Recently in Recordings
Sounds swirl with an urgent emotionality and meandering virtuosity on Jonas Kaufmann’s new Puccini album—the “real one”, according
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07 Jan 2008
ROUSSEAU: Le Devin du Village
This is a valuable new recording of a work that is only rarely heard, but was widely influential and wildly popular during the eighteenth century. Philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote both the libretto and the music, with mixed success.
Although it was the first time a composer had
written his own libretto, and Rousseau wanted to demonstrate a new method of
setting French text to music in the Italian taste, the dramatic pacing leaves
much to be desired and the quality of musical composition is uneven. Some of
the musical numbers are quite catchy (Colette’s entrance aria “J’ai
perdu tout mon bonheur,” for example, was said to have been sung all day
long, off-key, by King Louis XV on the day following the first court
performance) but others, such as the muddily-scored “Colin revient à sa
bergère,” are aimless, weak, and interminable. Charles Burney, who adapted
the opera for English-speaking audiences in the 1770s, thought it went on far
too long after Colette and Colin find true love and happiness. He was right,
but eighteenth-century audiences apparently disagreed: the opera racked up at
least 350 performances in its first fifty years.
This production, by rising young performers in the first year of an annual
summer opera festival at the Swiss Castle Waldegg (a Baroque jewel, see the
pictures at http://www.schloss-waldegg.ch/), is
classified as a live performance, but it is almost completely free of the
drawbacks of live recordings: no coughing or clapping, no clumping feet or
fade-outs as the singers move around, and good balance between singers and
orchestra. The CD, co-produced by Swiss Radio DRS 2, contains the complete
opera — except for a few verses of one seemingly-endless ensemble number
— including recitatives, a pantomime, and a ballet divertissement. An
almost-complete libretto is included: the song texts are all there, but
Rousseau’s stage directions for the pantomime are not. The lengthy
pantomime music sounds pointless unless you know the accompanying story about
a village girl, her sweetheart, and a courtier with a diamond necklace, which
starts off like a farmer’s-daughter joke and but ends as a mini-morality
The singing is pleasing and competent, as is the period-instrument band.
The CD booklet is mostly silent about the nature of the orchestra, which is a
shame, because the Cantus Firmus Consort overcomes the limitations of their
18th-century instruments rather well, especially the maniacally energetic
bassoonist. It appears that for this performance Rousseau’s scoring
(doubled or tripled strings, continuo, and pairs of oboes and flutes), has
been augmented by horns, tambour and bells. The extra percussion works well,
as it is mostly used on instrumental dances, but the raucous horns (probably
big-throated German/Bohemian hunting horns, rather than the smaller and more
delicate French instrument) are too prominent and too continuous for the
early 1750s, when horns were still a novelty in Paris orchestras.
The Soothsayer (Le Devin), Dominik Wörner, is an agreeable and
agile baritone, although his German vowels sometimes get the better of his
French diction. Michael Feyfar does well for a modern tenor attempting to
reproduce the 18th century French haute-contre voice, but he has to use his
head voice a bit too often in the upper range, and only sometimes achieves a
smooth passage between the two ranges. The star of the show (both in
Rousseau’s plot and in this performance) is Colette (soprano Gabriela
Bürgler); her tone is natural, light, and silvery, her ornamented repeats in
the arias are tasteful, and her rage aria “Si des gallants de la ville”
causes sparks to fly.
University of California, Davis