(Jean François Marmontel and André Modeste Grétry, 1771)

Zémire: Let me see my sisters and father again.

Azor: As far as I can I will obey.  They will appear here in the picture. But if you come near, everything will vanish.

Zémire: Alas! How sad he is…He is seeking me out with his eyes. It is as if he is speaking to me. His arms seem to reach out to me. Ah! If I could fly to you! If only he could hear me!

Azor: It is impossible.

Zémire: And can I not hear him?

Azor: Ah, Zémire! What do you demand of me?

Zémire: You would refuse what I desire?

Azor: No, but I am sure, alas, that in obeying you I will betray myself. Their tears will render me odious, I know. But you wish it; I love you. You will hear their voices.

Ah! Laissez-moi (audio)

Zémire et Azor premiered in Paris in 1771 and soon became one of the most popular operas in Europe. With a libretto by Jean François Marmontel and music by André Modeste Grétry, it tells the story of beauty and the beast. In this version, the beast (Azor) allows beauty (Zémire) to see the family she so dearly misses by means of a magic picture. At first the picture is silent, but upon Zémire’s request Azor adds the voices of her family. Newly audible, Zémire’s father and sisters lament her absence in the trio “Ah! Laissez-moi.” Marmontelle called for the trio to sound muted, to which Grétry responded by having a backstage wind sextet accompany the voices. Hearing her family, Zémire is so moved that she rushes towards the picture as if to reach them. As Azor warned, the picture instantly vanishes, and the calls for Zémire to “revien” (return) cease to be heard a moment later. In Zémire’s wish to see and to hear, to be seen and be heard by her family, we can recognize the desire for videotelephony. Now that video chat is a regular occurrence, fairytale magic and the dramatization of separation must find means of expression other than Zémire et Azor‘s imaginary moving-talking picture.
Text: Marmontel, Zémire et Azor (Paris, 1777); partially trans. by Downing Thomas in Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Régime, 1647-1785
Image: “Tableau magique de Zémire et Azor”
Music: Orchestra de chambre la RTB, cond. Edgard Doneux (EMI classics)