With the legends of the Greek poet Sappho selected as the story line—partly because it provided a suitably serious and impressive title role for Viardot—Gounod and his mother were invited for a prolonged stay at the Viardot summer home “Château de Cortavenel.” Located in the Seine-et-Marne region of France, Louis Viardot had purchased the country house in April of 1844. It was a castle-like building, complete with towers, a moat and a drawbridge. Parts of the house dated back to the 16th century, and Pauline had the attic converted into a small theater. There the family would put on performances. Admission was on potato, which gave the theater its colorful name, “Théâtre des Pommes de Terre.” Viardot also invited the Russian poet Ivan Turgenev, with whom she had an increasingly intimate relationship, to remain in France and join Gounod and his mother.
In a letter to Viardot dated 16 May 1850, Turgenev describes Gounod as a composer in some detail. “What Gounod lacks somewhat is a brilliant and popular side. His music is like a temple: it is not open to all. I also believe that from his first appearance he will have enthusiastic admirers and great prestige as a musician with the general public; but fickle popularity, of the sort that stirs and leaps like a Bacchante, will never throw its arms around his neck. I even think that he will always hold it in disdain. His melancholy, so original in its simplicity and to which in the end one becomes so attached, does not have striking features that leave a mark upon the listener; he does not prick or arouse the listener—he does not titillate him.” Pauline was on tour in Germany, and she corresponded frequently with Gounod. On his part, Gounod wrote Pauline nearly every day, often multiple times per day. His letters were emotionally intense, detailed and to some extent confessional, giving rise to the suggestion that their relationship had not been purely professional. However, given the frequency of the correspondence and the musical details discussed, Gounod and Viardot successfully pooled their respective musical expertise to create a single creative force.
Pauline returned to France in early September 1850, and Gounod had nearly completed the musical score. She was satisfied, but insisted on a number of changes and alterations. Augier was called in to write additions and make changes to the poem, and in the end the opera had expanded to three acts and would occupy an entire evening. Once rehearsals got under way in February 1851 government censors required further changes. Eventually, the premiere took place on 16 April 1851 and Hector Berlioz wrote, “I confess, it touches me to the heart, exalts the mind, excites and disturbs and enchants me more than I can say.” Unfortunately, Sapho failed to find favor with Parisian audiences, and although Viardot’s prestige carried the work to the Covent Garden in London in the very same year, it remained a box office failure. Critics praised Viardot, but Gounod blamed her for the failure. A year later, they broke off all contact and George Sand wrote, “His behavior reeked of selfishness and vanity and calculation.”
Charles Gounod: “O ma lyre immortelle,” Sapho