Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber (1782-1871) was long considered one of the most typically French as well as one of the most successful of the opera composers of the 19th century. Although musically gifted, he initially chose commerce as a career, but soon realized that his future lay in music. He studied under Cherubini, and it was not long before his opera-comique La Bergere Chateleine (1820), written at the age of 38, established him as an operatic composer. Perhaps the greatest turning point in Auber's life was his meeting with the librettist Eugene Scribe (1791-1861), with whom he developed a long and illustrious working partnership that only ended with Scribe's death. Success followed success; works such as Le Macon (1825) and La Muette de Portici (1828) brought Auber public fame and official recognition. In 1829 he was appointed a member of the Institut, in 1839 Director of Concerts at Court, in 1842 Director of the Conservatoire, in 1852 Musical Director of the Imperial Chapel, and in 1861 Grand Officer of the Legion d'Honneur.
Auber seems to have been fated to live in revolutionary times; during his long life no less than four revolutions took place in France (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870). Auber's famous historical grand opera La Muette de Portici (also known by its hero's name as Masaniello) is perhaps unsurprisingly based on revolution, depicting the 1647 Neapolitan uprising against Spanish rule. It is a key work in operatic history, and has a revolutionary history itself: it was a performance of this work in Brussels in 1830 that helped spark the revolution that led to the separation of Belgium from Holland. It was a revolution that hastened Auber's death at the old age of 89. He died on 12 May 1871 as a result of a long illness aggravated by the privations and dangers of the Siege of Paris. He had refused to leave the city he had always loved, even after his house had been set on fire by the petroleurs et petroleuses. In a twist of fate, a mark had been placed on the house of the composer of Masaniello, the very voice of Romantic liberty! Auber's overtures were once instantly recognizable, favourites of the light Classical repertoire.
His gracious melodies and dance rhythms had a huge influence, both on piano and instrumental music, and on the genre of Romantic comic opera, especially in Germany. Musical tastes and fashions have changed, and contemporary audiences are more accustomed to the heavier fare of verismo, Wagnerian transcendentalism, and twentieth-century experimentalism. The operas themselves, apart from Fra Diavolo (1830), are seldom performed, yet Auber's elegant, delicate and restrained art remains as appealing to the discerning listener as ever it was. Le Premier Jour de bonheur, an opera-comique in three acts, was first performed at the Opera-Comique (Deuxieme Salle Favart) on 15 February 1868. It was the 86-year-old Auber's second-last opera. Eugene Scribe had died in 1861, and Auber chose Adolphe-Philippe Dennery (actually Adolphe Philippe) and Eugene Cormon (Pierre-Etienne Piestre) as his collaborators for his last two operas. The subject of Le Premier Jour de bonheur was borrowed from a comedy by Souques called Le Chevalier de Canolle given at the Odeon on 17 May 1816.
For Gaston de Maillepres, an officer serving in the French army during the colonial wars with Britain, every happy event is marred by some misfortune. He has fallen in love, but with an unknown woman whom he saw twice in London before the wars, as her carriage went by. An English girl, Helene, and her craven fiancee Sir John Littlepool arrive, having been apprehended as spies while on their way to the English garrison at Madras. Gaston recognizes in Helene his mysterious lady; she is in fact the daughter of the governor of Madras. Gaston releases Helene, but keeps Littlepool as a hostage. In act 2 Gaston comes to Madras under a flag of truce to see Helene, but is taken prisoner, and condemned to be shot the next day in reprisal for Sir John's predicament. Helene takes pity on him and confesses her love for him. Gaston's joy at this helps him to forget his despair over his imminent fate. In the last act the impressionable Sir John, released from captivity, relinquishes all claims to Helene, now believing that Helene has chosen Gaston simply to save his life, and is reconciled to their union. Gaston's first day of happiness has at last arrived.
The libretto was constructed with skill, but the givens of the situation lack enough power and simplicity to sustain interest. The score contains lovely pieces. The overture presents an overall contrast between the Indian elements of the story (the graceful Ballad of the Djinns) and the French colonial ones (a bellicose march full of military swagger and dance themes from the act 2 ball). Le Premier Jour de bonheur was the only significant work of the last decade of Auber's life, and indeed his last great success. The cast was very accomplished, consisting of: Joseph-Amedee-Victor Capoul (Gaston de Maillepres); Marie Cabel (Helene); Charles-Louis Sainte-Foy (Littlepool); Mlle Marie-Rose (Djelma); Leon Melchissedec (De Mailly, a French officer); Victor Prilleux (Bergerac, a French officer); and Bernard (the governor of Madras). Between 1867-70 there were 167 performances in Paris. The work was given in German, Italian and Hungarian.