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  • Mary Hunter

Tragédie lyrique in three acts by Niccolò Piccinni (see Piccinni family, §1) to a libretto by Marmontel, Jean François after Quinault, Philippe; Paris, Opéra, 27 January 1778.

Roland was Piccinni’s first French opera; it was intended to counter the opposition during the third controversy in Paris involving French and Italian music. Given the atmosphere in Paris at the time, Piccinni expected Roland to fail, but it was well received and continued to be performed throughout Europe until the mid-1780s. The story, originally taken from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, tells of Roland’s obsessive (indeed, bewitched) love for Angélique (see Angelica e Medoro). This version begins with a scene for Angélique (soprano) and her confidante Thémire (soprano), in which Angélique is torn between her interest in the knight Roland (bass) and her love for the squire Médor (tenor), whom she nursed after he had been wounded. Thémire reminds her of her status. Angélique orders Médor to leave her, but she is grief-stricken. The first act ends with the arrival of some oriental islanders, one of whom presents her with a bracelet from Roland.

Act 2 begins in a forest, next to the fountain of love. (During the opening divertissement a jealous lover tries to drink at the fountain of Hatred but is persuaded to move to the fountain of Love.) Angélique reveals that she still loves Médor. She is seen by Roland but uses her magic ring to become invisible. Roland describes to Thémire his helpless love for Angélique and decides that he should return to his country to save it from ruin (‘Je me reconnois, je respire’). His resolution does not last long, however, and he returns to emotional imprisonment. Thémire tries to persuade Angélique to return Roland’s love, but she will not. The ladies hear Médor’s voice in the forest, as he laments his fate and decides to kill himself. Angélique declares her love, and tells Médor to hide while she deals with Roland. Roland merely wants to be allowed to follow Angélique. The scene changes to a harbour, where a sailors’ choral divertissement warns against jealousy; several dances follow. Médor sings about how love saved him from a shipwreck. Angélique and Médor plight their troth publicly, with accompanying dances.

Act 3 takes place in a grotto, where Roland’s compatriot Astolfe (tenor) tries to persuade Roland to rid himself of the enchantment and return to his desperate country. Roland is not persuaded and, left alone in the forest, agonizes over whether Angélique loves Médor. He is interrupted by a group of shepherds and shepherdesses, including Bélise (soprano) and Coridon (tenor), who let him know that Angélique and Médor have left the enchanted forest. They notice Roland’s misery, and bless Angélique’s and Médor’s love, but Roland frenziedly smashes the inscriptions that Angélique and Médor have left, uproots trees and overturns boulders. The fairy Logistille (soprano) sings an aria about the bad effects of love. The scene changes to a military camp, where a chorus of soldiers persuades Roland to return to his military calling, and the opera ends with a marche guerrière.

Marmontel clearly expected his audience to know Quinault’s libretto, just as Quinault had expected his audience to know earlier versions of the story. This version is a somewhat capricious and fragmented drama, missing many connections. Roland’s conversion back to sanity is particularly unconvincing. The core of the opera, however, is the series of long and complex scenes where Angélique, Médor and Roland explore their emotional states, and here the music tells as much as the words. The most striking scene is Roland’s, as he waits in the darkening forest for Angélique (3.ii). Following the recitative, there is a short aria, beginning in F major and ending in G minor, which moves into an arioso section with unusually beautiful orchestral music that suggests both the coming of night and the darkening of Roland’s soul. This gives way to an obbligato recitative in which Roland agonizes about his rival; every time Médor is mentioned the strings have a tremolo accompaniment. The scene ends with a rage aria in ABA form, the clarity and eloquence of which aptly round off a scene marked by flexibility of form. Although the work has many exciting and dramatic accompanied recitatives, Roland’s scene alone has an extended arioso section and is thus the only one that appears to move smoothly between emotions. Piccinni’s arias are often quite long – the songs of the shepherds and shepherdesses in Act 3, in charming opéra comique style, are the obvious exceptions – in ABA or italianate binary forms. Médor has an extraordinarily heroic, virtuoso piece, ‘L’amour m’a sauvé du naufrage’, which would be perfectly at home in Metastasian opera seria. Although the music rises above the dullness and incoherence of the libretto, italianate and French musical elements are not yet as fully integrated as Piccinni was later to make them.