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Recordings

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Le Devin du Village
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.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Le Devin du Village

Cantus Firmus Kammerchor & Consort; Gabriela Bürgler, soprano; Michael Feyfar, tenor; Dominik Wörner, baritone; Andreas Reize, conductor

CPO 777-260-2 (CD)

$15.99  Click to buy

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 play.

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.

Beverly Wilcox
University of California, Davis

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