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Les élémens

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Title: Les élémens  
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Subject: André Cardinal Destouches, The opera corpus, Opéra-ballet, List of opera librettists, List of opera genres, Classical music written in collaboration
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Les élémens

For the French chamber choir, see Les Éléments.

Les élémens (The Elements), or Ballet des élémens, is an opera-ballet by the French composers André Cardinal Destouches and Michel Richard Delalande (or de Lalande). It has a prologue and four entrées. The libretto was written by Pierre-Charles Roy.


Destouches was responsible for most of the music. It has never been ascertained how much each composer contributed to the composition. In a 1726 letter, Destouches wrote to Antonio I, Prince of Monaco: "We were ordered to work in partnership; he [Delalande] wrote very fine things whose details I implore you to spare me, for he demanded of me that we should be covered by the same cloak".[2] Delalande probably wrote the overture, much of the prologue and some parts of the first entrée. Jean Balon provided the choreography.[3]

Les élémens has the typical structure of the opera-ballet: its four entrées are musically and dramatically independent, but topically related to one another.[3] Its subject matter, however – gods, heroes and ancient Romans – relates it more to the special type of opéra-ballet called "ballet-héroïque".[4]

Performance history

The opera was first performed at the Tuileries, Paris on 31 December 1721, with the 11-year-old Louis XV participating in the dancing.[5] It was revived by the Paris Opera at the Palais-Royal theatre from 29 May 1725, with increasing success, the degree of which "may be gauged by the fact that it remained in the repertory for more than 50 years and was revived in 1727, 1734, 1742, 1767, 1771, 1776, 1778, and 1780", and that it inspired "three parodies: Momus exilé (1725) at the Théâtre des Italiens; Le chaos (1725) at the same theatre; Il était temps (1754) at the Saint-Laurent fair".[6] It was also revived at Madame de Pompadour’s Théâtre des Petits Appartements, on the Grand Escalier des Ambassadeurs in the Palace of Versailles, on 23 December 1748, in which Madame de Pompadour herself performed.[7]

Les élémens was Destouches's most successful work, and his master Delalande’s only stage work to appear at the Paris Opéra. At court it "marked the end of several eras: it was Lalande’s final stage work, Louis XV’s last stage appearance and the final French court ballet".[3]

There was a modern revival at the Opéra Royal de Versailles on 7 October 2001 under Jérôme Corréas, with Isabelle Poulenard, Françoise Masset, Jean-François Lombard, Matthieu Lecroart, and Renaud Delaigue.[7]


Role Voice type Cast of premiere[8]
(31 December 1721)
Cast of Palais-Royal revival[7]
(29 May 1725)
Conductor   Jean-Féry Rebel  
Prologue: “Chaos” (Le Chaos)
Destiny basse-taille (bass baritone) Justin Destouches du Bourg Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard [9]
Vénus soprano Erémans (also spelled Erremans or Herémans) Lambert [10]
A grace soprano Mignier
First entrée: “Air” (l’Air)
Junon soprano Marie Antier[11] Marie Antier
Ixion basse-taille Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard
Jupiter basse-taille Claude-Louis-Dominique Chassé de Chinais Claude-Louis-Dominique Chassé de Chinais
Mercure haute-contre Denis-François Tribou Denis-François Tribou
Second entrée: “Water” (l’Eau)
Leucosie soprano Erémans Erémans
Doris soprano Souris Souris
Arion haute-contre Louis Murayre (also spelled Muraire) Louis Murayre
Neptune basse-taille Justin Destouches du Bourg Justin Destouches du Bourg
a triton haute-contre Denis-François Tribou
Third entrée: “Fire” (le Feu)
Émilie soprano Marie Antier[11] Marie Antier
Valère basse-taille Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard
L'Amour soprano Dun Dun
Fourth entrée: “Earth” (la Terre)
Pomone soprano Cathérine-Nicole Le Maure (also spelled Lemaure or Le More) Cathérine-Nicole Le Maure
Vertumne haute-contre Louis Murayre Louis Murayre
Pan basse-taille Claude-Louis-Dominique Chassé de Chinais Claude-Louis-Dominique Chassé de Chinais
a sheperdess soprano Mignier


The following synopsis is based on Pitou (1985).

Prologue: Chaos

After Destiny makes the elements replace chaos, Venus complains about her exclusion from the undertaking, Destiny mollifies her by showing her a statue of her future son, Louis XV, who is celebrated by a chorus and is committed to the elements’ favour.

1st entrée: Air

Aroused by Mercure to be less aloof, Ixion refuses Junon’s order to spy upon unfaithful Jupiter’s movements and instead declares his love for her. This provokes a terrible fit of anger on her part. As a punishment, Jupiter will consign him to the depths of Hades.

2nd entrée: Water

After refusing to marry Eole on account of his bad temper, and because she already loves a stranger from afar, Leucosie welcomes Arion, the stranger she loves, who has arrived on the back of a dolphin, to Neptune’s palace. Arion too falls in love with Leucosie. Neptune recognizes him as his own son and orders his marriage to Leucosie.

3rd entrée: Fire

This entrée is set in the vestibule of the temple of Vesta, where the priestess Emilie attends to the goddess’s fire for the last time, having received permission to marry Valère. When Valère comes to the temple, Emilie tells him that she had a nightmare in which Vesta had appeared with a great crash, mad with rage, and had struck him dead by lightning. While Valère is trying to reassure her, the temple plunges into darkness, as the sacred fire has gone out: Emilie takes the blame for neglecting it and refuses to flee with her lover, bravely willing to face her deadly punishment. However, Cupid appears over a cloud, relights the sacred fire and blesses the wedding of his two followers.

4th entrée: Earth

Pomone seems to disregard love, so Vertumne, who is in love with her, disguises himself as a woman, Nérine, in order to be allowed to approach her. In this disguise, Vertumne witnesses Pomone rejecting Pan’s approaches, and then is made aware by her of her secret love for him. He reveals himself and the entrée ends in a ballet and chorus celebrating Love.


Excerpts from the work have been recorded by The Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood, Decca (L’Oiseau-Lyre) 475 9100 (CD).[12]


  • (French)
  • Bartlet, M. Elizabeth. C. (1997). "Ballet-héroïque", in Stanley Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Grove (Oxford University Press), New York, 1997 (ISBN 978-0-19-522186-2), I, p. 294.
  • (Italian)
  • Coeyman, Barbara (1997). “Élémens, Les”, in Stanley Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Grove (Oxford University Press), New York, 1997 (ISBN 978-0-19-522186-2), II, p. 35.
  • Pitou, Spire (1983). "Antier, Marie" in The Paris Opéra. An Encyclopedia of Operas, Ballets, Composers, and Performers – Genesis and Glory, 1671–1715, p. 156. Greenwood Press, Westport/London, 1983 (ISBN 0-313-21420-4)
  • Pitou, Spire (1985). "Les Eléments" in The Paris Opéra – An Encyclopedia of Operas, Ballets, Composers, and Performers – Rococo and Romantic 1715–1815, pp. 183–84. Greenwood Press, Westport (Connecticut), 1985 (ISBN 0-313-24394-8)
  • (French) Sawkins, Lionel (2001). , in Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726), Versailles, Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles; Établissement Public du musée et domaine national de Versailles, 2001, p. 59-65
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