Le Postillon de Lonjumeau
Le postillon de Lonjumeau 1836

Le Postillon de Lonjumeau

The history of opera is littered with shipwrecks which sail with great success when first launched only to sink into oblivion for one reason or another. Some are lost forever and some are re-floated only to sail out briefly before returning to dry-dock. It seems that ‘Le Postillon de Lonjumeau’ has become something of a pleasure boat which is only given the odd cruise in its home waters of France, kept afloat almost solely by its famous tenor aria of the same title. It is an aria full of verve, humour, melody, and it requires great vocal skill.

 

The Composer
Adolphe Charles Adam. Born Paris, 24th July, 1803. Died Paris 3rd May, 1856.

Adolphe Charles Adam

“(In Ballet) Adam is absolute master and he knew no rivals. It is in ballet that he revealed his great poetic feeling … and he brought to this type of music all the flexibility of writing and all the diversity of style which he had shown us elsewhere.” —Pier Angelo Fiorentino’s memorial tribute to Adam in ‘Le Moniteur’.

His mother was the daughter of a notable physician and his father was a music professor at the Conservatoire. While he grew up with music, he preferred to improvise music of his own rather than study seriously and his father did not encourage him to pursue a musical career. Adam began musical studies at boarding school and entered the conservatoire in 1821, studying under Benoist and later Boieldieu.

He developed an interest in composition, specifically for the theatre and by the age of twenty he was writing songs for the Paris Vaudeville houses and playing in the orchestra at the Gymnase theatre. In 1825, he helped Boieldieu with the preparation of his opera ‘La Dame Blanche’ which he also transcribed for the piano, for popular sale. The money that he earned allowed him to travel to Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland, where he met Eugene Scribe with whom he would collaborate many times over the coming years.

By 1830, Adam had completed 28 theatre works and he gained popularity mainly with his ballet works. His success continued and he traveled as widely as London and St. Petersburg while still composing Ballet and Opera. The culmination of his success probably came with his ballet ‘Giselle’ which premiered at the Paris Opera on the 28th June, 1841, and for which he is probably best known today. However, shortly after ‘Giselle’ a new director was appointed to the Opera with whom Adam had serious problems. These resulted in it being known that no work of Adam would ever again be performed at the theatre. This was a serious blow to Adam who invested his own money and borrowed heavily to open an Opera House of his own; the Theatre National in Paris, as a showcase for young composers.

Bad luck once again struck Adam in the form of the Revolution and his theatre had to be closed the following year leaving Adam in huge debt. He assigned all his royalties to pay off the debt and even turned to journalism to earn money. In 1849 he became professor of music at the Conservatoire, a position he held until his death. He continued to compose successfully and through hard work, he paid off all his debts but at the cost of his own health.

At the time of his death he had written 40 operas, fourteen ballets and numerous light opera and vaudevilles. It seems strange that while Adam was so successful during his own lifetime and his music abounds with melody and charm, he is hardly remembered today as a serious composer although his ballet ‘Giselle’ remains one of the most popular in the repertoire and his ‘Cantique de Noel’ is widely recorded and sung every Christmas. His opera ‘Le Postillon de Lonjumeau’ has just about sunk into obscurity and I have no knowledge of the existence of any commercial or any live (pirate) performance. The famous tenor aria of the same title is however, alive and well and for this at least, we must be grateful.

 

The Plot

The story opens in the French village of Longjumeau, no far from Paris, in the reign of Louis XV. The Postilion, (or Coachman), a young and handsome lad by the name of Chapelou is celebrating his marriage to the local innkeeper, Madeleine. Madeleine has retired with her wedding retenue of maidens and Chapelou is entertaining his friends and companions with a stirring song about the life of a Postilion.

He is overheard by the Marquis de Courcy, the Superintendent of the Paris Opera, who is struck by the beauty of Chapelou’s voice and offers him a job as a principal singer at the Opera. Chapelou, being an ambitious young man, accepts and leaves there and then for Paris, with de Courcy. Strange behaviour for a young man who has just got married you may think, but this is Opera, where the unthinkable can happen. Not at all like real life (!) So, the small matter of his marriage and his temporary desertion of his bride is left to his friend Bijou to explain to Madeleine, with the proviso that he will return when he is famous.

Madeleine is understandably most annoyed with Chapelou and is filled with upbraidings and laments.

The scene then changes to Paris and Madeleine, having inherited a large fortune, is living in the City where she is known as Madame de la Tour. She is still smarting over her truant husband Chapelou and is thinking of means to regain him and punish him at the same time.

Chapleous is indeed now famous at the Opera where he is known as St. Phar. His friend Bijou is with him and is also a singer at the Opera. The Company Superintendent, the Marquis de Courcy, who you will remember is responsible for enticing Chapelou to Paris in the first place, has become an ardent admirer of the famous Madame de la Tour and in order to please her he brings the whole company, including St. Phar (Chapelou), to her house for a special rehearsal. The rehearsal is a flop as St. Phar refuses to sing seriously. However, when it is explained to him that he is in the house of the beautiful and famous Madame de la Tour, he becomes serious and surpasses himself in his singing.

Left alone with Madame, and not recognising her as Madeleine (She has recognised HIM, though), he begins to Court her, indeed, he gets so carried away, that he proposes marriage to her. He is taken aback when she accepts and determines that they will be married there and then. St. Phar tries to wriggle out of it but he is outwitted as Madame sends for a priest and has the marriage performed at once ! St. Phar thinks that he has committed bigamy which fills him with alarm, but Madame has not finished with him. She entices him into a darkened room where she speaks to firstly as Madame, then as Madelaine, until he is terrified. His ordeal is not over as the Marquis de Courcy – remember him? – is not at all pleased that Madame has preferred St. Phar to himself, and sends for the Police to arrest St. Phar as a bigamist.

All is brought to a happy conclusion however, by Madame de la Tour who reveals her true identity to St. Phar and she bestows her forgiveness and unchanged love upon her now thoroughly chastened and repentant husband.

Audio

Nicolai GeddaThe aria “Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire” sung by famed tenor Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017). Wikipedia states: “Gedda had a long and successful career in opera until the age of 77 in June 2003, when he made his final operatic recording. He performed operas in French, Russian, German, Italian, English, Czech, and Swedish, as well as one in Latin. In January 1958, he created the part of Anatol in the world premiere of the American opera Vanessa at the Metropolitan Opera. Having made some two hundred recordings, Gedda is one of the most widely recorded opera singers in history. His singing is best known for its beauty of tone, vocal control, and musical perception.”

Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire

Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire
D’un jeune et galant postillon.
C’est véridique, on peut m’en croire
Et connu de tout le canton.
Quand il passait dans un village,
Tout le beau sexe était ravi
Et le cœur de la plus sauvage
Galopait en croupe avec lui.

Oh Oh Oh Oh
Qu’il était beau le postillon de Lonjumeau

Maintes dames de haut parage
En l’absence de son mari
Parfois se mettaient en voyage
Pour être conduites par lui.
Au procédé toujours fidèle
On savait qu’adroit postillon
S’il versait parfois une belle
Ce n’était que sur le gazon.

Oh Oh Oh Oh
Qu’il était beau le postillon de Lonjumeau

Mais pour conduire un équipage,
Voilà qu’un soir il est parti
Depuis ce temps dans le village
On n’entend plus parler de lui
Mais ne déplorez pas sa perte
Car de l’hymen suivant la loi
La reine d’une île déserte
De ses sujets l’a nommé roi.

Oh Oh Oh Oh
Qu’il était beau le postillon de Lonjumeau

Come, friends, and listen to the story
Of a postilion gay and young,
Well known to all, his fame and glory
Through ev’ry land have they been sung.
When he did pass thro’ town or village
Each maiden’s eye was fill’d with joy,
And among hearts he made sad pillage
He was a gay and roving boy.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! so great a beau
Was the postilion of Lonjumeau.

Fine ladies from the best circles,
In the absence of their husbands,
Sometimes used his coach
To be led by him.
Alway faithful to the journey
The postilion’s skills were well known –
If he turned to a beauty
It was only on the lawn.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! so great a beau
Was the postilion of Lonjumeau.

But to lead a coach voyage
He had left one evening;
Since that time in the village
Nothing more was heard of him.
But we shall not deplore his parting
Because he lawfully got married
To a desert island’s queen
And became king of its people.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! so great a beau
Was the postilion of Lonjumeau.

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