Cherubini’s 'Elisa': Alpine Virtue During the Terror

  • 5.15pm

  • Alison House, Lecture Room A
    12 Nicolson Street
    EH8 9DF

Led by Sarah Hibberd (University of Bristol)

Florindo, the suicidal hero of Cherubini’s Elisa, ou Le voyage aux glaciers du Mont St-Bernard, is swept to near-death by a spectacular avalanche at the opera’s denouement. A community of friars dig him out, however, and he is reunited with his lover Elisa; all join together to celebrate ‘amour, vertu’. Fascination with the Alps had already begun to overtake Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century but was given added momentum by the first ascent of Mont-Blanc in 1786. Under the weight of details gleaned from subsequent scientific and touristic expeditions the Alpine landscape began to be presented in a new way. On the one hand, reports of dangers and disasters emphasized the plight of heroic explorers and brave rescuers in the face of nature’s destructive power. On the other hand, the landscape was viewed as an aesthetic gauze onto which one might project one’s sense of self and of society. It is this double human and philosophical turn in the representation of Alpine danger that is foregrounded in Cherubini’s opera. But, conceived in 1793 (though not premiered until December 1794) for the Théâtre Feydeau, the opera also had to conform to censorship requirements under the Terror.

The historian Carol Blum has explained how Rousseau’s dream of virtue as a model for conceptualizing the self and shaping an ideal state became the touchstone of the Revolutionaries. Sarah argues that the opera draws on contemporary scientific, philosophical and political discourses, and offers by example a template for achieving the Republic of Virtue. First (building on Michael Fend’s important work), Sarah examines the opera’s Alpine abyss – represented musically as well as visually and textually – as a critical figure that captures Florindo’s refashioning of self, as he moves from utter despair through to joy and hope. Sarah then investigates the friars’ humanitarian rescue and their collective aspirations. Sarah concludes by arguing that the opera’s encapsulation of the relationship between individual and community in the symbolically charged Alpine landscape embodied the new Revolutionary conception of ‘virtue’ in a manner that was to remain relevant even after the fall of Robespierre.

Free to attend. Open to all.

Part of the Music Research Seminar Series 2017/18.

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