Opera en quatre actes. Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes.
The jacquerie was a bloody but short-lived (June to August) peasant revolt that took place in the Oise River valley of northern France (the river, which starts in Belgium, cuts Rouen off from direct access to Paris), in the summer of 1358 during the Hundred Years’ War. Incidentally, although the peasants were crushed by the nobles, this event connects to another opera on this blog, Saint-Saens’ Etienne Marcel, as he died during an ambush by royal guards on 31st July of that year. To this day, or at least up until the Second World War, the term jacquerie has been used in both French and English to describe underclass uprisings.
Both the score and the libretto went through multiple hands. Originally based on a free-verse (and free-formed) play by Prosper Mérimée (the writer of the short story which eventually became Carmen) the opera was expanded to include a love story between the peasant leader Robert and the aristocratic Blanche, daughter of the Comte de Sainte-Croix. After Lalo died after completing only the first act (mostly based on material from his then un-performed first opera, Fiesque, clue to a future review), Arthur Coquard was requested by Lalo’s widow, the famous contralto Julie Besnier de Maligny, to complete the score.
Premiering in Monaco, the opera received productions in Aix-les-bains and the Opera-Comique before vanishing for 120 years and a revival by Bru Zane. According to an essay by Michela Niccolai, it does not appear as if the score is the reason for the lack of success of the work, nor its characterizations. Almost uniquely, the sets (rather than the relatively non-existent plot), which are mostly under-descriptive fields and forest-clearings with only Madonna statues and castle walls as decor, may have proved to be too boring for audiences. Indeed, it appears as if the opera is better heard than seen (the score being rather consistently very good, although the terms “small” and “noisy” have been used to describe the opera), and Bru Zane, perhaps wisely, chose to stage only concert performances of the work, which proved successful.
SETTING: Northern France, May and June 1358. Robert (tenor) and Guillaume (baritone) lead the Jacquerie rebellion against Count de Saints-Croix (baritone) the father of Blanche (soprano) who is herself in love with Robert, whom, months before, she had nursed back to health in Paris, although she is engaged to the Baron de Savigny (tenor). Another important figure is Jeanne (mezzo-soprano) the farm-owning widowed mother of Robert who bears more than a similarity to Meyerbeer’s Fides. In the end, the Count is killed but the revolt is crushed by the nobles who manage to rescue Blanche. I will save the rest of the ending for the review.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: In front of the house of Jeanne in the village of Saint-Leu-de-Cerent, near the castle, towards evening. (22 minutes)
1: Grâce, pitié! After a gloomy (albeit appropriate, 24-bars of orchestral introduction starting with an oboe solo) the opening scene ** involves the rather unison chorus (this changes in the Coquard acts when the chorus embarks on counter-punctual work) and the Sénéchal, from whom mercy is begged as he collects dowry money for Blanche from the serfs as they have no money and will starve to death as a result. Jeanne is found to be unable to pay up (which leads to a lot of exposition about how her son Robert has gone to Paris to be educated), but is defended by Guillaume the woodcutter, who incites revolt by the serfs against Saints-Croix in a mild number. There is one theme, a three note fragment (F, G-natural, E) which later expands to six which appears three or four times at the beginning of the act and appears in various disguised forms throughout the score. It is very attractive.
8: Ce jour viendra Robert returns at this point and is recognized by everyone. He tells the villagers that they must stand up for theirselves * and is appointed leader of the revolution by the serfs. Robert tells them that they cannot continue speaking here and will all meet in the forest that night.
12: En rouvrant la paupière Jeanne asks Robert why he has not contacted her in so long: he was struck down by nobles in the street one night and almost died, but, in a rather lovely romance ** reveals that a beautiful noblewoman saved him and tended his wounds.
15: Allez! Prenez mes hommes The Count de Saints-Croix arrives with the Baron de Savigny (who mentions Etienne Marcel) and Blanche * (who goes into some background about herself, namely that she is convent educated and the Count, rather foolishly as it will turn out, believes that his castle is strong enough to protect him from the revolt already occurring in Paris).
18: Pourquoi ne pas l’aimer Blanche’s aria has a distinctive roaming theme in the strings ** as she reveals that she does not love the Baron and the Angelus bells toll the evening hours. Going over a lot of backstory of how she nursed an unknown man in Paris back to health and fell in love with him, although she does not know his name. She sees Robert with his mother (who begs him not to leave even though he is determined to do so) and realizes who he is, running away.
ACT 2: A clearing in the woods, a cross and an image of the Virgin Mary visible, later that night. (23 minutes)
0: Coquard starts off his majority of the score with a rather well constructed prelude with a distinctly military air **. It both could believably be by Lalo, or completely different at the same time.
2: Eh bien! Robert! The villagers ask Robert what they should do in the first counter-punctual music in the score **: he tells them to revolt, the nobles being preoccupied with suing the poor serfs for everything. The music for Robert from this point sits lower than it did in act one, although within the same range. They all swear an oath to help each other against the nobles.
7: Sont-ils plus durs Guillaume, goes even further in a rather good aria **, they should strike out against the nobles and overthrow them. There are two conflicting agendas: Guillaume wants blood, Robert wants justice, but the serfs are convinced that Robert (the moderate) should be their leader. Jeanne arrives and is horrified by the idea of Robert becoming the rebel leader.
10: O ma mere! Je t’en conjure! The second Jeanne-Robert scene starts off menacingly as she begs him not to become leader of the revolt, but changes to a gentle theme in the strings and woodwinds ** as, after Guillaume gets in on things, she reveals that she would happily be poor and hungry if she knew that Robert was safe at home with her again. Robert responds which some militant music which appears to be halfway between Le Prophete and Le roi d’Ys. She does not want her son to become a sacrifice.
19: Mais vois! Notre-Dame Marie Robert reminds his mother that the Virgin Mary allowed Jesus to be crucified, and this is enough for her to fall to her knees and the chorus joins her in a gentle Stabat Mater *. Robert calls on everyone to march on the castle. They march!
ACT 3: The Spring Fete at Chateau Saints-Croix, at about the same time as the events of Act 2 and shortly afterward. (34 minutes)
1: Danse noble After a brief prelude, the best number in the ballet is a long noble dance which sounds rather similar to the Pavane **.
7: Serenade Another mild passage as Blanche is given flowers by a page *.
9: Vive le Mai! What follows is an equally long, but pleasant, choral passage celebrating the beauty of Spring **, with interjections from the somewhat heartsick Blanche. The courtiers eventually leave the girl alone. In recitative, Blanche looks out the window and sees that Robert is coming to the castle.
16: Mon père! Not what one expects: the father-daughter duet for the Count and Blanche has a rather touching string underlining ** even though it might seem like it might not be the most human of moments, as he reveals how happy he is to finally be with her again after being separated from her for 15 years. Suddenly, distant scary voices are heard outside (the revolting serfs, sent by Robert). They think it is shepherds and Blanche leaves the room.
23, 26: Franchise! Franchise!/Prenez garde! The Seneschal (notice the English spelling) comes in telling the Count that the serfs are making demands and that Robert is their leader. The Count is furious, and initially dismissing of the serfs. The music is also initially low-temperature, albeit serviceable, until Blanche returns * and is horrified to see Robert, the man she is in love with, demand that her father sign away his seigneurial rights in exchange for his life.
28: Ni taille, ni corvée The act finale (really the climax of the opera ***): the Count refuses to sign away his rights, Robert is about to kill him when Blanche comes between them and Robert backs off, although Guillaume is certain this is because of Robert’s relationship with her (Robert even takes a direct public insult from her, which she addresses to the serfs although it is entirely about him, with his tail between his legs), and the Count is taken as hostage by the rebels as the castle is looted to a long but brilliant orchestral finish.
ACT 4: In front of a ruined chapel in the forest, a disheveled Blanche leaning against the door, wearing the coat of a peasant woman, Jeanne is seen walking around nearby, several days later. (38 minutes)
0: Another very energetic and well-crafted prelude **. Blanche is accompanied by an oboe (a reminder from the act one prelude?) as she reveals that her father is dead and that she can not understand why Robert let her live. Jeanne is frantic for news of Robert and upbraids Blanche, who has refused her help earlier (repeat of material from the act prelude).
8: Sans parler de tourment The two women confront each other **: Jeanne accuses Blanche of being the woman who ruined her gentle son, Blanche tells her that her son is the reason why she (Blanche) is now fatherless and destitute. Eventually they somehow call a truce as Jeanne declares that the rebellion will soon be crushed “Resistance is futile” the English translation of the libretto says, indicating that the Borg from Star Trek have arrived to defeat them. The two women pray to God to forgive all of the bloodshed. Blanche then falls asleep and Jeanne goes off to a placid orchestral interlude.
16: Blanche! Dieu, seule ici Blanche is found by Robert, who reveals that he had charged his mother with watching her. This turns into the second great romance for Robert ** as he contemplates the one thing he actually wants: the forgiveness of Blanche. She awakens, and after he asks for her forgiveness, refuses to give it. He begs in that way only tenors can, but still fails with Blanche even if musically it is a rather successful entreaty. He then guilts her, claiming that she will not forgive him, not because of her father’s murder (which he swears he had nothing directly to do with), but because he, a peasant, is in love with her (this actually turns out to be the truth, see below).
21: Guillaume! Arrives and declares that Robert is a traitor to the cause and in league with Blanche and the Seigneurs, vowing to see both of them hanged! Robert obviously denies all of this (because it isn’t true and Guillaume is going insane). He disappears, for a while. Musically the scene is a bit of a climax with its energy even if brief **.
23: Ah! Je suis maudit! Robert confirms to Blanche that they are both about to be executed by the jacquerie, which prompts Blanche to break her noble pretensions and declare her love (and forgiveness) for Robert, the imminence of death making them equals in the first half of their duet ***.
29: Etre enfin délivrés du poids The second half of the love duet *** is marred (by irony, not musically) somewhat by the shouts of the serfs calling for the hanging deaths of the lovers as they declare that by their martyrdoms they will fly to Heaven. Jeanne returns, shouting that the jacquerie have been vanquished by the nobles (orchestral intermezzo) and all is lost for Robert (although not Blanche since the nobles can rescue her now).
36: Mourir était si doux The finale * is a shockingly subdued affair: Robert takes a step towards Blanche when Guillaume, who had remained hiding in the chapel after the other jacquerie fled the scene, steps out of the shadows and stabs Robert in the heart in front of the two women and runs off. Robert tells Blanche it is for the best as he expires and his mother throws herself over his body, her worst fear having come true. Blanche decides to enter a convent for the rest of her life as the noble forces rush on to claim her to a repeated fanfare and otherwise no other musical pretensions. Perhaps it should be admired for how simple and grossly unassuming it is. Certainly it is one of the most minimalist tragic opera endings. Curtain.
If I can admire La jacquerie for anything, it would be that it is one of the most consistent operas I have ever reviewed in terms of average musical quality. Little of it is exceptionally great, but at the same time, almost none of it can be considered boring either (perhaps the encounter between Robert and the Count being the sole instance of ennui in a two hour score). It does have two high points, the siege of the castle at the end of act three (the brass work easily being the finest pages of the score) and the love duet in act four when the two leads, confronted and even comforted by death, are finally able to let their class-mindedness down and admit their true feelings. In terms of completing Lalo’s work, Coquard certain did the deceased composer a fine turn with much of the younger composer’s music (although Coquard was already 48 at the time) being well within the sound world of Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys. So the transition from one composer to the other is convincing. The finale is odd for how subdued it is that this must be deliberate.
As for the rest, the plot is a series of archaic tropes which were already moth worn by 1895 but which ironically plagued much of pre-Second World War cinema on both sides of the Atlantic. This is a revolt with a vague and mostly underdeveloped (until act four) across-class-boundaries love story appended to it. The settings, apart from act three, are dull, random outdoor scenes which could be exchanged for each other.
Of the characterizations, Jeanne is by far the most successful. She is proto-Fides (making her one of the few bulletproof opera characters along with Azucena and Amneris), which makes the tragedy ironically her’s rather than her son’s or his would-be lover’s (or the titular revolt itself for that matter). She is also the only character who actually has motivations that go beyond either the revolt or the love story, namely, trying to keep her son alive, while contributing to both of the two main plots. While the Count brings up his love for Blanche once in act three, and the fifteen years he waited to see her, he is also dead twenty minutes later, and the reference merely humanizes an otherwise underdeveloped supporting character. Robert is somewhat underdeveloped for a male lead and even more of a symbol for how moderates usually get killed faster than radicals than a flesh and blood human being. He is well educated, or better educated than the other serfs, but rarely seems to use any of that education. Blanche is the walking cliche of a convent-trained rich girl who feels guilty about wanting to go sex-slumming with the handsome revolutionary until at the end when they both wallow in a Tristan-esque case of love-death disease praising (as operatic characters so frequently do) the divine mercy that is human mortality. Guillaume is only successful in terms of his progressive insanity and violent outbursts (which is chartered well by both composers), the character is otherwise flat and really only serves to act as a more virulently radical contrast to Robert’s moderate revolution and, eventually, murder him. The other three characters (the Seneschal, the Count, and the Baron (who appears once, and only in music written by Lalo), are not given enough stage time to be developed in any way beyond being representations of concepts of fatherhood, the regime of feudalism, random dandy nobleman engaged to main female character who isn’t really in love with him because she has the hots for the handsome revolutionary, etc.). As I said in the intro, this is an opera better heard than seen.
Overall, a beta, maybe plus, but worth looking out for.
Score Available at Petrucci Library (available for download)
Article by Michela Niccolai: (can be downloaded from Bru Zane website at link)
Libretto from Bru Zane recording in French and English:
Leave a Reply