling is illegal and they had better go off further away from the view of the Louvre. Cantarelli tries to run away but Comminge grabs him and they are all off to the duel.

19: The Officer and two nightwatchmen have some interjections before a chorus of night watchmen show up *.

20: Marguerite, Isabelle, Nicette, and Girot all show up and deliver what I think is a barcarolle ** as they wait for Mergy to show up. The two nightwatchmen check to see if the man they have wrapped up in Cantarelli’s cloak is dead or not (but which of the other two men is it?).

22: The last seventy seconds of the opera a lot happens all at once ***: Cantarelli shows up in a sweat and tries to explain what has just happened. Comminge’s has just fought a duel with–Mergy–general panic as all assume for around two seconds that it is Mergy under the cloak when guess who shows up calling his wife’s name and there is general rejoicing as the two, now married, lovers must flee to Navarre guided by Cantarelli as the Queen, Nicette and Girot tell them to get out quick and the chorus goes into one last dance of musical splendour as the curtain falls.


This is a crazy opera. Not that that is a bad thing. Even the one star items here are rather good, just in comparison to the rest they are more low temperature. The chorus, particularly while depicting the royal court in the last two acts, is rather rapacious but Herold provides them with such musical marvellousness that one can easily forgive. Easily Mergy gets the best of the solo music, although all three of the female roles and Cantarelli appear to be rather the pleasure to sing (although in the latter case what is up with that extremely low A?). The plot is mad-cap and even at its greatest moments of pathos (Isabelle’s air in act 2) one always knows they are in the world of French musical comedy and not, inspire of the surroundings, tragic grand opera. I must mention though that Comminge’s death does appear rather haphazard and a bit sad and rushed even if he was such a hothead. The dialogue does get a little tiring after a while as much of the plot is forwarded by it, sometimes at stretches exceeding eight minutes at a time. In fact, I am not so sure this could not be termed an operetta. The attempt at historical religious conflict is thankfully kept to a minimum but the parallels that can be made with Meyerbeer’s later opera Les Huguenots are more than well founded. Overall I am inclined more towards an A- than an A but I don’t know, it might be worth the solid grade. In any case this opera is sure to provide one with a good evening of musical theatre. It is rather a bit of a shame that this work doesn’t get more of an airing out than it does, it really does deserve more. It is a high spirited work, with engaging and likeable characters (some of whom being historical) and well worth at least two hearings.

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