A defining example of this specialty can be found in Timpani’s release of Le Couer du Moulin, a short opera by one Déodat de Séverac. Jacques Tchamkerten’s booklet essay (as translated into somewhat cumbersome English prose by Jeremy Drake) offers the expected testament to the composer (“
one of France’s
most naturally musical composers
”) to be found in a recording that a company has deemed worthy of producing. However, Tchamkerten is also refreshingly blunt about the work’s limitations, especially the unfortunate libretto, pointing out “the artificiality of its language”, the “fairly ill-defined” characters, and the “unconvincing” supernatural voices. Once past these negative comments, Tchamkerten’s embarks on a more detailed analysis of the score, relating the perceived felicities of Séverac’s compositional style — a blend of traditional harmony and the expanding orchestral palette of his countryman and contemporary, Claude Debussy.
Indeed, the essay begins with a quotation from Debussy, passing along — second-hand — a rather anodyne compliment about Séverac’s score (it “smells good”!). Even a casual listener will quickly pick up an aural sense of deja vu, as both the mood of the piece and many orchestral details sound very much like the master’s contemporaneous work, Pelléas et Mélisande. Tchamkerten points out that Debussy's opera had not premiered at the time of Séverac’s first version of his own opera, but that claim alone doesn’t prevent anyone from believing that Debussy’s work made a great impression on Séverac, an impression now heard in the final version of his work. In fact, for many listeners who lose patience with the free-floating ambience of Debussy masterwork, Séverac’s opera may strike them as a work that captures the best of Pelléas’s spectral beauty while being easier to follow and more superficially tuneful.
Ultimately, however, Le Coeur du Moulin is a rather slight work. The story is a tedious rural love triangle, encumbered with overly poetic language and devices, and with a story that promises conflict but never produces any. Jacques had loved Marie and then went away to serve as a soldier. His delayed return led Marie to believe herself abandoned, and she married Pierre. Jacques returns, whereupon he and Marie discover their love still beats on. However, the voices of nature and wise folk of the town manage to help Jacques realize he cannot interfere in Marie’s married life, and he leaves. By comparison, Pelléas et Mélisande comes off as red-blooded and rambunctious as Cavalleria Rusticana.
Listeners might do well then to skip or barely skim the provided English translation of the libretto and just enjoy the fine performance by the Tours company forces under the experienced baton of Jean-Yves Ossonce. The soloists are all effective, and the recorded sound clear and atmospheric. If one keeps one’s expectations modest, anyone who enjoys French music of the first half of the twentieth century — and why wouldn’t one? — will find this Timpani release a pleasant experience.