This comic duo was written in the wake of that terrible ‘flamme dévorante’ which destroyed Chabrier’s hopes for his marvellous opera. Among the eighty-four people killed in the disaster were four dancers, two members of the chorus, four dressers and four ‘ouvreuses’ – the usherettes who lived on gratuities. Carvalho was sentenced to three months in prison for negligence, but this was reversed on appeal. The public responded to the disaster with enormous sympathy; there was a benefit concert for the staff of the Opéra-Comique who were injured or suddenly unemployed, and compensation was also paid by the government to victims. That is how, in this piece, a poor usherette suddenly finds herself ‘in the money’. Her boyfriend had been a draper’s assistant at Le Bon Marché, a large department store (still a Parisian institution) founded and owned by Aristide Boucicaut (1810-1877). In 1886 Boucicaut’s wife Marguerite had created a caisse de retraite (pension fund) for the shopworkers, which was well ahead of its time. In this piece the two workers, liberated by their good luck, sing a hymn of praise to their respective previous bosses. We gather that the Bon Marché employé had fallen in love with the usherette at a performance of Auber’s opera Fra Diavolo.
That Chabrier should have chosen to set these words is a sign of his love of irony. His musical and financial hopes were ruined by the fire, but he was obviously not a beneficiary of the largesse of ‘le public naïf’. Thus the theme of this work is ‘it’s an ill wind’ and the composer’s own involvement in the incident, and his concerns for his own lack of provisions for his old age, are mirrored in the determined drollery of the music. This is reflected not only in the rather mordant melodic lines (surely the suggestion is that these two have taken to drinking liquor when they had previously only been able to afford coffee) but in the rather grotesque use of the voices. One cannot doubt that the original performers (Elisabeth Fuchs and the music critic Julien Tiersot, later famous as a folksong collector) would have made much of the comic aspects of two working-class characters aspiring to the high life, but they must have been good singers as well as actors. One never hears this piece in recital and one of the reasons must be its outrageous vocal demands. The soprano part is difficult enough, but the tenor has an awesomely punishing succession of high Ds and yodelling sixths in the curious ländler-like refrain. And if one wants evidence of Chabrier’s harmonic modernity one need look no further than bars 112 to 115 where the jazzy accompaniment to ‘Les temps sont loins’ sounds more like ragtime than seems historically possible.
All in all this is a piece with a comic zest and black humour that is unique in the history of the mélodie. Even more bizarre are two pieces for two voices and orchestra, both written in 1878. These were Cocodette et Cocorico where the singers take the roles of rooster and hen, and Monsieur et Madame Orchestre where they simulate various orchestral instruments. The Duo recorded here is actually less extreme than these two long (and too long) early pieces which are all but impossible to perform vocally; the Duo de l’ouvreuse de l’Opéra-Comique et de l’employé du Bon Marché represents a more mature and manageable aspect of Chabrier’s irrepressible need to play the fool.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002