In Helen McCloy’s Cue for Murder (1942), a young man is murdered during a revival of Sardou’s Fédora (1882) – a play written for the great Sarah Bernhardt, and which is remembered today, if at all, for Giordano’s opera (1898).
The tone is cool and sophisticated; characters are sharply and sympathetically observed; and one gets a good insight into theatre in 1940s New York. The solution may not be earth-shattering – there are only a handful of suspects – but the clueing is excellent.
In its quiet way, a triumph.
Sardou, a disciple of Eugène Scribe (the master of the well-made play and the go-to man for opera libretti, including all four of Meyerbeer’s grand opéras and La Juive for Halévy), wrote historical plays (the Revolution, the court of Louis XIV, Byzantium, mediaeval Greece, 16th century Spain) – several of which were turned into operas.
Although the most famous is unquestionably Tosca, the one I am desperate to hear is Patrie!, about the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish in the sixteenth century.
Paladilhe’s 1886 opera was a major hit, but, like so much of the French repertoire, has vanished. (For more information, see Carnets sur Sol’s excellent article.)
Arthur Pougin raved about the work in his supplement to Félix Clément’s Dictionnaire des opéras.
“The poem of this work is the musical adaptation of M. Sardou’s moving and superb drama performed at the Porte-Saint-Martin on 18 March 1869.”
“Moving and superb”! Bernard Shaw dismissed the playwright as mere Sardoodle-dom – but Shaw liked Ibsen and Wagner.
“This skilful adaptation inspired the composer in the happiest way. … From a superb libretto, he wrote music full of grandeur, passion, emotion, and poetry…
“What strikes me as particularly remarkable in the score of Patrie, considering it as a whole, is the monumental solidity of its construction; the sureness and firmness of the attaches, which show neither weakness nor lack of care; the beautiful sonority of the orchestra, an orchestra truly dramatic and never symphonic (which is not the same thing); the elegant cut and beautiful order of the musical phrase, whose ripples sometimes take a powerful richness; it’s a collection of qualities that are at once very musical and very dramatic and which denote a true man of the theatre, apt to seize all the situations and translate them into music with the greatest fidelity and the greatest effect possible.”
I have heard three pieces from the work, which are all sublime.
And yet the entire work has never been recorded.
Detective story fans think they have it tough! All they need is a publisher and copyright. Opera needs singers – who can sing; an orchestra; staging; and that rarest of things, directors who don’t destroy the work.