13 Aug 2011
Théodore Gouvy’s Iphigénie en Tauride
Gounod you know, but how about Gouvy?
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
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800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
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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.