Opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes (without ballet).
The ultimate wicked stepmother story, this one has a convoluted history, but first I want to introduce the main composer. Ernest Guiraud was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1837. At the age of 15, while on a trip to Paris with his father (who had won the Prix de Rome ten years before his son was born, father and son came upon a three-act libretto about King David. Ernest set this libretto to a score which turned out to be a massive success in New Orleans before he even turned 16! If Guiraud is remembered at all today, however, it would be for writing and orchestrating recitatives for both Carmen and The Tales of Hoffman. Guiraud was also working on orchestrating Kassya before his death in May 1892, a project which was eventually taken over by Massenet. Next to it was Fredegonde a grand opera in five acts based on a six-act (!) play entitled Brunhilde by Louis Gallet set during the Merovingian Civil War in the 6th century Frankish kingdom of Neustria, the name the Franks gave to their newly conquered western territory in what is today northern France. Although Queen Brunhilda of Austrasia is the primary character (and the soprano role) in order to avoid confusion with The Ring Cycle the opera was renamed for the mezzo-soprano (and secondary) Fredegonde. However, I am willing to bet here that the tenor (Merowig) gets the best music in the score.
Guiraud only completed the first three acts of Fredegonde, and then only in short (piano/vocal) score, although this is around 60% of the score. These would be orchestrated by Paul Dukas. The last two acts, along with the act three ballet and the prelude to act one, were newly composed and orchestrated by Camille Saint-Saens. The opera received nine performances between December 1895 and February 1896 and appraisal of the work was that the Guiraud music, which is of a military and even Wagnerian (the love duet quotes Tristan) nature, was inferior both to himself and to Saint-Saens, the work being uneven in inspiration and structurally, the audience was left unsure for whom they should be siding, the Neustrians or Austrasians (spoiler, the villain wins, making the plot even more confusing, if historically semi-accurate). There are also some issues with pacing, as the title character (for instance) only appears in a single scene (Act 1 Scene 4) until Act 4! The opera is also lopsided: the first three acts take about 80 minutes whereas the last two are only about 42 minutes. However, inserting the intermission here does properly separate the Guiraud and Saint-Saens contributions (although the ballet does appear to be cut).
The opera then languished until 2017 when it was produced in Saigon, Vietnam (as evidenced by two videos on YouTube amounting to about 16.5 minutes of music from acts 1 and 2), and then on 20 November 2021, when it was produced at Dortmund, Germany by Palazetto Bru Zane in a Covid-friendly version which was lived streamed (the basis of this review).
Why Vietnam? According to an article by one Bradley Winterton from 2017, Saint-Saens actually completed the score in Saigon, and orchestrated the last two acts with gong, tam-tam, and some pseudo-orientalist woodwind work (the act five prelude).
Much of the information in this post is taken from the German Wikipedia article on the opera, which I had translated into English.
SETTING: Paris and Rouen, 577 C.E.. The plot revolves around the two women in the cast attempting to get what they want. Brunhilda of Austrasia (soprano) wants revenge on King Hilperic (baritone) of Neustria and his wife Queen Fredegonde (mezzo-soprano) for the murder of her sister Gailswintha, who was the wife of the half-brother of Hilperic, Sigibert (now deceased), and who was himself the lover of Fredegonde before she married Hilperic, with whom she has two sons. Hilperic has an older son by his first marriage who is his heir, Merowig (tenor) and Federgonde is determined to have him disinherited and her own elder son declared heir to the throne. There are two other important characters: Pretextat (bass) the bishop of Rouen who marries Merowig and Brunhilde in act three (the two start a revolt against Hilperic which results in both women getting what they want: indirect revenge and their son on the throne, respectively), and the Austrasian poet Fortunatas (tenor) who eventually becomes a monk. Brunhilda has added reason for revenge on Fredegonde after the latter demands that her husband crown her with a tiara belonging to Brunhilda (Act 1 Scene 4).
VIDEO: The music starts at 13:55 and there is a 35 minute long intermission interview between acts 3 and 4 which is the reason why the video is an hour longer than the opera. (If the links do not work, it is also on Opera on Video.com)
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Paris, a richly decorated hall in the Thermes (Baths) of Cluny, a throne set up for Queen Brunhilda. (28 minutes)
3, 6: Brunhilde va venire/Hommage a Brunhilde After a two and a half minute prelude pregnant with brassy wondering gloom (very obviously Saint-Saens as it will be repeated for the judgement chorus in act five), the opening chorus has a single solid march tune * and the opening poem in praise of Brunhilda by Fortunatas provides it with a very lilting contrast **. Brunhilda congratulates him on his gift for flattery, and then goes into the reasons why she wants revenge on Hilperic and Fredegonde. There is one passage when the strings go up (nearly a quarter hour in) which is worth looking out for.
16: Alerte! Alerte! The alarm chorus * as Brunhilda hears that Hilperic and Fredegonde have invaded her territory and are breaking into her palace. The transitional battle sequence is heavily chromatic as the wicked king and queen show up and terrorize Brunhilda.
26: Et maintenance publique Far from being a concert number, the finale consists of a series of monologues: first Fredegonde, then Hilperic, then Brunhilda. Fredegonde takes the crown from Brunhilda as an act of humiliation (as Hilperic stripes her of all but her titles), to which Merowig reacts by slowly falling in love with Brunhilda. Finally, at the very end, Hilperic sets off some jubilant gloating chorusing from the Neustrians before the curtains falls *.
ACT 2: Gardens of the Baths of Cluny, Ile de Paris. (20 minutes)
0: The introduction * has two themes (one lilting, the other tragic).
1: Son front porte le poids A lovely aria for Merowig ** (I suspect that he gets the best music). It sounds strangely familiar and is unmistakably French. Merowig and Brunhilda embark on a stop and go duet, very tender. This is followed by more marshall music as Landeric, a servant of Hilperic, arrives with orders for Merowig to bring Brunhilda to Rouen. He tells him to get out. Brunhilda returns, asking if they are leaving that evening.
16: The remainder of the act consists of a continuation of the duet between Merowig and Brunhilda as they slowly realizes that they love one another and their mutual situation: both realize that Fredegonde would love to get rid of them (Brunhilda could easily be killed in a convent in Rouen, Merowig through some other means). Things finally really start to heat up at this point as Merowig declares his love **, which is reciprocated by Brunhilda.
ACT 3: A village near Rouen, monastery promanent. (30 minutes)
0: The act starts off with a fanfare, and turns more military *.
2: Although we are surrounded by military men, the fact that they are supposed to be relaxing, playing cards, and talking about how annoying Hilperic is does make the music seem a little overboard. Nevertheless it is rousing *.
5: Amis, jai tant couru le monde Fortunatas decides to join the monastery (and it is implied that he tries to initiate a homosexual relationship with the Bishop of Rouen, so that is a thing apparently). In any case the aria itself is rather good **. Merowig and Brunhilda show up, ready to be married by the Bishop. Fortunatas tells them that the Bishop will arrive shortly.
11: Voici le saint évêque The Bishop of Rouen arrives and the chorus and orchestra go into a more religious mode **. The Bishop goes into a long aria about how by marrying Brunhilda, Merowig is violating the authority of his father, but Merowig is against his step-mother, Fredegonde, not his father. With that, the Bishop agrees to marry the couple.
21, 23: Marche religieuse/Pange, lingua, gloriosi The next number is a solemn and lovely march (possibly the best music written by Guiraud for the opera ***) followed by a series of choruses (the first religious, the second a rather sedate chorus ** (with a good high note from Fortunatas). The alarm fires are lit in the distance as the army of Hilperic approaches for the battle the following day (this closing war chorus, and the cut ballet are actually by Saint-Saens and we transition rather quickly out of what Guiraud finished).
ACT 4: Same as Act 1, but with the throne moved. (15 minutes)
1: O Fredegonde, o ma beauté! Hilperic has a cantabile * before embarking on his duet with Fredegonde which basically is the entirety of the act. The music has taken on a new tone (logically since Saint-Saens has taken the reigns). The leitmotif system Guiraud had developed in the first three acts is missing. Instead, although there is still an intensity, it is more dreamlike, less forward or direct.
7, 13: The Fredegonde-Hilperic duet * is plot important as she convinces him to order Merowig to a monastery (which would be impossibly now seeing that he is consummating his marriage to Brunhilda) and make her son his heir. Fredegonde gets a happy little song after he swears to this plan *.
ACT 5: Rouen, the sanctuary of Saint-Martin Monastery gardens and borderline. (27 minutes)
0: The introduction is very obviously oriental if you notice **. A watery piece, albeit short and immediately going into an arioso for the now monk Fortunatas. Brunhilda and Merowig come on for a lovely duet, and later trio. Fortunatas warns the couple not to cross the sanctuary borderline. This scene is very gentle, a sharp contrast to the Guiraud music. The Bishop arrives and tells Merowig that Hilperic is asking for peace talks with him. Merowig and Brunhilda leave and Fredegonde arrives and warns the Bishop not to side against her. He tells her that he is no ones enemy.
12: Marche One of the better pieces ** another march as Hilperic arrives and speaks with Merowig and the finale begins. Brunhilda warns her husband that all of this is just a trap. Merowig foolishly submits to his father. Hilperic asks if Merowig should be pardoned or sent to a monastery. Only the Bishop of Rouen pleas for forgiveness, the others for the monastery (the opening theme from the prelude to act one is repeated here). Everyone, except Fredegonde, has forgotten about executing Merowig. Saint-Saens starts to quote earlier parts of Guiraud here. Merowig and Brunhilda beg for mercy, but there will be none. The Bishop threatens excommunication as Saint-Saens embarks on some stock orchestration, but gets arrested. Merowig curses Fredegonde for taking away his father, his wife, and his freedom from him, and stabs himself to death with his own war knife (his last words, and that of the libretto, are Triumph in your cruelty), dying in the arms of the obviously devastated Brunhilda as Fredegonde triumphs and Saint-Saens really makes a hash of it.
There is so much that is wrong with this opera and with this production generally.
I do not like the silent film concept used here. A better idea would have been to recreate the original sets (the designs for acts one, four, and five are available online) and make the entire production very bright if sparsely populated (there are 12 soloist roles, but six are brief and could be doubled by the choral bass section) that leaves six major soloists and add around a dozen female chorus singers and six to eight tenors and the entire production could be done with around 36 singers in total. The plot is depressing (and that is putting it mildly) and it is confusing as to where our loyalties lay (Fredegonde is evil, but she also wins, Brunhilda is oddly not portrayed strongly enough by either composer which is a fatal flaw because she is the only person who remotely stands up to Fredegonde, the male characters being heavily passive and even victimized). The music is inconsistent (although given that two different composers worked on the score, an allowance must be made for this) with the Saint-Saens coming off as even more vague, dry, and stock than the Guiraud (I actually prefer the frenzied nature of the Guiraud music).
The Guiraud music is, however, around three or four decades in the past and strongly in the realm of grand opera. He seems to have been most inspired by the Merowig-Brunhilda relationship and the two tenor soloists get probably the best of the vocal music although there are a few very good orchestral pieces in acts two and three. The archaic nature of the first three acts probably alienated audiences in 1895. The Saint-Saens is frankly Saint-Saens with mildly orientalist pretensions. It is studious, but often dry (act four in particular although Saint-Saens drags out act five far too long in my personal opinion). However, the Saint-Saens orchestration is by far more sophisticated than that of the Guiraud music.
I am not sure where to classify this opera. The plot is a depressing gamma, the score more of a beta in places. It is worth listening to at least once, although my taste would be closer to the Saigon production. The darkness of the Dortmund production only amplifies the depression of the story, and masks its historicity (most of the characters were real people, and the rivalry of Fredegonde and Brunhilda is the stuff of French historical legend). I can understand why this has only been produced three times in the last 127 years. It is about as depressing as the death of Brunhilda, aged 70, being quartered by horses on the orders of the son of Fredegonde (who had died over a decade earlier).
I would have also liked to have heard the ballet!
“Ernest Guiraud”, English Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Guiraud.
“Fredegonde”, German Wikipedia. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frédégonde.
Winterton, Bradley. “Why Fredegonde?” The Saigon Times (copied to UnsungComposers, Reply #3 August 6, 2018), original article published October 9, 2017. http://www.unsungcomposers.com/forum/index.php?topic=6931.0