22 January 2016 at 11.10am | Comment on this article
‘Ô petite étoile’ (O little star) is probably the most famous number from Chabrier’s gloriously silly opera L’Étoile. It’s not hard to see why: music of a lilting pull accompanies a beautiful, pleasingly symmetrical melody, and it all wraps up nicely in under four minutes. And yet – as is almost always the case with this unfairly neglected composer – there’s a lot of subtle, intelligent and surprising work that goes on beneath the song’s lovely surface.
‘Ô petite étoile’ is the big lyric number for L’Étoile’s hero, the love-struck young pedlar Lazuli (sung by a woman, in keeping with operatic tradition of the 'trouser role' for the role of an ardent adolescent). It is Lazuli’s second song in the opera, after the rambunctious, ridiculous Rondeau du colporteur (Pedlar’s rondo), in which Lazuli pronounces his name three different ways within the first four bars. ‘Ô petite étoile’ strikes a different note, as Lazuli slowly sings himself to sleep, wrapped in delicious daydreams.
The song’s instrumental introduction immediately establishes a dreamy mood, achieved by Chabrier through a mixture of conventional and more unusual means. An elegant, rising violin motif sounds simultaneously with a complementary but strikingly independent horn melody. Four bars later there is a complete change of orchestral sound as the woodwind take over, matched by a surprising harmonic move – but Chabrier marshals his forces so intelligently that the following four bars sound like the natural answer to what has gone before.
Chabrier continues to marry the conventional and the surprising as Lazuli starts singing. The instrumentation of strings and horn provides continuity with the introduction, though Lazuli’s chromatic melody, decorated with delicate grace notes, is quite different. Even more unusual – although something of a Chabrier trademark – is the use of irregular phrases, as Lazuli continually and unpredictably sings beyond the four-bar framework. The effect is surprisingly subtle, but creates an unmistakably languorous sense that characterizes Lazuli’s idle wishful longing.
After this first irregular nine-bar section, Lazuli repeats his opening melody, this time accompanied by an oboe in place of the horn – another reference to the structure of the introduction, and also a more intense, yearning sound that prepares the ensuing development. As Lazuli urges his ‘petite étoile’ to tell him his future, the stress shifts to the second beat in the bar, in disorienting counterpoint to the regular pulsing of the violins. Chabrier is extremely specific with his tempo markings here, ensuring his music conveys Lazuli’s urgent dream to fulfil his future.
After an exact reprise of the introduction there is a sorrowful middle section, written in the relative minor and orchestrated with instruments often associated with lament: sighing clarinets, and later a yearning cello melody. The text setting repeatedly emphasizes ‘Tu peux’ (you can) as through rapid harmonic movement Lazuli presses the star to grant him power and pleasure, to make him a prince or a king.
The song ends with a reprise of Lazuli’s opening melody, played a little more slowly than at the opening. Lazuli is now accompanied by shimmering flutes and violins, and as he comes to the end of his song a pianissimo offbeat pulse in the upper strings suggests his gentle dip into unconsciousness. There is a last reprise of the opening instrumental melody, which ends unusually on the third note of the scale – almost as if Lazuli has fallen asleep before the music has had time to come to a proper end. It’s a delicate and subtle final touch, and one that is unmistakably Chabrier.
L’Étoile runs 1–24 February 2016. Tickets are still available.