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Emmanuel Chabrier

Ansermet conducts ‘L’Étoile’

1941. Studios of Swiss Radio, Geneva
A studio relay of Chabrier's opera 'L'Etoile' made by Ernest Ansermet in the Studios of Swiss Radio in 1941
Composer Emmanuel Chabrier
Conductor Ernest Ansermet
Singer Ninon Vallin
Ensemble Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Genre Opera

Charming craziness: L’Étoile

France has always been a hierarchical country and ill at ease with those who blur
the accepted boundaries. Emmanuel Chabrier was one such. He was born in 1841
at Ambert in the Auvergne, a district traditionally useful in providing Parisians with
cheese, cabbage and men to mend the boiler. Arriving in Paris in 1856, he did not
follow custom by studying at the Conservatoire or even at any of the less
prestigious musical institutions. He was almost entirely self-taught, studying the
scores of the masters, including Wagner, whose Tannhäuser Overture he copied out
‘in order to learn orchestration’.

He was a quick learner too. The year 1883 produced España, which must, one
supposes, be termed a ‘symphonic poem’, though one that owed very little to Liszt
or Saint-Saëns. It was the result of several months spent in Spain the previous year
and demonstrated, in the view of his friend Henri Duparc, an individual style of
orchestration that seemed to come from nowhere. But, curiously for such a well-read
man, in the years before his death in 1894 he never learnt to tell a good
libretto from a bad one, and lavished some of his most beautiful music on Le roi
malgré lui, whose libretto has resisted all attempts at rescue. Of the four operatic
works he finished, the first, L’Étoile, has by far the sharpest and most effective plot.
But even here, the boundaries between operetta and opéra-comique are blurred, even
the craziest moments of the story being infused with music of sublime lyricism.

Chabrier earned a living initially as a civil servant, before a visit to Bayreuth
persuaded him of his vocation as a composer, and he was regarded by his superiors
as competent and punctilious (with particularly clear and beautiful handwriting – a
boon to later biographers).These qualities are among the many to be found in his
setting of L’Étoile.The librettists Leterrier and Vanloo had made a name
collaborating on two operettas with Charles Lecocq, and it was hearing some of
Chabrier’s songs and piano pieces at a salon that made them think he was the man
to set L’Étoile. The work was premiered on 28 November 1877 at the Théâtre des
Bouffes-Parisiens, the scene of many of Offenbach’s triumphs. But its harmonic and
melodic sophistication was ahead of its time and one critic complained of its
orchestration that ‘in seeking for originality it achieves only discord’. It had only a
short run of 47 performances. Illness in the company did not help, but the book of
receipts shows that the 2,691 francs taken at the premiere had dropped by 10
January to a mere 606 francs, 50 centimes. The directors were therefore forced to
take the work off three days later, but at least the run lasted long enough for the
15-year-old Debussy to attend and be sent into paroxysms of laughter. Sadly, this
failure meant that although Chabrier continued to think of writing operettas, no
theatre in that field would risk commissioning him.

Ansermet’s recording was incomplete – made according to the demands of radio?
– but the synopsis outlines the plot of the entire opera.

© Roger Nichols

[1] Overture: a spoof of the ceremonial variety. Chabrier introduces various of the tunes to come, but unusually none in their ‘right’ key, keeping cards up his sleeve.

Act 1

[2–3] Introduction and Chorus, Entry of King Ouf the First (high tenor): another of the many spoofs in the opera, here of Verdi’s muttered conspirators’ choruses, as the men in the crowd warn that the King is around in disguise, hoping to uncover a
disloyal subject who can be ceremonially executed as the King’s birthday treat.
The music is full of surreptitious sliding noises.

[4] Ouf tests his subjects’ loyalty in a combined patter song of a type that would have been familiar to audiences in Offenbach’s favourite venue. But everyone is depressingly loyal, as Ouf complains to his astrologer Siroco (bass). Ouf also tells
him that his will ordains that Siroco will die 15 minutes after his master. Ouf intends to marry Laoula, the daughter of his neighbour, King Mataquin, to produce an heir to the throne.

[5] Quartet: disguise has always been a crucial element in opera, and now four other figures in disguise make their entrance: Hérisson de Porc Epic, an ambassador from King Mataquin (tenor), his secretary Tapioca (high baritone),
Princess Laoula and Porc-Epic’s wife Aloès  (sopranos).Verisimilitude being an optional extra in the world of opéra-bouffe, they are disguised as assistants in a
fashion shop who have taken to the road (the real reason being to get the lowdown on Ouf and the political scene) and sing of the joys of the travelling life.

[6–7] Porc Epic is pretending, for reasons of security (or so he says), that Laoula is
his wife, but Aloès and Laoula both have doubts about his motives. As they go off to
find rooms in the inn, the pedlar Lazuli (soprano – a trouser role) enters and sings
of his own trade, providing ladies with the things they like: jewellery, perfume,
face-powder. His aria is a classic piece of Chabrier, starting with the simplest of
harmonies into which discreet chromatics gradually insinuate themselves. He has
fallen in love with one of the travelling women and gives Siroco a gold coin to read
his fortune in the stars.

[8] Romance of the Star: while Siroco is doing so, Lazuli sings to the star that will
determine his future in one of the most beautiful numbers in all operetta. He then
falls asleep.

[9–11] Tickling Trio and Couplets: Laoula and Aloès come back and recognize
Lazuli as the young man they met on the way. Aloès suggests that tickling might be
an entertaining way of waking him up. Laoula, being a princess, is not sure she
should lend herself to such frivolity, but soon weakens. After surprisingly
prolonged tickling, accompanied by suitable noises on the orchestra, Lazuli finally
begins to wake up and joins in a trio stating that ‘He must be tickled’.

[12] As the trio ends, he wakes up in earnest and asks them who they are. Aloès
never gets a chance to say, because as soon as Laoula identifies herself, Lazuli says
‘I love you’.To which Laoula, reasonably enough, responds with ‘Who are you?’
Lazuli replies that he deals in magic cosmetic substances that can make mother and
daughter look like sisters. Porc-Epic now returns and tells Lazuli that Laoula is his
wife. Lazuli is in despair. It is at this point that Ouf enters. Lazuli, not in the best of tempers, bumps into him and then refuses to apologise. And what, asks Ouf, does
he think of the government? ‘The government can go to hell!’ says Lazuli, and for
good measure slaps Ouf’s face.The King is delighted: a birthday victim has been

[13] Scene and chorus: the king tells Lazuli that the punishment for such a crime is
death. Lazuli welcomes his fate, since life without Laoula is not worth living.
The crowd look forward to the ceremony of the stake – not the burning,
but the impaling kind (‘un pal’).

[14] Couplets of Impalement: Ouf explains in painstaking detail that ‘this chair
which looks so ordinary’ is in fact quite unusual; by turning the handle, so, you
activate an upward prong, so…one gets the point.

[15] Chorus: the proceedings are rudely interrupted by Siroco, who bursts in
with the news, imparted to him by the stars, that if Lazuli dies, then so does Ouf
a quarter of an hour later.To widespread disappointment, Ouf postpones the
impalement till next year. Lazuli is carried in honour into the palace.

Act 2

[16] Chorus and Brindisi: Lazuli is the toast of the court ladies-in-waiting
(‘Ah! le charmant garçon!’) and sings a brindisi (a drinking song, as in La traviata)
to celebrate his change of fortune.

[17] Couplets of the Husband: But Lazuli soon tires of this life and escapes through
the window, but is persuaded by Ouf and Siroco to climb back in. Lazuli of course
thinks Laoula is married to Porc-Epic, but cynically he writes a husband off is
merely a ‘futile obstacle’; or, if Lazuli falls out of love with the woman in question,
a saviour.The three different tempi of his couplets chart his emotional responses.

[18] Kissing Quartet: Porc-Epic is announced but Ouf ignores him and hatches a
plan for Lazuli to seduce the ambassador’s wife. Porc-Epic is therefore arrested,
leaving the way clear for the two lovers.They sing an enchanting quartet with
Aloès and Tapioca, who now decides he fancies Aloès, and the cadence underpins
three kisses between the two pairs.

[19] Laoula’s Couplets: Ouf gives Lazuli a bag of money and wishes him and
Laoula well in their future life together. Laoula sings to Ouf of her gratitude – she
will always think of him kindly, even if Lazuli is slightly jealous.Whether he is or
not, he deigns to join her for the final bars.

[20] Elopement Trio: in time-honoured fashion Laoula and Lazuli sing ‘We go,
we go’ but seem in no particular hurry as professions of love take over.Their
(chromatic) laughter is caused by thought of ‘the husband’ – Porc-Epic, as Lazuli
believes. Laoula goes along with the deception.

[21] Lazuli and Laoula finally leave and Ouf orders everything to be got ready for
the ceremonial reception of his future bride (that is, Aloès). Porc-Epic has escaped
and discovered not only his wife and Tapioca in a compromising situation but an absence of Laoula. Not to worry, he tells Ouf: he’s sent guards to find the fugitives
and shoot if necessary. A shot is heard. A sublimely funny crescendo chorus follows:
‘is he dead?…or not?’ Laoula enters, damp and bedraggled, and Aloès asks her to
recount what has happened.

[22–24] Couplets and Chorus:They were in the boat on the lake, says Laoula,
‘heading for the land of hope’ when suddenly – ‘crac!’ And Lazuli disappeared
under the water. Ouf, predictably, is appalled, and Siroco likewise. But the chorus
of courtiers, who have throughout the operetta remained in a state of suppressed
bolshiness (a condition presumably not lost on the Paris audience a mere six years
after the Commune), take the news in their stride. Politeness dictates they offer the
Princess their condolences, but Chabrier’s music, solemn brass and all, is superbly
insincere, and becomes even more so as they throw off politeness and etiquette and
launch into a can-can – no doubt the first ever to be set to the words ‘He’s dead,
by Jove that’s tough on him’.

Act 3

Ouf and Siroco have had the bright idea of turning the palace clock back to try and
avoid their fate.The police chief reports that nothing has been found by the lake
except a hat and coat.The King and his astrologer go off to find a restorative drink.

[25] Lazuli’s Couplets: Lazuli has swum ashore and now emerges from hiding.
But if he has escaped drowning, it seems he may still die of pneumonia – his conclusion that ‘life is not jolly at the bottom of the lake’ gives him a chance to
show off his bottom notes. Meanwhile the orchestra sneezes with him.

[26] Aloès’s Couplets,Trio: Laoula is inconsolable, but Aloès assures her that her
grief will pass, an assurance Laoula does not welcome. As they sing, Lazuli joins in
from his hiding place and a Discovery Trio (a feature borrowed from Classical
Greek tragedy…) duly follows: the ‘petit bonhomme’ is not dead after all.
‘Oh yes I am!’ says Lazuli, kissing Laoula enthusiastically, and explains that, being
‘dead’, he is not subject to surveillance and so can safely meet her at the gates on
her way back to her father. He goes off to wait for her. Ouf returns and, seeing
Laoula, reckons there will just be time for the marriage ceremony before the clock
strikes the fatal hour. After all, Laoula can always marry again…

[27] Rose Couplets: Laoula admits the inconvenience will only be brief. But the
truth is that, once you have plucked the rose, even if you put it into water, it is
never quite the same. Chabrier’s wonderfully sinuous vocal lines, avoiding every
obvious note, mirror Laoula’s indecision.

Ouf impatiently explains to Laoula that what he wants above all is a little Ouf.
She resists, as the Mayor arrives to perform the wedding ceremony. Ouf has
pushed back the hands of the palace clock, but has forgotten the one on Siroco’s
observatory.Time is up. Ouf renounces the marriage and proclaims to all: ‘See how
an Ouf meets his end!’ Ouf hears the clock strike five. And…’it seems to me
I’m still alive!’

[28] Final Couplet: As Ouf berates Siroco for being a charlatan, the police chief
drags in Lazuli whom he has arrested at the city gates. Lazuli is alive! So Ouf will
not die and the marriage can go ahead.‘Which marriage?’ asks Laoula, for whom
this is a fairly important question. Ouf, with truly regal magnanimity, gives the
young couple his blessing, and the three sopranos bid farewell to the audience to
the music of Ouf’s ‘Impalement aria’, inviting them to sit, not on a sharp spike,
but on seats ‘in this opera house where all is smiles’.

© Roger Nichols, 2010

Recorded in the studios of Swiss Radio, Geneva, 7 February 1941

Original recording from the Harewood Collection

  • Ninon Vallin
  • Hugues Cuénod
    Le Roi Ouf
  • Phillippe Soguel
    Herrison de Porc-Epic
  • Lise Bratschi
    La Princesse Laoula
  • Sylvane Pagani
  • Ernest Mestrallet
  • Bernard Berthet
  • Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
  • Ernest Ansermet

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