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Opera and Egypt

An article by Anne-Marie Romero (Quand l'opéra rêvait d'Egypte, December 28) for Le Figaro reviews a new art exhibit on opera at a little-known museum in France (my translation):

From Lully's Isis (1677) to Philip Glass's Akhnaten (1984), passing through Verdi's unforgettable Aida, no fewer than 200 musical works—cantatas, oratorios, operas, and ballets—have had Egypt as their theme, of which about half are devoted to Cleopatra alone. That's one way of understanding the draw that this country and its mysteries, real or imagined, have had on composers and librettists, ever in search of a new exoticism or an overpowering Romanticism. "With the second Egyptian collection after the Musée Guimet in Lyon [now in Paris]," says Brigitte Bouret, curator of the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie Joseph Déchelette, in Roanne, and director of the exhibition L'Egypte et l'Opéra, "it made sense that we would be interested in this truly rich theme, especially since I was able to work with a renowned Egyptologist, Michel Dewachter."
The operas mentioned in the article, and presumably somehow represented in the exhibit, include Lully's Isis, Rameau's Les Dieux d'Egypte, Cleopatra operas by Bellini, Massenet, and Victor Massé (plus a symphonic piece by Saint-Saëns [the Concerto égyptien] and a cantata by Berlioz), Massenet's Thaïs (after Anatole France), and Méhul's Biblical opera Joseph en Egypte (1807).
But the most beautiful fusion of Egypt and music remains Mozart's final masterpiece, The Magic Flute, a Masonic work in which appear that philosophy's principal elements—water, fire, silence, night—with a completely tailored touch since Mozart makes the Queen of the Night into an evil character, when she was in Egyptian mythology only a well-meaning stage in the sun's trajectory. The assimilation into Egypt was such that at the beginning of the 20th century The Magic Flute was reprised in Paris under the title Les Mystères d'Isis.

How can you make an exhibit on such a subject? Brigitte Bouret has pulled it off well with significant objects of Egyptolatry that were important in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Gallé's gardening girls like Isis as a modern Milanese woman, opera posters happily mixing Greek temples and obelisks, and especially extraordinary costumes that are totally outrageous. You have to smile seeing Pierre Loti disguised as Osiris for a costume party; you have to be surprised at Lully's Greco-Egyptian costumes and the innumerable "Turkish outfits" which were put on heroes living in the pharaonic period. Even the great Mariette Pacha, father of "serious" Egyptology, drew for Aida costumes that were on the sulfurous side, such as baboons at the feet of Radames!

But the most striking work of this Egyptomusical marriage is that same Aida, commissioned of Verdi by the Egyptians to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal and which was ultimately premiered for the opening of the Cairo Opera in 1881. Aida was a triumph: 32 curtain calls! And the Trumpet Air was even selected, for a time, as Egypt's national anthem...
The page on the exhibit from the town of Roanne states that there are 150 pieces shown in the exhibit, including Egyptian antiquities, funerary masks and amulets, libretti, autograph scores, performance posters, paintings and lithographs, set designs, plates and faïence pieces, decorative art objects, photographs, and costumes and jewelry. Some other musical works it mentions are Rameau's opera-ballet La naissance d'Osiris (1751), Neuman's opera Osiris (1781), Rossini's Moïse (1818)—which had such success that it made Théophile Gautier want to write Le Roman de la Momie [which I cannot believe no one has scanned as an e-text yet!]—Pierre Gardel's pantomime-ballet L'enfant prodigue (1812, set in Memphis), Gluck's La Rencontre imprévue (1764), Théophile Gautier's fantasy ballet La Péri au Caire, and Georges Bizet's opéra comique Djamileh. The page has two pictures.

L'Egypte et l'Opéra will be at the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie Joseph Déchelette, in Roanne, until February 6. Although the museum itself has no Web page, you can read an article (Roanne sur un grand air d'opéra, from Roanne notre ville 183, October 2004), which has one picture.

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