Bara, Olivier – Spontini’s Olimpie: between tragédie lyrique and grand opéra
Any study of operatic adaptations of literary works has the merit of drawing attention to forgotten titles from the history of opera, illuminated only by the illustrious name of the writer who provided their source. The danger, however, may be twofold. It is easy to lavish excessive attention on some minor work given exaggerated importance by a literary origin of which it is scarcely worthy. Similarly, much credit may be accorded to such-and-such a writer who is supposed – however unwittingly and anachronistically – to have nurtured the Romantic melodramma or the historical grand opéra, simply because those operatic genres have drawn on his or her work. The risk is of creating a double aesthetic confusion, with the source work obscured by the adapted work, which in turn obscures its model.
In the case of Olimpie, the tragédie lyrique of Gaspare Spontini, the first danger is averted easily enough: the composer of La Vestale deserves our interest in all his operatic output, even in a work that never enjoyed the expected success in France. There remains the second peril. Olimpie the tragédie lyrique, premiered in its multiple versions between 1819 and 1826, is based on a tragedy by Voltaire dating from 1762. Composed in a period of transition by a figure who had triumphed during the Empire period, it is inspired by a Voltaire play less well known (and less admired) than Zaïre, Sémiramis or Le Fanatisme. Hence Spontini’s work, on which its Voltairean origin sheds but little light, initially seems enigmatic in aesthetic terms: while still faithful to the subjects and forms of the tragédie lyrique, it has the reputation of having blazed the trail for Romantic grand opéra, so that Voltaire might be seen, through a retrospective illusion, as a distant instigator of that genre. Our ambition here is to reduce such complexity as much as possible: it is hoped that study of the operatic adaptation will illuminate each of the works concerned in their historical unicity and aesthetic specificity.
- SPONTINI, Gaspare (1774-1851)
- Olympie (Dieulafoy & Brifaut / Spontini)
- Institution – Opéra de Paris
- Agostinelli, Federico – One, two, a thousand Olimpies