Charles Gounod: Sapho (1851)

Opera in three acts. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes.


This is the review I started in August 2017 before getting an hour into the opera and then abandoning it, so if the writing style seems odd at the beginning, that is why.

This is testament to Gounod’s compositional style throughout his operatic career which was so consistent that he was able to make an equally unsuccessful revision (in four acts) of this opera in the mid-1880s because his style of composition had not changed over the course of the intervening forty years! I have been stalling on this for so long, that the United States premiere occurred in November 2018, then Covid hit the planet, and I still have just now gotten around to finishing this! I feel bad about this, especially since I promised OperaScribe to publish my review of this opera several times, as early as late 2017, and that obviously never happened. Hopefully this late submission makes some amends for the oversight.

This was Gounod’s first opera and it sounds only slightly like a French Grand Opera in the Meyerbeer vein. In fact it apparently has more in common with Gluck and Mozart! If anything it is remarkably classical both in structure and musically, even a little stilted, although the music is mostly through-composed even though it the score is divided into numbers The only recordings of the opera, this is of the 1979 performance with Alain Vanzo as Phaon, appear to be of the original three-acts version, although Gounod expanded the opera in the late-1880s to four-acts. French Wikipedia has an error, claiming that Pol Plancon sang the first Pittacus in April 1851, when he was not even born (much less became a bass) until June 1851. He created the role in the expanded revision which was first performed in 1884 (which has never been recorded).

Oddly enough, although I just recently got back to this one, much of the first act has stuck in my brain for years.

PLOT: The Olympic Games and Lesbos around 600 B.C.E. Sapho (mezzo) wins a song contest over the famed Alcée (baryton-martin). Meanwhile, her lover Phaon (tenor) is trying to overthrow a tyrant named Pittacus (unseen) but falls to the wiles of the courtesan Glycere (soprano), who turns out to be a double agent who frames Phaon’s friend Pytheas (bass) by informing Pittacus with information from him herself.

ACT 1: Before the temple of Jupiter (!) at the Olympic Games. (52 minutes.)

0: The prelude starts off brassy and starchy but is overcome by a singular lovely and stately melody as the assembly solemnly processes in **.

3: O Jupiter! Opening chorus *, also to the same stately melody. Another chorus, male, sounds like it was dropped out of a Meyerbeer opera. This is followed by another full chorus, more sober but still fine.

12: Puis-je oublier Pytheas, pretending to be Phaon’s friend, has an okay aria that keeps on getting interrupted by Phaon, much of it slightly more than recitative. The orchestral accompaniment is better than the singing until Phaon gets his own little solo ** about Glycere, it is like floating down the river in a small boat on a quiet cool day. Wait for the high B. The basic conflict of the plot is Phaon’s struggle to either be a freedom fighter or a lover, and if the latter, to which of two different women? Pytheas is himself in love with Glycere.

17: Voila Sapho Sapho arrives to a lovely chorus (with a soprano soloist Coryphée) ** invoking Apollo, and recognizes her rival Alcée with mutual grace and respect.

24: Quand de choisir elle me presse Glycere’s song of jealousy leads to a very lovely quartet * led by Phaon, who had earlier been in conversation with Sapho in front of Pytheas.

26: Salut Alcée! A chorus of young men announces the arrival of Alcée *. Alcée is performed by a baryton-martin, a French fach that is written like a tenor part in treble clef but has a stronger range in the lower notes, down to C3, just like a tenor.

30: O puissant Jupiter What follows is a very intense, well orchestrated, well, it is something more than recitative leading to a stately chorus * of priests. Alcée is called by the bass herald and comes out.

34: Liberté, déesse austère Alcée’s song ** is immensely stately and about liberty and the destruction of tyranny, very popular with the masses. The music throughout most of the opera so far sounds like more richly orchestrated Mozart but it is really great. The people love it too!

38: Héro sur la tour solitaire Sapho is called by the tenor herald to an angelic accompaniment. She takes a moment to begin but when she does it is amazing *** in spite of the snaps in the recording (sorry guys). Alcée’s song was great, but Sapho is simply amazing, the song itself is an interesting choice: Hero and Leander, might seem slightly odd, other than to foreshadow the lethal jump at the end of the opera.

46: Fille d’Apollon The acclaim from the song gives way to another priestly chorus, this time not so priestly but with a good brass accompaniment **. Glycere leaves, cursing the successful Sapho while Phaon declares his undying love for the poetess.

47: Merci, Vénus Sapho invokes Venus as the finale just rises and rises until it crescendos ** as Sapho triumphs, Alcée accepts defeat, and the chorus acclaim the wonders of mezzo marvellousness.

ACT 2: Phaon’s villa on Lesbos. (39 minutes)

0: Gloire a Bacchus! The introduction to this act is another classical male chorus that sounds so much like Mozart **. This time it is a drinking chorus at Phaon’s villa, which is a cover for a conspiracy meeting to assassinate Pittacus.

6: Oui, jurons tous Alcée shows up and he and Phaon and Pytheas vow to kill the wicked tyrant Pittacus **, the chorus joins them to make the number even more effective.

11: Il m’aurait plu Glycere arrives and she and Pytheas plot to foil the assassination attempt. She offers him a sexual rendezvous in exchange for all of the information in a duet * which could have popped out from a Mozart opera. It goes into two arioso passages for Glycere and then Pytheas, but otherwise, it is just attractive pseudo-Mozart. Glycere, having purchased Phaon’s secrets in exchange for a night with Pytheas, forwards the news to Pittacus via a slave.

23: Cruelle! que vous ai-je fait? The Glycere-Sapho duet (the latter showing up for a rendezvous with Phaon) in which Glycere deceives Sapho into promising to refuse to flee with Phaon in exchange for not revealing the assassination plot to Pittacus (which she has already done), is a rather sad affair *. It is dramatic, and the poor Sapho is left even more bewildered than before, but the music seems to take forever to musically consummate in a furious movement just moments before Phaon returns to meet with Sapho.

28, 32, 38: Phaon!/O douleur qui m’oppresse!/Viens, fuyons ces lieux Glycere declares that Pytheas has betrayed Phaon, who then begs Sapho to flee with him into exile, and she (maintaining her promise with the unworthy Glycere) refuses. This infuriates him *, prompting two trio movements closing the act as Glycere leaves with Phaon instead after Sapho lies to him, saying she does not love him *. The second is much more furious ** and ends the act.

ACT 3: Cliffs overlooking the sea surrounding Lesbos. (25 minutes)

0: The act consists of five sections: The first is a dark prelude which seems like parts of it ended up in Faust *.

4: O jours heureux The second is an aria for Phaon ** in which he says farewell to Lesbos and his love for Sapho. It is straight up Donizetti, even down to the solo clarinet and flute in the delicate opening movement, as he waits on the other conspirators so they can all flee. The second movement is far more furious.

10: Adieu patrie Third: One by one, the conspirators (including Glycere, who is determined to have Phaon for herself) arrive for embarkment in a slow choral number **. Sapho arrives, although she and Phaon have no verbal exchange, and the group departs, leaving Sapho alone. (A section, in which Glycere convinces Phaon to verbally curse Sapho, while she gives him her blessing, has been cut). Sapho faints after the group departs.

14: Broutez le thym A soprano/boy shepherd comes on to provide the opera with its only filler number *.

18: O ma lyre immortelle The finale consists of Sapho reviving and gives us one of the most bittersweet arias ever written as she takes up her immortal lyre ***, and then, like Hero, casts herself into the sea in despair of her lost love. Gounod does a brilliant job here using the timpani and brass to invoke a sense of impending death, balanced with the romanticism of the strings and woodwinds. One of the finest mezzo-soprano arias on the books. Curtain.


The best thing about Sapho is its attractive score. The worst things are how derivative that score is coupled with its nebulous plot. Also, does anyone else find this opera rather rushed? I know Gounod added an act forty years later, (which expands the role of Pittacus and includes a ballet) but didn’t it always seem like it was missing something?

The main conflict of the opera (the plot against Pittacus) has nothing to do with Sapho herself at all. In fact, apart from her Olympic gold in poetry, her entire contribution to the narrative up until her glorious suicide scene is in the romantic sub-plot as a rather weak rival to the wicked Glycere.

The score is a bizarre mixture of Gluck, Mozart, Meyerbeer, and Donizetti and has all the signs of what it is: a first-timer score, albeit the work of an already master orchestrator. The compositional technique is already there, and there are probably more great melodies here than in any future Gounod score possibly excluding Faust, but the theatrical virginity of the composer is just as equally obvious. This last point, at least, is understandable, and what Gounod provides (although lacking any sense of originality or individual voice throughout his operatic career, since his style literally never changed even though he lived for another 44 years) is something which any but the most opera-proof will find enjoyable listening.

The first act in particular will stick in the mind long after listening, and of course, there is the suitably immortal O ma lyre immortelle. Although, I would like to highlight the work Gounod provides to Phaon in this score. It is more than just ornamental, which is more than I can say for Glycere who is more of the typical French soprano supporting foil to the mezzo lead. Alain Vanzo’s performance here as Phaon is probably the highlight of the 1979 recording since his was the only world-class name attached to this performance.

Although it cannot be anything but a beta, I dare anyone to actually musically dislike this one. Even if what goes on on stage is as static as a Greek tragedy (which, given the material, isn’t inappropriate), the music is sure to provide a good couple hours of attractive background sound and the two mezzo numbers are objectively first class.

Yes, your lyre is immortal Sapho, immortal!

One response to “Charles Gounod: Sapho (1851)”

  1. I think the structure of the song contest was good.


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