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La Esmeralda in Besançon

by Douglas M. Bennett, Donizetti Society, Newsletter 86, June 2002.

After the publication of my first preparatory article on Louise Bertin’s La Esmeralda (Newsletter 85) but still before the single performance in Besançon my studies into the background to the opera continued. Firstly by rereading the relevant chapter of Anselm Gerhard’s The Urbanization of Opera (The University of Chicago Press), I was reminded that Henry Chorley’s Music and Manners in France and Germany starts with an interesting independent view of the work. He attended one of the few performances on his first visit to the Paris Opéra. I have included the relevant parts of his text as Appendix 1 to this article because access to the original is now quite difficult and readers may want to have the benefit of a contemporary view when considering the opera’s somewhat confused history.

Chorley’s ‘independent view’ (when judged in the context of the journalistic politics arising from Bertin père’s proprietorship of the Journal des Débats) is certainly not even-handed from the viewpoint of modern feminism. We shall need to return to this aspect later in this article. Chorley ends with a reference to Hugo’s poem La Sagesse from the collection Les Rayons et les Ombres of 1840. This lengthy poem (not included in anthologies of Hugo’s poetry) is indeed addressed to a ‘Mlle Louise B’ who, from the correspondence, is clearly our composer. The poem seems to be an attempt to salve the wounds left by the Esmeralda experience.

Comme je m’écrivais ainsi, vous m’entendîtes;

Et vous, dont l’âme brille entout ce que vous dites,

Vous tourâtes alors vers moi paisiblement

Votre souriere triste, ineffable et calmant:


Les hommes sont ingrats, méchants, menteurs, jaloux.

Le crime est dans plusieurs, la vanité dans tous;

Car selon le rameau dont ils ont bu la séve,

Ils tiennent, quelques-uns de Caïn, et tous d’Ève.


Le vers qu’à moitié fait j’emporte en mon esprit

Pour l’achever aux champs avec l’odeur des plaines

E l’ombre du nuage et le bruit des fontaines!                          Avril 1840.

This led me to question the nature of the collaboration between poet and musician. A search of the British Library catalogue revealed a short limited edition book, Lettres...aux Bertin, 1827-1877, Paris 1890. Most of the letters are addressed to Louise and many relate to Esmeralda. Here are some examples:

Fevrier 1834; Vous voyez, Mademoiselle, que vous avez le choix entre de bien mauvais vers, mais vous les voulez ainsi. C’est votre faute.

17 fevrier 1834; Notre Dame de Paris vois assome et vous ruine. Mais le jour de la première représentation tout sera compensé, effacé, recheté—Vous serez au septième ciel et moi dans le troisième dessous.

9 septembre 1836; A bientôt, Mademoiselle, votre musique est bien belle et votre succès sera beau aussi.

23 juin 1837; Outre les vers qui sont à vous, vous serrez quelque part dans ce livre un souvenir de notre chère Esméralda. C’etait à moi de vous venger.

The picture painted is of a collaboration curiously balanced between the use of the formal ‘vous’ and protestations of abject servitude by the poet. Passages of pronounced testiness are followed by effusions of exaggerated ‘respect’. The picture left with the reader is of a collaboration in which neither contributor had their eye on the main objective—the writing of a successful opera.

Henry Chorley’s description also raises some factual questions. He describes the performance he witnessed as the third and last of La Esmeralda, and that it took place on a Monday in November 1836. These statements add further fuel to the confusion reigning over the performance history of the opera. Luckily further research revealed a source of the definitive facts, the archivist of the Opéra in the form of a Preface to a book published in 1888 of costume designs for the original production. A small special edition of the book was made with duplicate hand-coloured prints of the designs and one copy of this version is in the British Library (and well worth a visit to see watercolours over a century old that have been immaculately preserved by simply never being exposed!). Most of the Preface I have included as Appendix 2 to this article (in the original French) as another definitive source.

From this it is clear that Henry Chorley was guilty of some journalistic licence because he witnessed neither the third nor the last performance. The date of his visit is most likely the 21st November when he would have witnessed the fourth performance at which the box office receipts for La Esmeralda were the least of the whole ‘run’. Perhaps the most unexpected part of the tale revealed by this Preface is the role of the censor in forcing changes on the increasingly successful author, and the amusing fact that the performers largely ignored the censor’s changes, giving rise to a self-serving bureaucrat’s appeal to his boss for guidance that received the reply: ‘tell them to stick to what was approved!’ No wonder the lily-livered Léon Pillet went on to become Directeur under the increasingly arbitrary changes of political direction in the Paris of the time! The one subject on which this Preface is, unfortunately, unhelpful is the reduction process from 4-act to 3-act (what was missed out?) and then single-act (described as being a performance of Act 1 complete, which is quite likely).

After that long peroration concerning the background to the opera that might have been in my last article, I must now get down to the performance in Besançon itself. And first I would like to point out one aspect of the performance in February that grew in relevance for me during the time I was there, and has, in my opinion, played a major factor in making this unique performance of La Esmeralda such a significant event for me. Besançon nestles in a hill-entrapped loop of the Doubs river and its architecture has to a large extent resisted the baleful influence of modernisation that has blighted so many urban landscapes. Besançon is also a small town when compared with modern Paris. Indeed it looks similar to the Paris imagined by Hugo as a late-mediaeval town of 1482 in his novel Notre Dame de Paris, to judge from the illustrations in the book and the original designs for the opera in 1836.

During the day I spent between the dress rehearsal and the performance of La Esmeralda, and with the music of the opera still ringing in my ears, it was impossible to avoid imagining the events of the plot occurring in the cobbled streets of Besançon. The narrow alleys and overhanging buildings made more irregular by the ravages of centuries of settlement, and, above all, the mixture of young and old people, both distinguished and ordinary, milling around cafés and markets became indistinguishable from the characters in Hugo’s story. I draw this parallel to awaken readers to how the close interaction between senior society dignitaries and the people of the street was so important to the plot of Notre Dame de Paris, and it becomes so much more believable when imagined in the context of Hugo’s birthplace rather than in the anonymity of the modern metropolitan Paris.

When I reread my preliminary article from the last issue of this Newsletter I found I had been preparing to be disappointed. I had also invoked a strong dose of the ‘special pleading’ from which Louise Bertin has suffered in all the literature I have sampled—whether because she was a woman, or that she suffered an unspecified disability or was inflicted with a Papa who was both over-protective of, and over-ambitious for his daughter. What we saw and heard in February was about 80% of the drama (but we heard nearly 90% of the music because many of the cuts were repeats). Of the original 15 ‘numbers’ in the score only 2 were omitted completely (scene 1 of Act 2) and of the remaining 13 most were substantially complete. The staging was simple but as sophisticated as is usual nowadays when money restrictions limit complexity but not creativity. It is a shame that about 60% of the audience seemed to be school children getting their dose of the national poet, and that even with this level of ‘educational programme’ the house was not full. Many operatic explorers missed a unique adventure.

In order to understand the opera it is necessary to do some direct comparisons.

Act 1 is concerned with events leading up to the meeting of Phoebus and Esmeralda. The Priest Frollo (a confusing amalgam of the two brothers of the novel) is already besotted with Esmeralda as he expresses in the largest scena of the Act (which received an unjustified round of applause from the audience: the singing of Matthieu Lécroart seemed to be not at its best). The entrance of Esmeralda introduces a lighter air (in the dance music) but sadly one yearns for the power of Franz Schmidt’s portrayal in his later opera Notre Dame de Paris—perhaps it was predictable that only full unison Viennese strings can evoke for us the Romany world of the gypsies since they share a milieu that is far from Paris.

Act 2 is concerned mainly with events related to Phoebus’ ‘other’ love—the respectable Fleur de Lys—who, in the novel, wins him back from Esmeralda. Here in the opera he does not revert to type (and class). Hugo’s pain over this compromise with the needs of opera lives on in his preface to the text. In this production Act 2 was severely truncated and played to some extent ‘en travestissement’ thus parodying upper crust society beyond the intent of the original and perhaps polarising further the world of the streets from that of the ‘Ancien Regime’.

Act 3 leads up to the wounding of Phoebus. In reaching this point the music rises to its highest—an arioso of wayward chromatic inflexions for Phoebus (tenor) that could be a pre-echo of Berlioz’ Aenée (Berlioz remained curiously respectful of this opera), and an elaborate duet for the lovers (with Frollo’s dark interjections making it a trio) that obeys most faithfully the Italian multi-part scena construction developed by Rossini. The tenor (Andrew Forbes Lane from Manchester) was most unfortunate in not getting any acknowledgement of his adventurous singing (made all the more perilous by the lack of orchestral support). The Act ended with a tableau frozen under the stark lights that inspired the audience to its first spontaneous applause.

The audience, having found itself getting involved in the drama, became positively partisan in its support of Esmeralda and Phoebus in Act 4. She, imprisoned in what looked like a grave tended by a silent gaoler whose parentage included a brush with the gravedigger from Hamlet, was rewarded with the most honest applause for her big romance. Quasimodo (almost a bit-part in this version of the story) then sang his Bell Song as a sort of interlude during which the momentum achieved at the end of Act 3 was lost. The Bell Song was the ‘hit’ of the original production, but now sounds over-promoted (it is obvious that ossias for an encore were already written into the printed score). Simple, repetitive clanging harmony and a rocking melody had all the sophistication of a street song. Frankly if it had been drowned by a tape recording of real bells little would have been lost musically and the dramatic point of the interlude in shifting attention to the looming cathedral better achieved.

The final ten minute scene brings musical anticlimax amid melodramatic nonsense. Phoebus returns fatally wounded to accuse Frollo and die, only to be followed by Esmeralda—in the text she dies of a broken heart, but this production insisted on self-administration. Was it Falcon who demanded an ending centring on Esmeralda? We shall never know. What is on later record is Hugo’s reluctant acquiescence with the changed denouement for reason of ‘musical exigencies to which the poet is bound to submit, and which, at the opera, are entitled to be first considered’. Either way the music is weak. The link Hugo then makes with Corneille and Molière acting as librettists for Lully’s tragédie-ballet Psyché, a parallel that he leaves dangling incomplete in terms of relevance, smacks of injured amour-propre. Do I detect the heavy hand of Bertin-père in this retranchement by a campaigner of otherwise Napoleonic bravery? The correspondence does not reveal at what stage this shift occurred—there are two ‘treatments’ of the plot linked with the published libretto (I refer to an English translation of 1896 that includes an ‘edition definitive’ that is much closer to the novel but would have presented difficulties in staging as well as perhaps overburdening the demands for musical characterisation). Chorley clearly had heard some of the tale of this change and attributed it to the Opéra management rather than the collaborators.

The above description serves also as a review of many aspects of the production. But there remain one or two topics to be covered. The lack of an orchestra proved a growing frustration. The music, for all Liszt’s transcription skill and the energy of Madame Tillard’s advocacy, cries out for the colours of the orchestra. Chorley was inspired by the performance he witnessed to write a panegyric on the Opéra orchestra, and an example from Act 1 shows the extent of the colouring lost by the performance on piano only. It is, however, necessary to pay tribute to the stamina of Madame Tillard—playing Liszt for nearly 2 hours without a break is a wonderful achievement on top of her obvious contribution as the driving force in making the performance happen at all!

As I wrote in my introductory remarks that the novel Notre Dame de Paris works through the interaction of a cocktail of class and ethic types in the streets of a mediaeval town. The literature concerning La Esmeralda makes much of the depiction of this world, including the Cour des Miracles (see for example Anselm Gerhard’s book already referred to). In the period following the July Revolution of 1830, prior to which an experiment without censorship may have contributed to the rising demand for change, the graphic depiction of ‘people power’ at work in the streets of Paris can only be described as ‘brave’. The Besançon production reinforced this aspect by having the chorus recite their text in the manner of sprechgesang to further emphasise the ‘language of the streets’. If the score had supported such a performance style then it would have predated the ‘invention’ of the technique by some 80 years! A study of the score shows that the chorus was always given pitched notes to sing, but that the word setting was largely monotone chanting to invoke the speech of the streets. The shift to spoken delivery may sound like a big change, but it didn’t seem so during the performance.

The question on the lips of many that were not at Besançon will be ‘What did it sound like?’ My answer will be personal, and the other members of the Donizetti Society who were there will probably disagree with me. I want to avoid the myriad references evoked by particular phrases or harmonies—Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chaminade—and try to identify the overall impression with which it left me. The composer that comes closest for me is Offenbach. In drawing such a comparison I am being conditioned in part by the universal sound of sung French. Also the amalgam of musical styles and the production, which sought more than a hint of parody in much of the melodrama, and was rewarded by some (unintended?) laughs arising from operetta-like situations. Indeed the production trod a narrow line between melodrama and farce. It is a credit, however, to the strength of the piece and the commitment of the performers that one potential ‘joke’ didn’t raise a laugh. As Esmeralda sat in her open grave/prison in Act 3 she was accosted by a hooded figure:

“Quel est cet homme?”

“Un prêtre.”

“Un prêtre! Quel mystère!”

My waggish (and not very colloquial) French translates that last line as “A priest, what a surprise!” Bear in mind that the same hooded figure has haunted the opera since scene one, so the audience knows who it is. At this late stage in the tale I expected audience cynicism to be in the ascendancy, but instead the production had won the audience’s suspension of disbelief and the event passed without spontaneous giggling. The music of La Esmeralda may lack some of the spontaneity of Offenbach and his rumbustiousness. But if the main closed-form pieces do not carry all the humorous connotations this is no disadvantage for a piece with romantic aspirations. So it is the Offenbach of Les Contes d’Hoffmann rather than the opérettes, and as we only know Hoffmann through the ministrations of other composers it can be considered a comparison that is both a historical compliment (to Mlle Bertin’s modernity) and yet a comparison without fixed reference.

And now it is necessary to deal with the one consistent, though often implicit, criticism of Mlle Bertin’s opera, namely that it was written by a woman. Although to our modern sensibility the criticism may seem trivial it needs more than a dismissive refutation in the face of Chorley’s almost vitriolic formulation.

I am not of the view that music embodies gender but it can, I believe, reflect it, and the music of Esmeralda supports such a view. Yes, it is sometimes reminiscent of the salon, but in that respect it is ‘of its time’. There were more gender-specific connotations in Italian opera of the time—think of the many first scenes that are martial, choral and involve ‘calls to arms’ to be followed immediately by domestic scenes of reading or embroidery accompanied by harps? No, where I find a gender bias in Esmeralda is in the dramatic structure and it is revealed in the manner in which Esmeralda is introduced onto the stage. In Schmidt Esmeralda is ‘announced’ in Wagnerian fashion with strongly characterised music. In contrast Bertin ‘discovers’ her heroine in response to crowd calls and leaves the characterisation to her looks, her dancing and some light decorative vocalisations. For any soprano this is a tough assignment, and Anne Marchand tackled it with admirable enthusiasm, and if it didn’t quite come off it wasn’t entirely her fault. The piano accompaniment, for example, evoked something of the air of a Berlin night-club.

And gender has an impact on the transition from the novel to the opera. Notre Dame de Paris (the novel) pivots on the concept of ANAGKH seen as graffiti in the cathedral linked with the word Anagneia. The two words relate roughly to the concepts of ‘oppressive fate’ and ‘tainting impurity ’ but both are in danger of being over-simplified by operatic treatment.  Deprived of the capacity for verbal debate and its analysis of concepts the opera focuses solely on simplified ‘fate’ leaving the counter-running theme of demeaning temptation to the stage impact to be made by Esmeralda’s dancing and its impact on the various male characters. This leaves the notion of Esmeralda’s redeeming purity in danger of not registering; a problem further aggravated by the omission from Act 2 of the scene of Quasimodo in the stocks and the drink of water that Esmeralda gives him. It also puts a heavy dramatic burden on the soprano’s ability to dance—a bit like Salome!

In contrast the characterisation of Quasimodo in the opera rests mainly on the Bell Song in Act 4, the ‘hit’ of the first production. Christophe Crapez earned a well-deserved round of applause for his performance of the piece, but did not earn an encore. Its impact was helped by the bell-like tone of the grand piano. But in fact the much reduced role of Quasimodo as a whole gives the whole drama an unbalanced air—without the notion of a pure soul in a deformed body Quasimodo becomes no more than a figure of fun, and the denouement lacks ironic poignancy. With the plot mechanism operating solely on the notion of arbitrary fate the outcome is inconceivable as the consequence of random chance alone. This makes me think that contemporary governments, in this post-revolutionary period, tried to portray their more extreme actions as having been forced on them by a necessity that was actually of their own instigation. Were audiences fooled?—No, I think not, but they were distracted. La Esmeralda shows by its place in operatic history as a victim of a politically motivated claque that the underpinning manipulations were not entirely invisible. Sadly the long-term consequence of this cynical manipulation has been the loss of an interesting composer. Louise Bertin wrote nothing after Esmeralda on anything like the same ambitious scale.

My hotel in Besançon was on the opposite bank of the Doubs river from the old town. As a result on my journey the next morning to the railway station I passed none of the sites that had previously reminded me of events in the drama of Esmeralda. Instead I probably felt more like Casanova who, when his travels brought him briefly to rest in the town, quickly restarted his journey. I was surrounded not by the remains of a mediaeval town but by the post-war (either first or second) rebuilding of the twentieth century. All my thoughts were of coping with modern railway travel and the coming impact of Paris, where no temptress from beyond the Carpathian Mountains was awaiting me!

I still had to answer the question I posed in my first article; what was the secret of Mlle Bertin’s ghostly smile? My mind was blank. On the one hand the music of the opera rang in my ears. Was it my imagination, or had some of the school children been humming the Bell Song as they left the opera house the previous evening? My memory was not deceiving me—some of the music from the opera was eminently hummable, and I hope that some of the singers who had learnt the music for the performance will go on to record these pieces when given an opportunity. As a staged version of the novel La Esmeralda leaves something to be desired. Maybe getting closer to the novel is just not possible. Even the recent musical version created in the Palais de Congres in Paris is at best a summary of the novel’s dramatic moments delivered like a Pop pageant rather than a recreation of the story. But its music couldn’t compete with that of the opera. If only Esmeralda had been given that amount of promotion!

When I found the small book of Hugo’s letters to the Bertin family I found it had a frontispiece—an engraving of a young woman in profile. It doesn’t claim to be a picture of Louise, but it can’t be anyone else—the hairstyle looks distinctly familiar.


Supposed picture of Bertin

The artist, Amaury-Duval, was a pupil of Ingres and was famous for his portraits of young women. As I look at it now I see an ageing woman averting her eyes in disappointment. So much for her attempt to break into the gilded world of the Paris Opéra. This had proved to be a sanctum that even her talent for memorable musical characterisation as well as the tainting impurity of her father’s considerable financial resources could not get her entrée to. But even the most oppressive fate can relent with time (although Greeks from classical times might disagree). I hope that the love of the work expressed by the creative team behind this performance and shared by those of us who witnessed it, will communicate to others who will appreciate the resurrection of an opera that rewards those that seek it out.


I wish to acknowledge the help given in the preparation of this article by Erica Bennett (on classical Greek lexicography) and by Julia Nurse of the British Museum in patiently dealing with questions concerning 19th Century Parisian artists and engravers.


Appendix 1 - Henry Fothergill Chorley, Music and Manners in France and Germany: a series of travelling sketches of art and society. London 1841. Chapter 1 (extracts)

............there is nothing now in Europe like L’Académie Royale.

It was late in the November of 1836, on a Monday evening—my first in Paris,— that this conviction burst upon me. After one night in the foreign mail, and two in the diligance from Calais,—with a gasconading American, a rude sprightly young moustache from St Omer’s, a Swiss who would sing snatches of all the music he had ever heard most Swiss-ly out of tune, and a negro, by way of companions,--no one short of a Hercules could have much spirits or strength left for music. But on sitting down to dinner—my eyes burning for sleep, and my brain jarred with the ceaseless noises of the last thirty six hours—I got engaged, Heaven knows how! in a question which has often amused me in calmer moments of day-dreaming; namely, the possibility, or otherwise, of a woman producing a worthy musical composition.

The occasion of the debate was the third—at all events the last—performance of Mademoiselle Bertin’s Esmeralda, which was to take place that evening. One of her defenders, at the top of his lungs, was expiating on her force and originality ion instrumentation, and declaring that the orchestra, M Habeneck, its conductor included, had leagued itself in an ungallant cabal to play out of tune whenever Esmeralda was to be given. His antagonist, half a tone at least shriller, was indignantly replying that all that was good in the score was the work of M Berlioz (‘He had peppered it,’ were his precise words), and that the orchestra was right to withstand an overweening cabal made by the writers of Le Journal des Débats, with M Bertin de Vaux, Pair de France, chief proprietor and father of the composer, at its head. One might as well have been in Morocco, as unqualified to scold about Mademoiselle Bertin and M Victor Hugo. What will you have on’t? (as Mrs Quickly’s ghost said to Dr Goldsmith)—Seven o’clock found me at L’Académie.

.......On this my first visit being late and inexperienced, I fell by chance into a place vacated for me, in the centre of the pit, and, what was less to the purpose, fell into the midst of a host of claqueurs who, to judge from their grimy blackness might be devils belonging to M Bertin’s Journal.

Under such circumstances of distraction it must have required cleverer music than Mademoiselle Bertin’s to have graven a deep impression on my memory. But I have since learned more concerning her enterprises, which are remarkable enough, on the part of a woman, to merit attention.........

..........Mademoiselle Bertin seems from the first to have shown not only the boldest ambition, but also a tendency towards the dark and mysterious in subject. Before she wrote Esmeralda there were already on record against her an operetta Le Loup Garon, and an Italian version of Faust, the latter of course a failure—Mephistopheles and Margaret’s lover being alike beyond the powers of music. But a paragraph is extant in the Nachgelassene Werke of Göthe (sic) concerning the score, which is in some sort of immortality; and I was told of a duet between Faust and Margaret in the street—in its beauty little less delicate and seductive than the duet Segui o cara which fills the same situation in Spohr's opera.

Undaunted by failure, Mademoiselle Bertin chose for her third essay the next intractable subject to the Faust which modern genius has produced; for Quasimodo is scarcely more susceptible to musical illustration than the student or his familiar. Nor was Victor Hugo’s romance made the fitter for the operatic stage, because Victor Hugo chose himself to dramatise it. The destruction which other librettists work on the most strongly-marked and simple subjects,— witness the operatic treatment of Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor,--he has wrought himself. Skilful as he is in the management of stage effect, he knows not the secret of opera—how far, in spite of the trammels of the musician, situation may go, and character be drawn.

The scene of the first act was laid in La Cour des Miracles the squalid loathsomeness of which was, of necessity, so far mitigated, that its spirit was lost. The main feature of the second act was the scene at the pillory, which recalls to me at the moment of writing a chorus of women, pretty and piquant enough to have been a waif from Mademoiselle Puget’s domain. The grand trio (which is now, it seems, an essential feature in every French Opera) was the terrible interview at Falourdel’s tavern—the passion of which again was of necessity entirely tamed to suit les convenances of representation; while the fourth act—containing an effective bellringer’s song for Quasimodo, said to be the contribution of M Berlioz, which was given with a rude energy by Massol—opened with a dungeon scene for Esmeralda, and closed in the Parvis of Notre Dame. There had been a fifth act, contrived by M Hugo, so said sarcastic journalists, to take place upon the towers of the cathedral—the personæ, Claude Frollo, the Hunchback, and certain owls: but this the management had retrenched as indiscreet, and had substituted the more practicable operatic tableau of the heroine dying on the steps of the cathedral, while the portal unclosing displayed the illuminated perspective beyond, with priests, choristers, censer-bearers, etc—a faint copy, in short, of the last decoration of Robert le Diable.

Thus the whole story was at once the slightest of the slight—the most melo-dramatic of melodrama. M Hugo’s words for music were, moreover, not half so tractable as the clinquant which M Scribe gives to his partners, though the one is a poet and master of rhythm and lyrical climax, and the other but a manufacturer of long and short lines. Had I even not been very sleepy in the first instance, I must have yawned over the music so colourless and pretending—in spite of the luxury of a chorus, the like of which I had never seen before, and in spite of the Esmeralda and Phoebus and Claude Frollo of the opera introducing me to Mademoiselle Falcon, and MM Nourrit and Levasseur.

But weary though I was, and distracted from the stage by the commodious splendours of the house, by the brilliancy of the audience, and by the thousand sounds of Parisian animated life, then all new and amusing to me—the impression made upon me by the orchestra that evening, and deepened by every subsequent visit, will never fade away.........

But I grow wearisome, as all are apt to do on a favourite subject. How can an orchestra be described in writing? Esmeralda was over, and received with such coldness as amounted to a prohibition of its further performance, in spite of my neighbours the claqueurs; the brilliant, animated, motley audience poured out of the wide avenues,—to judge from their vivacious and impatient criticisms, of good Owen Feltham’s mind, when he declared,

“I am confirmed in my belief. No woman hath a soul, at least as far as musical composition is concerned”.

Since that evening I have not heard a whisper or encountered one printed syllable concerning the further progress in music of Mademoiselle Bertin. Her fellow-labourer, however, has not forgotten her, as may be seen by the earnest epistolary confession—I mean the poem Sagesse, which closes Victor Hugo’s last volume of fugitive verses Les Rayons et les Ombres.


Appendix 2 - Edition Nationale Victor Hugo

Costumes dessinés par Louis Boulanger pour La Esmeralda.
Préface de Ch. Nuitter (pseud. pour Charles Louis Étienne Truinet?). Paris: Emile Testard 1888.

Pour qui cherche à recueillir les documents relatifs à une œuvre dramatique, ce serait une bonne fortune de retrouver la correspondance de l’auteur et du directeur surtout quand il s’agit d’un poète illustre entre tous. Nous n’avons pas été assez heureux pour mettre la main sur des lettres écrites par Victor Hugo au sujet d’Esmeralda, et cela s’explique: sous Louis-Phillipe, l’Opéra, qui, depuis sa fondation, avait presque toujours fait partie de la maison du souverain, fur géré par des directeurs exploirant à leurs risques et périls, et qui dès lors ont conservé. comme leur étant personnelles une grande partie des pièces de leur administration. Voilà comment les lettres qui ont pu être échangées entre les auteurs d’Esmeralda et la direction, n’existent plus dans les archives. A défaut de la correspondance, divers documents nons permettront toutefois de retracer avec quelque exactitude l’histoire de cet opéra.

Le manuscrit, portant le titre de Notre Dame de Paris fut envoyé à la censure le 20 janvier 1836. Les censeurs très rigoureux sous l’Empire et sous la Restauration, avaient rarement trouvé jusqu’alors l’occasion de faire sentir leur autorité aux écrivains qui travaillaient pour l’Académie de musique. Les dieux et les déesses, les héros et les bergers qui s’y étaient montrés depuis Quinault, ne pouvaient guère inquiéter l’administration; mais, sous l’influence du romantisme, les auteurs d’opéras et de ballets descenirent de leurs nuages. Déjà dans la Tentation, l’enfer de Callot avait remplacé les démons corrects dessinés par Barain; après la légende de Robert le Diable, Scribe écrivait la Saint-Barthélemy, où Catherine de Médicis présidait en personne à la bénédiction despoignards. La censure fit remplacer le titre par celui des Huguenots et le rôle de Catherine de Médicis par celui de Saint-Bris. De même Notre Dame de Paris devint Esmeralda; en outre, on exigea la suppression du mot prêtre qui revenait douze fois dans l’ouvrage a propos de Caude Frollo, et on fit modifier quelques passages qui probablement parurent trop vifs; c’est ainsi qu’au lieu de ces vers:

Oh! comme elle est rose!

Quand la porte est close,

Ma belle, on dépose

Toute honte au seuil.


le manuscrit revêtu de l’autorisation ministérielle porte, à l’encre rouge, ceux-ci:


Oh! comme elle est belle!

Son oeil étincelle,

Le bonheur près d’elle

Est rempli d’orgueil!

Et au lieu de:

Ta bouche c’est le ciel même,

Mon âme vient s’y poser.

Ces deux vers:

Ton amour c’est le ciel même.

Ton regarde vient m’embraser!

C’est avec ces changements que le manuscrit fut lu au commencement de novembre devant la commisiion spéciale des théâtres royeaux, dont le président, M de duc de Choiseul, par une lettre en date du 9, adressée au ministère, déclara que, de l’avis de la majorité de la commission, “sous le rapport de la convenance et de la diguité du genre, la representation d’Esmeralda ne paraissait pas devoir présenter d’inconvénients.” Du reste, les décisions de la censure ne furent pas rigoureusement observées, ainsi qu’en témoigne la lettre suivante de M Léon Pillet, le futur directeur de l’Opéra, alors maitre des requêtes et commissaire royal près la commission des théâtres.

Monsieur le ministre,

Je crois devoire vous informer que le libretto de l’opéra de la Esmeralda, qui s’est vendu hier pendant la représentation dans l’intérieur de l’Académie royale de musique, contient presque tous les passages dont la suppression avait été exigée par la censure et que quelques-uns de ces passages ont même été recités par les acteurs. Les mots retranchés (con il ne s’agit que de quelques mots) se trouvent presque tous dans le rôle de Claude Frollo. M Levasseur, à qui il a été fait quelques observations à cet égard, s’excuse sur la nature de sa mémoire qui ne se plie que difficilement aux changements que l’on fait tardivement. Quant au libretto, M Duponchel prétend qu’il n’a rien à y voir et que c’est l’auteur que cette publication concerne exclusivement.

D’après les instructions que vous m’avez fait l’honneur de m’adresser, il y a quelques jours j’ai cru ne pouvoir me dispenser de vous signaler cette double irrégularité. Si vous me permettez maintenant, monsieur le ministre, d’exprimer à cet égard mon opinion personnelle, j’avouerai que le rétablissement de ces passages me parait sans importance les retranchements qu’avait demandés la censure portaient presque tous sur les passages qui donnaient à Claude Frollo le caractère de prêtre, et, même en les supprimant, il est impossible d’obtenir que l’on se me prenne sur le caractère de ce personnage qu’on appelle archidiacre et qui paraît au dénouement entouré de tout son clergé.

Quoi qu’il en soit, monsieur le ministre, il suffisait que la chose ne fût pas regulière pour que je dusse vous la signaler. J’attendrai, monsieur le ministre. les instructions que vous voudrez bien me donner à cet égard. Dois-je tolerer la vente du libretto dans l’intéreur de la salle, et dois-je exiger de M Duponchel qu’il fasse supprimer par M Levasseur les passages retranchés par la censure?

Recevez, monsieur le ministre, l’assurance de mon respect   Léon Pillet.

ce 15 novembre 1836

En marge est écrit de la main du ministre (comte de Montalivet): “Les artistes doivent se conformer, il foudrait voir M Léon Pillet.”

Esmeralda fut donc réprésentée le lundi 14 novembre 1836; le Spectacle était terminé par le premier acte de Mars et Vénus on les Filets de Vulcain. Ce ballet-pantomime de Blache, musique de Schneitzhoeffer, joué pour la première fois le 29 mai 1806, avait obtenu un très grand succès, il en était alors à sa 104ième représentation, ce quoi, sans approcher des 561 représentations de Psyché, ballet de Gardel (1790-1829), était un chiffre très honorable pour l’époque; du reste, le ballet de Mars et Vénus ne devait plus être dansé qu’une fois. C’était la fin du genre mythologique, qui, depuis Louis XIV, avait étalé ses splendeurs sur la scène de l’Opéra, et au moment où Notre dame de Paris venait d’y apparaître avec tout un contège d’idées nouvelles, il est assez curieux de voir le drame de Victor Hugo accompagné des derniers entrechats de Mars et des dernières pirouettes de Vénus.

La salle était comble, l’affiche portait la mention: les bureaux ne serons pas ouverts.

On vendit seulement à la porte 38 places de quatrièmes à 2fr 50. La loge du Roi, à cette époque, était de face; la loge d’avant scène, du côté droit, était occupée par le duc d’Orléans.

Parmi les abonnés, nous trouvons les noms de MM de Rothschild, Greffuhle, comtesse de Flahaut, Schikler, Chégaray, de Vatry, de Choiseul, Claparède, ets.. M de Chateaubriand avait loué un baignoire; Mlle Taglioni, une 2e loge. Il avait été pris au nom de Bertin: 7 stalles de galerie, 20 stalles d’amphithéâtre, 38 stalles d’orchestre, 2 premières loges, 2 secondes loges, 5 troisièmes loges, 3 quatrièmes loges, en tout 1082 francs de places.

Dans les loges données à la presse, on pouvait voir aux baignoires le docteur Véron, MM Loeve-Veimars, Bertin; aux premières loges J Janin, E de Girardin; aux secondes, Capo de Feuillide, Anténor Joly, Merle; aux troisièmes, Buloz, Altaroche, et enfin, relégué aux cinquièmes loges, Charles Maurice.

Est-ce pour cela que dans son journal le Courrier des Théâtres, il se montra si sévère à l’égard de la pièce?

“Selon les admirateurs de l’écrivain, dit-il, Notre dame de Paris est un chef d’œuvre incomparable....Selon les personnes qui ont lu autre chose et accoutumées à ne voir dans un livre que ce que l’auteur y a mis celui-ci est une conception plutôt monstrueuse qu’originale....Cependant Notre Dame de Paris a joui d’une grande réussite. Les moyens qui la lui ont procurée ne sont pas ce que nous devons exeminer ici.” Passant de là à l’examen du poème d’Esmeralda, il n’y voit que l’assemblage pénible des incidents du livre qui pouvaient trouver place sur un théâtre. “Seulement l’intrigue ainsi étranglée s’y débat avec plus de violence, ce qui paraît tenir lieu de dramatique et mème tant bien que mal le poète au bout de sa tâche. Les caractères nécessairement effacés ne sont guère là ce qu’on les a vus dans l’œuvre première, et le style est le plus caillouté de tout ce qui est sorti de la même plume.” Quant à la musique, l’article finit par un eloge complet.

Dans l’Echo français Desessarts discute après avoir analysé le poème: “Ce sont là de beaux vers, dit-il, ce sont là des choses poétiques qu’il doit être doux le chanter mais pourquoi sont-elles mal agencées....pourquoi le lyricisme déborde-t-il ici sur la partie dramatique? Évidement la pièce de M Hugo n’est pas coupée musicalement; inexperimenté dans ce genre d’ouvrage il a entraîné dans ses propres erreurs le musicien qui n’avait non plus guère d’experience. A chaque pas on voit que Mlle Bertin, trop peu préoccupée du drame qui ne l’impressionnait pas, s’est laissé distraire par la désir de faire valoir et surtout entrendre de beaux vers. Elle a été l’esclave du poète.”

Dans les Débats, J Janin déclare que le succès du nouvel opéra a dépassé toutes ses espérances. “ Mes éloges ont attendu, dit-il, mais aujour’hui que la presse entière n’a qu’une voix pour proclamer l’incontestable mérite de cet ouvrage, après une seconde épreuvre, plus difficile peut-être, mais non moins éclatante non moins heureuse et non moins décisive que la premiere, il me semble que moi-même, malgré toutes mes preventations favourables et si légitimes, j’ai bien le droit de parler de l’opéra de Mlle Bertin.”

Il en parle pendant huit colonnes, louant le drame simple et energique qui va droit au but, sans détours, sans périphrases, louant la musique écrite par une jeune femme faisant ses inspirations personnelles des inspirations de M Hugo et pénétrant sans peur dans la cour des Miracles; àla fin, il parle de l’exécution et des artistes, et nous citerons d’autant plus volontiers cette partie de l’article qu’elle est le meilleur commentaire des costumes dessinées par Boulanger.

(Quelques paragraphes sur le sujet des costumes pour la première représentation sont omis.)

La première représentation ne s’était pas achevée sans quelques protestations, ainsi que nous l’apprend le Courrier des Théâtres, dans le no du 17: “ La fin de la première représentation de la Esmeralda a bien prouvé que, comme on l’avait dit, la salle entière n’était pas prise pour le compte des intéressés; on a entendu qu’il s’y trouvait encore bon nombre de dissidents dont, il faut l’espérer, la conduite ne doit pas être imputée à la trahison. Cette confiance dans le véritable public se manifeste déjà par une location assez considérable le loges, qui a commencé hier et durera sans doute longtemps.”

En parlant de la location, Ch Maurice touchait au point délicat de la question. A coté des appréciations de la presse, c’est par le chiffre de la recette que se manifeste l’appréciation du public, et, en matière de théâtre, c’est toujours lui qui a le dernier mot.

Esmeralda se trouvait en concurrence avec le grand succès des Huguenots, alors dans leur nouveauté, et avec les représentations de Mlle Taglioni.

Le tableau des recettes d’un mois environs, du 14 novembre au 16 décembre, nous montrera exactement quelle fut la fortune du nouvel opéra


NOV   L 14

1e rep Esmeralda et 1e acte de Mars et Vénus


    M 16

2e rep Esmeralda et l’acte des Naìades


V 18 


3e rep Esmeralda précédée du 1e act L’Ile des Pirates  

 (pour cette représentation le spectacle commença à 7 heures par le ballet, l’opéra fut joué à 8 heures)



       D 20

La fille du Danube(Mlle Taglioni) précedée par 1e acte du Philtre et du concert Bohrer


L 21

4e rep Esmeralda et 3e acte de la Révolte au Serai


M 23

38e rep Huguenots (Nourrit)  


      V 25

  La Fille du Danube (Mlle Taglioni) précédée du Comte Ory  


 L 28

156e rep Robert le Diable (Nourrit, Levasseur)


M 30

La Fille du Danube (Mlle Taglioni) précedée du Philtre


DEC    V   2

Guillaume Tell (Nourrit, Levasseur) le Bal de Gustave     


L   6 

5e rep Esmeralda suivie du 3e acte de l’Il des Pirates


M  7

39e rep des Huguenots


    V   9 

La muette de Portici  


D 11

56e rep de la Juive (Nourrit, Mlle Falcon)


L 12 

Les 2 premiers actes du Serment et de la Fille du Danube


M 14

40e rep des Huguenots


V 16

6e rep Esmeralda en 3 actes, la Fille du Danube 



On voit les recettes de la Esmeralda allaient en diminuant. A cetter dernière représentation, l’ouvrage, réduit à trois actes, ne doit son succès qu’a l’attrait du ballet nouveau, dansé par Mlle Taglioni; à partir de cette représentation, on ne donna plus, de la Esmeralda, que le premier acte, qui servit de lever de rideau aux ballets. Ce premier acte fut aussi joué deux fois en mars, deux fois en avril, une fois en septembre 1837; de même en 1838, une fois en janvier et fevrier, deux fois en mai, une fois en juillet et septembre, deux fois en novembre, une fois en décembre, et enfin en 1839, une fois en mars, avril, mai, juin et octobre.

L’ouvrage avait donc été représenté cinq fois dans son entier, une fois an trois actes et dix-neuf en un acte.

Ce n’est pas là, assurément, une brillante destinée.

Les journeaux avaient éét unamimes à louer la mise en scène. Elle était, en effet, très soignée. Les mémoires des peintres, MM Philastre et Cambon, s’élevaient en règlement à 20591 francs, et les frais divers de costumes et d’accessoires montaient à 9249 francs, à quoi il faut ajouter le prix du bois, de la toile et de la main-d’œuvre.

Pour en finir avec les chiffres, il nous reste àparler des droits d’auteur.

Aux termes de l’ordonnance du 18 janvier 1816, l’Opéra payait aux auteurs, pour un ouvrage remplissant toute la durée du spectacle, un droit fixe de 500 francs pour les quarante premières représentations, et de 200 francs pour les suivantes.

Quand un ballet était adjoint à l’ouvrage, les droits ci-dessous étaient déduits aux deux tiers.

En consequence, Victor Hugo et Mlle Bertin touchèrent chacun, pour chacune des six premieres représentations 166fr 67.

Plus tard, quand on joua en lever de rideau le premier acte seulement, du 12 mars 1837 au 23 octobre 1839 les auteurs se partagèrent une somme de 200 francs par reprèsentation.


Ch. Nuitter,  Achiviste de l’Opèra


(Please note that in 2008, the Orchestre National de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon under Lawrence Foster  recorded the opera on Accord CD 4802341.   A review can be found here.)





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