is an opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...
in three acts by the French
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...
composer Étienne Méhul
Etienne Nicolas Méhul was a French composer, "the most important opera composer in France during the Revolution." He was also the first composer to be called a "Romantic".-Life:...
. The libretto
A libretto is the text used in an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata, or musical. The term "libretto" is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as mass, requiem, and sacred cantata, or even the story line of a...
, by Alexandre Duval, is based on the Biblical
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...
story of Joseph
Joseph is an important character in the Hebrew bible, where he connects the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Canaan to the subsequent story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt....
and his brothers. The work was first performed by the Opéra-Comique
The Opéra-Comique is a Parisian opera company, which was founded around 1714 by some of the popular theatres of the Parisian fairs. In 1762 the company was merged with, and for a time took the name of its chief rival the Comédie-Italienne at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and was also called the...
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...
on 17 February 1807 at the Théâtre Feydeau
The Théâtre Feydeau, , a former Parisian theatre company, was founded in 1789 with the patronage of Monsieur, Comte de Provence , and was therefore initially named the Théâtre de Monsieur...
. It mixes musical numbers with spoken dialogue in the manner of an opéra comique
Opéra comique is a genre of French opera that contains spoken dialogue and arias. It emerged out of the popular opéra comiques en vaudevilles of the Fair Theatres of St Germain and St Laurent , which combined existing popular tunes with spoken sections...
Mehul probably met Duval, an ex-soldier and actor, at the salon of Sophie Gay
Marie Françoise Sophie Gay , was a French author, born in Paris.Madame Gay was the daughter of M. Nichault de la Valette and of Francesca Peretti, an Italian lady. In 1793 she was married to M. Liottier, an exchange broker, but she was divorced from him in 1799, and shortly afterwards was married...
and suggested composing an opera on the story of Joseph from Genesis
. In writing Joseph
, Méhul and his librettist were probably trying to exploit the contemporary vogue for operas on religious themes and the French fascination for Egypt after Napoleon's expedition to the country in 1798. Duval was directly inspired by Pierre Baour-Lormian's verse tragedy Omasis, ou Joseph en Égypte
, which had appeared in September 1806.
The opera was a critical success and in 1810 it was awarded a prize for the best piece staged by the Opéra-Comique in the previous decade. Nevertheless, it ran for only a few weeks after its premiere and, although it enjoyed several revivals in France in the 19th century, it was more favourably received in Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...
Belgium , officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a federal state in Western Europe. It is a founding member of the European Union and hosts the EU's headquarters, and those of several other major international organisations such as NATO.Belgium is also a member of, or affiliated to, many...
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...
, where it was often performed as an oratorio
An oratorio is a large musical composition including an orchestra, a choir, and soloists. Like an opera, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias...
(the many choral and ensemble numbers outweigh those for the soloists). Carl Maria von Weber
Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber was a German composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist and critic, one of the first significant composers of the Romantic school....
praised the score, which he conducted in Dresden
Dresden is the capital city of the Free State of Saxony in Germany. It is situated in a valley on the River Elbe, near the Czech border. The Dresden conurbation is part of the Saxon Triangle metropolitan area....
in 1817 under the title Jacob und seine Söhne
. In 1812 he had composed piano variations (Opus 18) on the aria À peine sorti de l'enfance
. Other composers who wrote piano works on themes from Joseph
include Louis-Emmanuel Jadin
Louis-Emmanuel Jadin was a French composer, pianist and harpsichordist.Jadin was born in Versailles. He learned piano from his brother Hyacinthe Jadin and later worked at the Théâtre de Monsieur. His first opera was staged in Versailles in 1788. The following year he took the position of second...
(Fantaisies pour piano sur les romances de Joseph et de Benjamin
, 1807) and Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt ; ), was a 19th-century Hungarian composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher.Liszt became renowned in Europe during the nineteenth century for his virtuosic skill as a pianist. He was said by his contemporaries to have been the most technically advanced pianist of his age...
(his unpublished early Cinq variations pour piano sur la romance de Joseph
). Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler was a late-Romantic Austrian composer and one of the leading conductors of his generation. He was born in the village of Kalischt, Bohemia, in what was then Austria-Hungary, now Kaliště in the Czech Republic...
conducted a performance in Olmütz
Olomouc is a city in Moravia, in the east of the Czech Republic. The city is located on the Morava river and is the ecclesiastical metropolis and historical capital city of Moravia. Nowadays, it is an administrative centre of the Olomouc Region and sixth largest city in the Czech Republic...
in 1883. There was a new French production in Paris to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...
, Méhul "used a self-consciously austere style, the musical counterpart of the pure and noble faith of the Hebrews". Berlioz discussed the opera in his Evenings with the Orchestra
, where he describes the music "almost throughout" as "simple, touching, rich in felicitous, though not very daring modulations, full of broad and vibrant harmonies and graceful figures in the accompaniment, while its expression is always true." He later qualifies this, writing that in Joseph
, "simplicity is carried to a point which it is dangerous to approach so closely [...] in its learned soberness [the] orchestra lacks colour, energy, movement, and the indescribable something which gives life. Without adding a single instrument to those Méhul, it would, I think, have been possible to give the whole the qualities one regrets not finding in it."
Joseph's tenor aria
An aria in music was originally any expressive melody, usually, but not always, performed by a singer. The term is now used almost exclusively to describe a self-contained piece for one voice usually with orchestral accompaniment...
, A peine au sortir de l'enfance...Champs paternels
, has been recorded by many singers, including Georges Thill
Georges Thill was a French opera singer, often considered to be his country's greatest lyric-dramatic tenor...
, Richard Tauber
Richard Tauber was an Austrian tenor acclaimed as one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. Some critics commented that "his heart felt every word he sang".-Early life:...
(in German) and Roberto Alagna
Roberto Alagna is a French-Italian tenor. He was born in Clichy-sous-Bois, Seine-Saint-Denis, France.-Early years:Alagna was born outside of the city of Paris in 1963 to a family of Sicilian immigrants . As a teenager, the young Alagna began busking and singing pop in Parisian cabarets for tips...
There are no female characters in the opera, but the role of Benjamin is for a soprano playing en travesti
Travesti is a theatrical term referring to the portrayal of a character in an opera, play, or ballet by a performer of the opposite sex. Some sources regard 'travesti' as an Italian term, some as French. Depending on sources, the term may be given as travesty, travesti, or en travesti...
||Premiere Cast, 17 February 1807
(Conductor: - )
The tenor is a type of male singing voice and is the highest male voice within the modal register. The typical tenor voice lies between C3, the C one octave below middle C, to the A above middle C in choral music, and up to high C in solo work. The low extreme for tenors is roughly B2...
Jean Elleviou was a French operatic tenor, one of the most celebrated French singers of his time.Born Pierre-Jean-Baptiste-François Elleviou, he made his debut at the Comédie-Italienne in Paris in 1790, as a baritone in the role of Alexis in Monsigny's Le déserteur, and the following year as a...
A soprano is a voice type with a vocal range from approximately middle C to "high A" in choral music, or to "soprano C" or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which usually encompasses the melody...
Baritone is a type of male singing voice that lies between the bass and tenor voices. It is the most common male voice. Originally from the Greek , meaning deep sounding, music for this voice is typically written in the range from the second F below middle C to the F above middle C Baritone (or...
Jean-Pierre Solié was a French cellist and operatic singer. He began as a tenor, but switched and became well-known as a baritone. He sang most often at the Paris Opéra-Comique...
Many years ago, Joseph the Israel
The State of Israel is a parliamentary republic located in the Middle East, along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea...
ite, the favourite son of Jacob
Jacob "heel" or "leg-puller"), also later known as Israel , as described in the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the New Testament and the Qur'an was the third patriarch of the Hebrew people with whom God made a covenant, and ancestor of the tribes of Israel, which were named after his descendants.In the...
, was sold into slavery in Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...
by his brothers. Nevertheless, he found favour with the Egyptian pharaoh
Pharaoh is a title used in many modern discussions of the ancient Egyptian rulers of all periods. The title originates in the term "pr-aa" which means "great house" and describes the royal palace...
and rose to become one of the leading men in the country under the assumed name Cleophas. Now famine is afflicting Israel and Joseph's brothers arrive at his palace in Memphis
Memphis was the ancient capital of Aneb-Hetch, the first nome of Lower Egypt. Its ruins are located near the town of Helwan, south of Cairo.According to legend related by Manetho, the city was founded by the pharaoh Menes around 3000 BC. Capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom, it remained an...
to beg for food. Simeon
According to the Book of Genesis, Simeon was, the second son of Jacob and Leah, and the founder of the Israelite Tribe of Simeon. However, some Biblical scholars view this as postdiction, an eponymous metaphor providing an etiology of the connectedness of the tribe to others in the Israelite...
believes it is a punishment for their treatment of Joseph. The brothers do not recognise Joseph, who gives them a warm welcome.
Having learned that his father has come to Egypt with his sons, Joseph visits his brothers' tents by night. He catches a glimpse of Jacob sleeping and finds Simeon full of remorse for his crime. At dawn, the Israelites join in prayer. Joseph decides to reveal his identity to his family but is dissuaded by his adviser Utobal.
Joseph goes to defend himself to the pharaoh against accusations that he has been too kind to the foreigners. Meanwhile, Simeon tells his father the truth about what he and his brothers did to Joseph. Jacob angrily denounces them but Joseph and Benjamin
Benjamin was the last-born of Jacob's twelve sons, and the second and last son of Rachel in Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition. He was the founder of the Israelite Tribe of Benjamin. In the Biblical account, unlike Rachel's first son, Joseph, Benjamin was born in Canaan. He died in Egypt on...
(the only innocent son) plead for mercy for the guilty brothers. When Jacob relents, Joseph finally reveals his true identity and tells them that the pharaoh has granted them all sanctuary in Egypt.
- Joseph (as Joseph in Aegypten), two versions of the work (in German, without dialogue) both recorded in 1955 and both on the same Gala 2004 2-CD release: (a) Alexander Welitsch/Libero di Luca/Horst Guenter/Ursula Zollenkopf, Symphony Orchestra and Choir of NWDR, Wilhelm Schüchter
Wilhelm Schüchter was a German conductor. He was Generalmusikdirektor in Dortmund and left a legacy of opera recordings.-Professional career:...
; (b) Alexander Welitsch/Josef Traxel/Bernhard Michaelis/Friederike Sailer, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Südfunk Chor, Alfons Rischner
- (a rare out-of-print) Le Chant du Monde 2-CD set of the complete opera features the tenor Laurence Dale and, in one of her earliest recorded performances, coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay
Natalie Dessay is a French coloratura soprano. She dropped the silent "h" in her first name in honor of Natalie Wood when she was in grade school and subsequently simplified the spelling of her surname outside France...
in a small role. An entire French cast, orchestra and conductor (Claude Bardon) makes this idiomatic performance maybe preferable to the former.
- Adélaïde de Place Étienne Nicolas Méhul (Bleu Nuit Éditeur, 2005)
- Viking Opera Guide ed. Holden (Viking, 1993)
- Amadeus Online
- Del Teatro (in Italian)
- Booklet notes by Andrew Palmer to the Gala recording.
- Stephen C. Meyer Carl Maria Von Weber and the Search for a German Opera (Indiana University Press, 2003)