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Set to a text by writer and musician, Michel-Paul-Guy de Chabanon, Sabinus is a tragic opera performed for the first time at the Académie Royale de Musique, in Versailles, on 4 December 1773. Chabanon had written a previous version of the libretto for the Comédie-Française entitled Éponine but, in view of the work’s limited success, he asked Gossec to set it to music. The work tells a fictionalised story of Julius Sabinus, reported in several Roman sources. This Gaulish leader took part in the rebellion of 69-70 and was forced to live in hiding in a cave for nine years after the rebellion was quelled. When he was discovered, he was put to death, despite the entreaties of his wife, the mother of their two children. Chabanon’s libretto gives this story a happier ending: moved by Éponine’s tears, Vespasien spares Sabinus’ life and the couple leave, full of happiness. The text of the opera also places greater emphasis on the character of Éponine, who is the object of Mucien’s lust and a redemptive figure. In this respect, the libretto forms part of a flourishing tradition of pictorial, literary and operatic works about the Gaulish couple and their happiness or trials and tribulations. This tradition fell out of fashion, however, in the 19th century, given the popularity of new episodes and new figures from the history of Gaul, particularly Vercingetorix, and Sabinus as a character has now been largely consigned to oblivion. Although the opera was not hugely successful, Gossec regarded his work as a vital step in the reform of French opera in the late 18th century. Critics are divided about this—some of them see the work as a conservative extension of the Ramist tradition, others, on the contrary, highlight the points this opera has in common with Gluck’s masterpieces to come. Sabinus was one of the last French operas to be performed before the Viennese composer arrived on the scene.


publication date : 25/09/23

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