The viceroy of Peru, suffering from gout, is confined to his room instead of going to church to attend a magnificent ceremony with the whole town. He is discussing the coquette La Périchole, of whom he is enamoured, when the lady herself is announced. La Périchole charms the Viceroy into letting her drive his brand new coach to the ceremony. She wishes to be the envy of all Lima. Instead, she manages to cause a scandal by upsetting another coach. She returns to the viceroy with the Bishop of Lima to inform him that henceforth the coach is to serve to carry the Blessed Sacrament to dying Peruvians. While the infatuated viceroy admires her pious action, the Bishop delights inpossessing so beautiful a coach.
Prosper Mérimée’s play, Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement had been a flop since its conception, and when revived in 1848, received more hisses than applause during its six performances. However, in 1917, Yvonne Arnaud staged it with considerably more success in New York, London and Paris, where Berners saw it. “I was at once fascinated by the grace, the spirit and the character of this little work… It is true that a piece whose charm lies almost entirely in word and dialogue, where the action, materially speaking, is reduced to the very simplest expression, did not seem to me particularly suitable for musical treatment… Although this is a comic opera, or if you prefer it, a ‘comédie musicale’, I have laid aside the traditional overture or prelude, the utility of which I fail to see… As regards style you will see that I have not adhered to the old tradition of different airs and scenes following each other, and bound together by different turns of the intrigue: Mérimée’s comedy unfolds itself in too continuous and concise a manner not to induce me to follow its line by a musical development that is held together in the style of a symphonic poem.”
The play is set in the Peruvian capital, Lima, and has some foundation in fact – Sir Frederick Ashton, as a boy, brought up in Peru, met a man who had actually seen the coach of the title. Berners set the French text, cutting some of the earlier scenes, and completed the work in 1920.
The work was discussed with Diaghilev as early as December 1922 but it was not until the evening of 24 April 1924 that the opera, conducted by Ernest Ansermet, was finally seen – at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in a triple bill with Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale and Henri Sauguet’s La Chatte. The latter was about to be cut when Berners stepped in to save it. He had misgivings of his own, not musical but scenic. He was spotted a day before the premiere walking up and down the foyer of the Ritz Hotel waving his arms in despair. “Mais le décor. It will spoil everything… Last night after rehearsal I had dinner with the chef d’orchestre, M. Ansermet, and we simply sat and wept. We did really… Those awful red curtains. Oh I wish tomorrow night were weeks off.”
The Times liked it, calling it “an unqualified success… Lord Berners’ music makes the work an unalloyed enjoyment. Only the fact that it leaves no opening for applause, that it flows on, sustaining, illustrating, emphasizing the text with unflagging wit and varying sentiment, prevented the work from being interrupted several times by appreciative cheers.” The French critics were less generous, although the public enjoyed the evening – Berners appeared on stage and acknowledged the applause for some minutes – but plans to transfer the production to London came to nothing. This is probably the reason Berners never wrote for the medium again. The mixture of so much work for relatively little artistic reward, the backstage battles – all combined to push him into other theatrical areas, principally ballet. However, he thought some of the music worth saving, and devised an orchestral work, Caprice Péruvien, from some of the more immediately engaging moments in the score, with help from Constant Lambert.
The opera in cast in eight scenes that follow each other without a break, all set in the office of the viceroy.
© Philip Lane