Francois Andre Danican Philidor: Tom Jones (1766)

Opera-Comique in three acts (here performed in English but originally in French). Running Time: 2 hours.

OperaScribe reviewed this opera in June and I ended up enjoying it so much that I decided to review it myself (he has also been complaining that I don’t do any 18th century operas).

Do not expect the raunchiness of the 1963 film, nor of the 1744 novel by Henry Fielding, the plot of the operetta consists essentially of a condensing of the main romantic entanglement and the inheritance issue. None of the politics or rampant sexuality of the original story are here (no one gets raped or has a secret mistress, and there isn’t any Jacobite conspiracy to convert England back to Roman Catholicism either).

SETTING: England, 1740s. Lord Western (bass-baritone) lives with his sister Lady Western (mezzo-soprano) and daughter Sophia (soprano), on a grand estate in Somerset. Their neighbour, Allworthy, wants Sophia to marry his nephew and heir Blifil (tenor) but she is in love with Tom Jones (tenor) who everyone (women and men) finds irresistible for some reason (except for Lady Western), especially Honoura (soprano) the companion of Sophia. Tom is apparently the illegitimate older half-brother of Blifil, although some secret letters may prove otherwise.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A room in the house of Lord Western. (41 minutes)

0: The overture *, is rather typical of its era but charming. It consists of a single repeated, rising, movement. A good mood setter at least.

4: Que les devoirs que tu m’imposes The opera opens with an exposition duet ** in which Sophia and Honoura comment on how the former dislikes her noble duties and responsibilities. It has a very warm string accompaniment and a skippy little tune.

9: Oui, toute la vie Tom expresses his sexual desire to possess Sophia ** (actually the aria was originally assigned to Honoura, but was obviously switched to the tenor because of its rather graphic sensual content, which might come off as comical or even mocking from a soprano).

14: Ah, j’aime assez cette finesse Auntie Western already knows that Sophia is in love *, the question is only with whom?

18: D’un cerf dix cors, j’ai connaissance Lord Western recounts the circumstances of the hunt *. In the last minute it turns into a sextette with Jones and the other hunters.

27: Ah, quel plaisir je me promets Lord Western and his sister agree with each other: Sophia will marry Blifil, in spite of the fact that during the hunting song it was Jones who picked up her handkerchief. Lord Western excitedly revels in revealing to his daughter that she will have her hearts desire ** in a very brief arioso, although how this will benefit him more than her is up to debate. He then talks with Allworthy.

31: Ah, ma tante, je vous prie Sophia places herself in the mercy of her aunt **.

38: No, rien me peut retenir The revelation that Sophia loves Jones and not Blifil enrages her aunt and the act ends with a rage duet between the two women *.

ACT 2: The gardens of the Western estate. (38 minutes)

5: Amour, quelle est donc ta puissance In a dialogue (preceded by a brief and mild entr’acte), Blifil and Quaker Dowling (a spoken role) discuss some secret letters, and Dowling upbraids Blifil for being willing to marry a woman that a) he does not love and b) who he knows his brother is in love with. After they leave, Tom is left to a rather beautiful love song *** as he reflects on his feelings.

9: La pauvre fillette a beau faire. Honoura reveals that she knows everything and that she will help him win Sophia because she (Sophia) truly loves only Jones *. She herself ends up stealing a kiss from him because even she fancies him.

12: Plus d’une fois, tandis qu’à la maison Lord Western catches them and gives Tom a rather raunchy lecture about how to romance women (which seems to involve raping them) **. This is perhaps the most Handel-esque number in the piece. He reveals to Tom that Sophia is to marry Blifil (which horrifies him).

20: De l’opulence, de l’abondance Blifil really can’t believe that Sophia is in love with him, but he promises to give her what she wants (or rather, what he thinks she wants) *.

24: C’est à vous que je dois la vie Sophia tries to explain ** to her father that he has made a mistake: she does not want Blifil, she wants Tom!

28: A ton pere, tu ne crains pas de déplaire? Lord Western is infuriated * and, thinking that she and his sister tricked him, orders that Sophia must marry Blifil today in spite of the fact that she would rather be dead. Tom returns and Western tries to get him to convince Sophia.

31: Vous voulez que je vous oublie? Tom reveals his total devotion to Sophia, he wants only her and always has ***.

35: C’est vous mon pére Tom is caught by Western and is expelled by Allworthy in a big septette ***, the first time in which all the singers are on stage and a proto-type to later climactic operatic ensembles.

ACT 3: A tavern in Upton. (37 minutes)

0: The act opens with a long orchestral prelude **: Honoura has helped Sophia to escape before her wedding and the two women seek shelter in an inn where Tom is staying and Quaker Dowling just happens to be the owner of same. Four Scottish soldiers sing an a cappella drinking chorus.

8: Ami, qu’en mes bras je presse Tom begs Dowling to help him ***: he has been casted out and has no home because of the revelation of his love for Sophia. Dowling asks him if Blifil witnessed his ruination (Tom confirms this). Dowling promises to tell Allworthy the truth.

16: O toi qui ne peux m’entendre Sophia and Honoura arrive at the tavern, they decide to leave by dawn and Sophia is left alone to embark on a long recitative which eventually gives life to an aria **.

20: Je vous retrouve, ma Sophie! Tom fights off the Scottish soldiers and discovers that Sophia and Honoura are the ladies he has been defending. The lovers embark on a reconciliation duet **. Dowling returns and has Tom and the ladies hide separately.

25: Western and Allworthy both show up. Eventually Blifil comes on and tries to get his uncle to confirm that he is to marry Sophia *. Dowling reveals that Tom is the son of Allworthys sister by her first, secret marriage. Thus Tom is in fact his true heir (since he has no children of his own).

31: Je vous obtiens, vous qui m’ètes si chere The concluding vaudeville ** in which the characters (excluding the disgraced Blifil) express their happiness before the final curtain.

COMMENTS:

Tom Jones is, when performed in English, essentially a glorified operetta. The only real conflict is a romantic complication which Sophia constantly tries to explain away throughout the opera, well, except for the whole situation with the letters (which only really factors twice in the show). None of the historical context of the original novel is here: no Jacobite revolt, relatively little of the classism, and added is a subplot about Lady Western being some sort of royal political advisor. Never once is the notion that Tom has betrayed Sophia (she never passes out like Susannah York), and the only real villain in the piece (Blifil) isn’t really much of one. Allworthy is rather lacking in character, he just sort of exists, whereas Honoura has a full personality beyond her being  a confidant to Sophia. Lord Western has an almost stereotyped obsession with hunting which is amusing but can get a little exhausting (his lecture to Tom about treating women like fillies you can have sex with in the bushes is a little weird). The best music goes to Tom, which is fine, although the second act finale is a rather grand piece, far closer to 19th century opera than the final vaudeville. The the final scene at the inn is going to be parodied throughout the next one hundred and fifty years of musical theatre, all the way up to Der Rosenkavalier and beyond) An alpha.

One thought on “Francois Andre Danican Philidor: Tom Jones (1766)

  1. Good on you for reviewing an 18th century opera! I’m slightly surprised, though, that you like this one so much. It’s OK, but not in the league of Monsigny or Grétry. Are you a Fielding fan?

    Like

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