An opera about forbidden love and bodies floating down the Seine

Le Pré aux Clercs, a public garden in Paris where countless duels were fought in the 16th century, gives its name to one of the most popular operas in French history. A revival is bound for Wexford

The cast of Le Pré aux Clercs, a co-production by Opéra Comique and Wexford Festival Opera. Photograph: Pierre Grosbois

The cast of Le Pré aux Clercs, a co-production by Opéra Comique and Wexford Festival Opera. Photograph: Pierre Grosbois

 

Today it’s a quiet street tucked away on the left bank, a few blocks to the northwest of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In the late 16th century, Le Pré aux Clercs was a public garden where students, lovers, commoners and nobles from the royal palace across the river congregated. Most of all, it was the scene of countless duels.

In those days, “The reputation of a lady was in proportion to the number of deaths she had caused,” wrote Prosper Mérimée, whose historical novel Chronicles of Charles IX inspired Ferdinand Hérold’s opera Le Pré aux Clercs.

The 16th century saw the renaissance and the advent of humanism, but it was also a time of religious strife. “The fury of duelling cost the lives of more gentlemen than 10 years of civil war,” Mérimée noted.

Because of its proximity to the Seine, the bodies of those killed in the Pré aux Clercs could be discreetly floated down river to the monks at Chaillot for burial.

These facts form the basis of one of the most popular operas in French history, which will be performed four times at Wexford Festival Opera.

Hérold’s opera premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris in December 1832. Hérold was coughing blood and died of tuberculosis a few weeks later, aged 41, deprived of enjoying the tremendous success of his best work.

From 1832 until the late 1940s, Le Pré aux Clercs played almost constantly in Paris and across Europe. Then it was forgotten.

 

The Wexford way

Wexford Festival Opera was founded in 1951 by a group of local enthusiasts, with the goal of presenting lesser-known operatic works. “When the curtain rises on Le Pré aux Clercs this October in Wexford, I will have the personal satisfaction of knowing that, at long last, an opera on the wish list of festival founder Dr Tom Walsh is finally being produced at Wexford,” says David Agler, the festival’s artistic director.

The show is a co-production by Wexford Festival Opera and the Opéra Comique, which justified its reputation for taking artistic gambles by taking Le Pré aux Clercs out of mothballs in the spring to celebrate the theatre’s 300th anniversary.

Opéra Comique is a genre midway between theatre and opera, with dialogue both spoken and sung. It is as often serious as it is comical.

Although it is set against a background of tension following the religious wars, Le Pré aux clercs is above all a swashbuckling love story. Éric Ruf, who became head of the Comédie Française after directing this production, accurately described it as “generous music . . . theatre, both spoken and sung, sets, period costumes, human stories and History with a capital H, fights, thwarted love – in sum, a great show”.

The story is simple, but it moves so lightly that one would like it to last longer than its 2½ hours. The Baron de Mergy arrives from the (Protestant) court of Henri de Navarre, in Béarn, southwest France. His mission is to take Henri’s wife, Marguerite de Valois – La Reine Margot – back to Béarn with him.

Mergy has an ulterior motive. He is in love with Isabelle de Montal, an orphan from Béarn, lady-in-waiting to Marguerite and the only Protestant in the court of France. But Marguerite’s brother, King Henri III, wants Isabelle to marry the Marquis de Comminge, the brutal colonel who heads the king’s guard.

 

Foyer fresco

Three of the principal singers from the Paris production will sing in Wexford: the French mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand, as Marguerite de Valois; the Québécoise coloratura soprano Marie-Eve Munger, as Isabelle; and the French tenor Éric Huchet as Cantarelli, the Italian court jester.

Le Pré aux Clercs is such an integral part of the history of the Opéra Comique that the scene where Henri III orders Isabelle to marry Comminge is recorded in a fresco in the gilt and red velvet foyer. That is where I meet Lenormand, Munger and Huchet a few hours before its 1,674th performance.

Marguerite de Valois, as depicted by Hérold, bears no resemblance to the nymphomaniac Reine Margot of French legend, played by Isabelle Adjani in Patrice Chéreau’s 1994 film.

Lenormand’s Margot is regal, wise and generous, albeit with a smile in her voice and a twinkle in her eye. Five years ago, Lenormand won the French critics’ “revelation of the year” award for her role in Mignon, also at the Opéra Comique.

Munger sang the part of Rosa in the critically acclaimed Don Bucefalo in Wexford last year. She raved about the acoustics in the National Wexford Opera in Wexford, and she looks forward to taking her friends Lenormand and Huchet to see the Cliffs of Moher.

Isabelle, the young woman played by Munger, is the innocent beauty coveted by both the thuggish Comminge and her childhood sweetheart, Mergy. “Isabelle has to marry a Catholic prince and produce Catholic children,” Huchet says. “It’s not explicit, but that’s the thinking behind what is happening.”

We learn of Mergy’s religion within moments of his arrival onstage. Girot, the inn keeper who is about to marry his own fiancee, Nicette, remarks on the simplicity of the baron’s clothing. Could he possibly come “from the land that’s not friendly to our Holy Father the Pope”? Nicette asks. It doesn’t matter, she insists; she just wants to know if she can serve him chicken on a Friday.

Tension rises when Comminge’s soldiers arrive. “Out of here, foreign race,” they sing. An officer addresses Mergy as “son of Calvin”. Only a decade has passed since tens of thousands of French Huguenots were massacred in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. “The soldiers in the opera are the same ones who were slashing throats 10 years earlier,” Huchet says.

Marguerite and Isabelle are virtual prisoners of Marguerite’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici, and Catherine’s son Henri III. Jours de Mon Enfance, the opera’s best-known aria, is a lovely duet between Munger’s voice and the violin, expressing Isabelle’s longing to return to her native Béarn.

Lenormand, Munger and Huchet say their favourite scene is the trio they sing while a masked ball carries on in an adjacent room, planning the secret marriage between Isabelle and Mergy. Huchet plays Cantarelli to perfection, boasting and bragging, then cringing in fear when Marguerite’s plot endangers his life.

Mergy defeats Comminges in a duel, and the lovers live happily ever after.

Lenormand, Munger and Huchet rail against the occasional critics who mocked this year’s revival of Le Pré aux Clercs.

“It speaks to me today, in 2015,” Lenormand says. “I’m proud to defend this repertory, tooth and nail. These old librettos may sound dated to contemporary ears, but they contain forgotten gems, like Isabelle’s and Mergy’s arias, our trio, the ravishingly poetic choruses.”

“If it’s a museum piece, then it’s a very lively museum,” Munger chimes in.

“Bravo,” Huchet says. “Opera is not just about modern composition and production. It would be a mistake to try to attract audiences by adapting it with modern sets and costumes. It’s that fresco on the wall; we bring it to life, over and over.”

  • Le Pré aux clercs will be performed four times at Wexford Festival Opera between October 23rd and November 1st, wexfordopera.com
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