13 Aug 2011
Théodore Gouvy’s Iphigénie en Tauride
Gounod you know, but how about Gouvy?
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Like Carmen, Billy Budd is an operatic personage of such breadth and depth that he becomes unique to everyone. This signals that there is no Billy Budd (or Carmen) who will satisfy everyone. And like Carmen, Billy Budd may be indestructible because the opera will always mean something to someone.
American composer John Adams turns 70 this year. By way of celebration no less than seven concerts in this season’s NTR ZaterdagMatinee series feature works by Adams, including this concert version of his first opera, Nixon in China.
Despite the freshness, passion and directness, and occasional wry quirkiness, of many of the works which formed this lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall - given by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, pianist James Baillieu and viola player Guy Pomeroy - a shadow lingered over the quiet nostalgia and pastoral eloquence of the quintessentially ‘English’ works performed.
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On January 28, 2017, Los Angeles Opera premiered James Robinson’s nineteen twenties production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which places the story on the Orient Express. Since Abduction is a work with spoken dialogue like The Magic Flute, the cast sang their music in German and spoke their lines in English.
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One of Aidan Lang’s first initiatives as artistic director of Seattle Opera was to encourage his board to formulate a “mission statement” for the fifty-year old company. The document produced was clear, simple, and anodyne. Seattle Opera would aim above all to create work appealing both to the emotions and reason of the audience.
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The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Gounod you know, but how about Gouvy?
According to the booklet essay in this CPO set of Théodore Gouvy’s Iphigénie en Tauride, the composer enjoyed wide respect in his lifetime (1819-1898), and this oratorio was his most successful work. Hearing it both explains the extent of his reputation during his life and why even Gouvy’s most successful work slipped into utter obscurity.
Herbert Schneider’s essay (translated by Nicholas Smith) also stipulates that Gouvy reviled Wagner and decried what was for Gouvy modern music’s “distancing” from “the ensembles, the finales, and melodic treatment of the voices.” Gouvy shows himself to be a master of choral writing in his score for this Iphigénie, with no fewer than 16 of this set’s 26 tracks listing “Choeur” participation. The Kantorie Saarlouis performs these sections beautifully, although they are not able to distinguish between the “Greeks,” “Furies” and “Scythians” the libretto depicts, for Gouvy’s great failing comes in characterization and drama. A blood-thirsty crowd calling for human sacrifice doesn’t sound all that more urgent than another group mourning in exile. Most of these passages are in minor keys, with simple but effective orchestral gestures. But that element of risk found in great art never appears in Gouvy’s work. Each section of the text is neatly compartmentalized, a tidiness that begins to feel routine very quickly. The very elegance and formal rigor that earned him such praise in his time fails him in ours, as his music only superficially captures the essence of the dark and blood-thirsty story of Iphigénie, who is forced to lead sacrifices and very nearly kills her own brother.
In the more dramatic exchanges between Iphigénie and Thoas, who compels her to perform the sacrifices, Gouvy does dare to have his Iphigénie shout out in distress, but those rare outbursts only heighten the disparity between most of the music’s professional sheen and the swirling passions of the text. Not helping matters is the unsteady vocalism of the Iphigénie, Christine Maschler. The body of the voice has a sour character, and she lunges precariously at high notes. Her male counterparts are more successful, with Benjamin Hulett in the tenor role of Orest’s friend Pylades showing a lot of promise, his voice sweet and yet powerful. Vinzenz Haab sings a stalwart Orest and Ekkehard Abele provides the expected bass aura of villainy very well as Thoas.
Conductor Joachim Fontaine and Le Grand Société Philharmonique deliver an enthusiastic reading, presenting ably the best of Gouvy’s music - some tasty orchestration, and a facility for pleasant, though not memorable, thematic material. For those who enjoy exploring rare repertoire, this CPO set will be a fine diversion. With a different soprano, this recording might even have earned Gouvy a new bunch of admirers, especially among those who agree that with Wagner, music lost that feel for “melodic treatment of the voices.” As the conclusion drags on and on, however, many more will be glad to have given Gouvy a chance, but feel that the judgment of music history was just and apt.