August De Boeck: Théroigne de Méricourt (1901)

  • DeBoeckSLTheroigne
  • DeBOeckSLTheroignePort
  • DeBoeckTheroignePhaedra
  • DeBoeckSLWinterDuCatillon
  • Betsy Judels-Kamphuyzen als Théroigne (1902-03)
  • De Boeck dedicated this photo to the chorus members of the Théroigne de Méricourt world-première
  • Phaedra CD 'In Flanders' Fields' 71 with the prelude to 'Théroigne de Méricourt'
  • Léonce du Catillon, librettist of De Boeck's 'Théroighe de Méricourt' and 'Winternachtsdroom'

August De Boeck’s first opera Théroigne de Méricourt zoomed in on the Méricourt village girl of that name. Born in the Ardennes, she was destined to play her part in the French revolution, where she became a leader of the sans-culottes, following the storming of the Bastille. This subject seems to guarantee an action driven plot, but the libretto of Léonce du Catillon was criticized for rudimentary theatrical effectiveness and cardboard characters. Having said that, the plot still reads as gripping as Pagliacci or Carmen in reverse: in her native village, Théroigne has an affair with the noble born Willem Fanson. When he deserts her in exchange for a woman of his own class, Théroigne is embittered. She leaves the village and goes to Paris. Her hatred makes her climb the ranks of the Sans-culottes fast and she becomes their leader. And so the day comes when she is faced with her former lover Fanson, whose Swiss Guard has come to defend the nobility. She once again feels love burning in her soul for him, but when he mocks her she defeats his regiment. Her answer to his plea for mercy is a knife in his heart.

The music alternates between folk influenced tunes in Act I, to Tannhäuser-like choruses and arias in between which De Boeck tests his ground, looking to establish his own style. The second act in Paris perhaps exploits a bit overtly French revolution songs such as ‘Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira…’ Still, the work was received enthusiastically by the audiences of the day and over a span of time it reached 11 performances. De Boeck’s friend and teacher Paul Gilson defended the work and thus, De Boeck suddenly found himself in the position of an opera composer with future prospects. Fortunately, De Boeck’s operas are far better documented than those of any of his colleagues of the pre-war era, and we are in the lucky circumstance that Phaedra recorded and published the overture of Théroigne de Méricourt on CD in their series ‘In Flanders’ Fields’. Perhaps the work is still a bit heavily coated in terms of instrumentation, but is is already very much De Boeck as we will come to know him later, a late romantic composer who follows in the footsteps of the Richard Strauss pre 1900, anticipating at times the young Schönberg and Schreker, while adding an almost impressionistic or Ravelian touch to his instrumentation in terms of colours. The recording achieved precisely the effect an overture was once composed for: to make people curious for the rest of the music.

August De Boeck: Théroigne de Méricourt 'Ouverture' (excerpt)
Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ivan Venkov (2011, CD Phaedra 'In Flanders' Fields' 71)