Sapho is a 3-act opera by Charles Gounod to a libretto by Émile Augier
which was premiered by the Paris Opera at the Salle Le Peletier on 16 April 1851.
It was presented only 9 times in its initial production,
but was a succès d'estime for the young composer, with the critics praising Act 3 in particular.
It was later revived in 2-act (1858)
The impetus for the composition of Gounod's first opera, and its acceptance for performance at France's premiere opera house,
was primarily due to the influence of Pauline Viardot, who met the young composer in January or February 1850,
shortly after her triumph there in Meyerbeer's Le prophète.
In his memoirs Gounod relates that the violinist François Seghers, who at that time was
the leader of the Concerts de la Société Sainte-Cécile on the Rue Chaussée-d'Antin,
had presented some pieces by Gounod which had made a favorable impression.
The Viardot family knew Seghers and through him Gounod received an invitation to play several of
his compositions on the piano so they could hear them.
After several hours Pauline Viardot asked Gounod why he had not yet written an opera.
He responded that he did not have a libretto.
When she asked with whom he might like to work, he mentioned that although he had known Augier in childhood,
the latter had now become far more famous than he and would hardly care to risk working
with someone with whom he had only played hoops.
Viardot immediately told Gounod to seek out Augier and tell him that she would take the responsibility
to sing the principal role in Gounod's opera, if Augier would write the poem.
Gounod also says that Viardot recommended his opera to the director of the company,
who at that time was Nestor Roqueplan.
According to her daughter, Viardot made renewal of her contract for the 1850–1851 season at the Opéra
conditional on a commission for Augier and Gounod.
In any case, the contract between Augier, Gounod, and Roqueplan, which was dated 1 April 1850,
specified a 2-act opera to be provided by 30 September 1850 and performed no later than 1 April 1851
The story of the opera is based on the legends of the Greek poetess Sappho,
her love for Phaon and her suicide.
Place: Olympic Games and on the isle of Lesbos
Time: 6th century BC
Act 1 Phaon is torn in love between for the poetess Sappho and the courtesan Glycère
and is teased by Pythéas.
Sappho wins the poetry competition from Alcée.
Phaon declares his devotion to her.
Act 2 Phaon is involved in a revolutionary plot, to establish freedom and justice.
Pythéas agrees to supply details of the plot to Glycère in return for her favours.
Glycère secretly informs the authorities,
but deceitfully tells Sappho that she will not inform
if Phaon leaves Lesbos without Sappho.
Phaon arranges to leave Lesbos;
Sappho is maintaining that she will not accompany him.
Her inflexibility causes Phaon to turn to Glycère.
Act 3 Phaon, Glycère and the conspirators bid farewell to their country.
Sappho has come to bid them farewell,
but Phaon curses her. Nonetheless,
she forgives and blesses Phaon,
and then commits suicide by leaping into the ocean.