I held a piece of history in my hands. And then after keeping it a few days overdue, I returned it to the library.
I am speaking of a score for an opera signed by its composer. The opera? Aphrodite, adapted from the novel by Pierre Louÿs. The composer? Camille Erlanger.
Nobody had taken this score out of the library since they began barcoding some time ago (perhaps in the 1990s?). I know that because when I took it out, they needed to put the barcode on the book. I wondered how long it had been since the previous withdrawal.
To my knowledge nobody has staged this opera in a very long time. But it did very well at one time. According to Stéphane Wolff’s Un Demi-Siècle d’Opéra Comique, chronicling the works staged in the first half of the 20th century at one of Paris’ opera houses, the opera was staged 182 times, which is more than Gluck’s Alceste (37), Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (30), Faure’s Pénélope (63), and the single performance of Debussy’s La Demoiselle Élue,(it’s not actually an opera, although it served as a vehicle for Mary Garden): but still short of the 343 performances afforded to Pelléas et Mélisande.
I played through much of the score and was not impressed (see for yourself). Perhaps it would make more sense to me –and appeal to my ear– if I were reading through it in 1911 rather than 2011. I confess that the idiom of this work leaves me cold. It may sound cynical to say that the subject matter and its star had more to say about its success than the quality of its score. Like Pelléas et Mélisande, it starred Mary Garden, a soprano with exraordinary stage presence. I get the impression from reading between the lines of Garden’s memoir Mary Garden’s story (a self-serving document) that Debussy was smitten with her, for example. Without her special magic to bring the opera to life, the score seems particularly lifeless.
I chanced upon Aphrodite, looking at scores by Erkel, the Hungarian opera composer of Bánk Bán and Hunyadi László. “M1503” is the call number for piano vocal scores. The scores are then organized alphabetically by the last name of the composer. “Erkel” was filed just before “Erlanger.” When my eye fell on the title –Aphrodite –I almost fell over. I had to have a look to confirm that this was what I hoped it might be: the Louÿs story. And so I took it out.
I suppose I should explain the reasons for my excitement.
- I’ve been researching Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s opera that premiered in 1902. Erlanger’s Aphrodite dates from 1906 in the same opera house.
- Both operas starred Mary Garden.
- Pierre Louÿs, who wrote the novel from which the opera was adapted, was at one time Debussy’s best friend.
- Long before I ever began researching Debussy a friend handed me a novel saying that it would make a great opera. The novel was Aphrodite by Pierre Louÿs. Now in fact while it’s an unforgettable novel, I was somewhat daunted, unable to imagine how to bring this flamboyant tale to the stage, particularly as far as imagining Chrysis or Demetrios (the protagonists) singing. It certainly helps when you have a seductive leading lady such as Mary Garden, as they had for the 1906 Paris production. I did finally find a way to stage it –without any singing—in the 1990s, very different from what Erlanger did, especially in the number of performances my version got (cue the laugh-track).
But you see why I had to look at the score, seeing how the novel had been adapted.
The one interesting thing about the score was Erlanger’s signature on the frontispiece. It’s downhill from there. Perhaps if i heard a performance i might feel differently. But i wonder if anyone will hear this opera again.
Even so, it felt remarkable to hold the score for an opera performed so many times, signed by the composer. I finally relinquished my little piece of history, returning it to the library where it will likely again sit untouched and forgotten on the shelves for years. Sic transit gloria mundi.