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Esclarmonde – Byzantine Empress and Sorceress

Posted On April 25, 2017 | 13:42 pm | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (May 2017)

Esclarmonde Poster by Auguste-François Gorguet, 1889. Dumbarton Oaks Archives Ephemera Collection (AR.EP.PS.0556)

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives Ephemera Collection has acquired an 1889 poster made for the opera Esclarmonde by Jules Massenet. The opera was commissioned for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris and starred the American soprano Sybil Sanderson in the title role.

Sybil Sanderson as Esclarmonde, 1889
Sybil Sanderson as Esclarmonde, 1889

The opera’s libretto, written in prose by Alfred Blau and versified by Louis Ferdinand de Gramont in 1882, was based on a twelfth-century chivalric tale, Parthénopéus de Blois, which Blau had rediscovered in 1871. However, in Parthénopéus, the protagonist empress-sorceress is named Melior; Blau borrowed Esclarmonde’s name from a thirteenth-century French epic, Huon de Bordeaux, where Esclarmonde is the daughter of the emir of Babylon.

In the opera, Esclarmonde is a Byzantine empress and sorceress who is in love with the French knight Roland, Count of Blois. She uses her magic powers to transfer Roland to an island where she joins him nightly, hiding behind a veil to conceal her identity. When the king of France offers Roland the hand of his daughter in marriage, Esclarmonde falsely believes herself betrayed and, cursing Roland, surrounds herself with a ring of fire and demons. Later, her father offers her in marriage to the victor of a chivalric tournament, and that victor turns out to be Roland who happily becomes the empress’ valiant consort.

The Art Nouveau-style poster, designed in 1889 by the artist Auguste-François Gorguet, depicts Esclarmonde in a Byzantine-inspired costume with a jewel-encrusted loros panel and a crown reminiscent of the coronation crown of the Russian czarina, Catherine the Great. The color lithograph (chromolithograph) poster was published by Georges Hartmann, who was also the exclusive publisher of Massenet’s scores between 1870 and 1891.