Sometimes referred to as The Two Days or The Water Carrier, Les Deux Journees is considered a watershed work in the annals of modern French opera. It is likewise Cherubini’s greatest success in terms of popular appeal and marked a shift in his artistic direction. Following the composing of Medee in 1797, Cherubini chose lighter subjects, adapting numerous elements from the French opéra comique style.
(French comique doesn’t refer to humor–it is characterized by combining non-operatic vocal forms with spoken dialogue with a story of some topical appeal–rather than, say, a recasting of a classic myth or legend.)
Les Deux Journées is set during the French Revolution at a time when the French people were sick of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. The story of the libretto was taken from a real-life event that occurred during the Reign of Terror, in which a water-carrier aided a well-to-do relative of the librettist, Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, helping him to escape death at the hands of the revolutionary government.
Les Deux Journées is considered rescue-opera– a lowly water-carrier rescues the Comte Armand, President of the French parliament, from the Italian forces of Cardinal Mazarin. As depicted in this telling, the humble water carrier is not only the most courageous but also the cleverest character in the story. Apparently a group of water-carriers offered the librettist a free supply of water for making a water carrier a popular hero.
Cherubini himself fled Paris to escape the guillotine. After hiding out a few years, he returned to a capital city that was desperate to end the turmoil tearing apart his country.
The popular appeal of Les Deux Journées is both through story and music, which is widely considered melodic and tuneful. It was also extremely popular in Germany where it was performed well into the twentieth century in German translations. Several great German composers–Beethoven, Schumann, and Weber, to name a few– greatly admired Cherubini’s romantic treatment of his story because of the complex harmonies and imaginative orchestrations, and the complete marriage of music with drama.
As a composer, Cherubini not only changed the direction of French opera, but greatly influenced the development of German Romantic opera as well.