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Ediciones Singulares “Opéra français” no. 10
02 Mar 2016

Félicien David: Herculanum

It is not often that a major work by a forgotten composer gets rediscovered and makes an enormously favorable impression on today’s listeners. That has happened, unexpectedly, with Herculanum, a four-act grand opera by Félicien David, which in 2014 was recorded for the first time.

Félicien David: Herculanum

Véronique Gens (Lilia), Karine Deshayes (Olympia), Edgaras Montvidas

Ediciones Singulares “Opéra français” no. 10 [2CDs]

$31.19  Click to buy

The French record magazines have been near-unanimous in praising the resulting 2-CD set, and the work itself. No doubt in part because of this sudden success, Wexford Festival Opera (in Ireland) has announced that Herculanum will be one of the three operas in their Fall 2016 season. The other two will be Vanessa, by Samuel Barber, and Maria de Rudenz, by Giuseppe Donizetti. Classy companions for a long-obscure composer and work!

Indeed, until now, opera lovers—including singers and musicologists—had no means of experiencing Félicien David’s only grand opera Herculanum (1859) except by playing and singing their way through the original piano-vocal score, which can be found in many large music libraries or downloaded at (The full score is likewise at IMSLP.) A single aria, Lilia’s “Je crois au Dieu,” continued to be published and performed into the early twentieth century, though deprived of its highly dramatic choral component. It, too, then vanished like the rest. With the present release, we now have ready access to the full work (well, not quite all of it), in a performance that ranges from highly proficient to masterful.

Félicien David (1810-76) is not even a name to most musicians and music lovers. His only frequently performed number is “Charmant oiseau,” from the first of his four French comic operas, La perle du Brésil. That aria, with obbligato flute, has been recorded by numerous coloratura sopranos across the decades, from Amelita Galli-Curci to Sumi Jo. In recent years, though, his output as a whole has been gaining more attention. The songs and chamber and solo-piano works were major rediscoveries.

A recording of his second comic opera, Lalla-Roukh—though minus its crucial connecting spoken dialogue—revealed it to be consistently accomplished, even at times magical. And one work has even been recorded twice: Le désert, an engaging fifty-minute secular oratorio (for one or two tenors, chorus, orchestra, and narrator), set in an unnamed Arab-world desert. As the work unfurls, a caravan moves across blistering sands, entertains itself while stopped for the evening, hears the morning call to prayer, and then sets off for another day of grueling travel. (The second, and more persuasive, recording of Le désert recently won a Grand Prix du Disque for the “repertoire rediscovery” of the year.)

The various works just mentioned are, for the most part, gentle and tuneful, with colorful touches in the orchestra. By contrast, a nineteenth-century French grand opera, composed for the prestigious Paris Opéra, needed to traverse a wide range of intense emotions and contrasting moods, corresponding to the libretto’s hefty conflicts between political powers, social classes, or religions. Opera lovers have a sense of the “French grand opera” genre—not least its sometime monumentality—from such works as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Halévy’s La Juive, and Verdi’s Don Carlos. (Also from a German work that draws heavily on devices typical of the genre: Wagner’s Tannhäuser.)

In 1859, many musicians and critics in Paris wondered whether the composer of the ear-tickling “Charmant oiseau” could meet the very different challenges of grand opera. As it turned out, Herculanum became a success, holding the Opéra stage 74 times during the next nine years. Indeed—as we learn from a richly detailed essay by Gunther Braam in the hardcover book that comes with this recording—Herculanum was, in its day, performed at the Opéra nearly as often as Gounod’s Faust and Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes and more often than Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The numerous published reviews—excerpted and evaluated in the book—praised the singers and the impressive sets and staging. Contemporary illustrations and affectionate caricatures of scenes from the opera—likewise reproduced here—give some sense of the visual splendor. (Full disclosure: I wrote the booklet’s essay on the composer’s life, but I had nothing to do with the recording.)

The opera takes place in Herculaneum, a city near Pompeii, in the year 79 A.D., just before the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. (In English, the town’s name contains the second e; in Italian it’s Ercolano.) The central tension is between a chaste, unmarried young Christian couple, Lilia and Hélios, and a nefarious sister-brother pair from the Middle East: specifically the Euphrates valley. Olympia has come to Herculaneum to be named queen of her native Eastern land by the Romans; Nicanor, Olympia’s brother, has been raised to the position of a Roman proconsul. Consistent with the prevailing operatic practice of the day, the two good characters are a soprano and tenor and the bad ones are a mezzo-soprano (or contralto) and a bass-baritone. Less typically, the latter two have some attention-getting passages of coloratura. The only other solo role is that of a Christian holy man, Magnus—another bass-baritone—who occasionally declares doom for those who practice sinful ways.

In Act 1, Olympia seduces Hélios by means of a potion, her dazzling beauty, and the splendors of her pagan court. In Act 2, the devious Nicanor tries to win the affections of Lilia, but the Christian virgin remains steadfast in her devotion to Hélios and to the God of Christianity. Frustrated, Nicanor declares that her god does not exist. A bolt of lightning strikes him dead, suggesting that his theology is faulty. Satan appears and shows Lilia, in a magical vision, what her sweetie-pie has been doing at Olympia’s court. Satan then grabs the corpse’s cloak so that, disguised as a mortal, he can continue stirring up misery on earth.

Act 3 begins with a great festival in Olympia’s court, at which Hélios appears; then Lilia, who, dropping to her knees, sings a stirring Credo: the aforementioned “Je crois au Dieu”; and finally Satan, now disguised as Nicanor. (Lilia, in horror, recognizes him, but, perhaps out of fear, does not alert the others.) Hélios is briefly torn, but, during an impressive act-finale, in which the characters interweave their music and words with much intensity, he—in order to save Lilia from being put to death by the pagans—claims again to love Olympia. Act 4 begins with Satan gathering the city’s slaves and urging them to avenge themselves on their masters. (He calls them “sons of Spartacus,” alluding to the famous slave revolt.) In the final scene, during which Vesuvius has already begun to shake the earth, Lilia and Hélios are briefly reconciled; their extensive duet was much praised by Berlioz and others. Satan reappears and causes Vesuvius to erupt. As hot lava buries the pagan city and all its inhabitants, the two Christian lovers—at least one of whom is still chaste—sing of their redemptive ascent to heaven.

The opera’s music largely resembles that of French grand operas of the day (and certain relatively serious opéras-comiques) that are somewhat better known today, by such composers as Auber, Meyerbeer, and Gounod. Several of the solo and duet cabalettas are similar in style to ones by Bellini and Donizetti (e.g., Norma’s “Ah! bello, a me ritorna”), and quite convincing in context. The orchestra sometimes provides refreshingly quirky effects. For example, the scene in which Satan urges the (male) slaves to rebel against their masters may remind listeners at times of certain fantastical moments in Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, a work that was performed twice in Paris in 1846 but not again for some thirty years. (The entire ten-minute scene can be heard on YouTube.) Audiences in David’s day, hearing this same scene, may have recalled instead something that at the time was much more familiar: the “Infernal Waltz” scene in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (“Noirs démons, fantômes”), in which Bertram convokes the spirits of hell (male chorus) to help him ensure his son’s destruction.

The Christian religious element is well caught by the composer in Lilia’s “Je crois au Dieu” in the middle of Act 3. The tune’s solid squareness makes it feel hymn-like and helps us appreciate the Christian maiden’s bravery and commitment, especially when the chorus of pagans calls for her death while she continues singing her profession of faith. The gradual entry of harp and then cornets to the orchestra as the number advances adds further grandeur and tension . The dramatic effect, in a live performance, of this faceoff between Christian soloist and pagan chorus can be sensed in a video excerpt—recorded in concert—by the same performers who are heard in the present recording. (That video “trailer” begins with the opening of the opera’s prelude and concludes with two excerpts from the big Act 4 duet between Lilia and the now-remorseful Hélios.)

A powerful confrontation of vocal forces likewise occurs in Act 1, when the pagan couple and their courtiers ridicule Magnus’s call to repent and to foreswear their evil ways. The pagans’ jaunty music here seems closely modeled on the main theme of the closing section in Act 1 of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. Indeed, numerous passages in the work have an opéra-comique lightness to them, appropriate to the pagans’ celebrations of pleasure and to their frequent expressions of sarcasm toward the outnumbered, impoverished Christians.

Only the very ending of the opera disappoints. David was hardly the composer for convulsive cataclysms. In fairness, though, the closing music was not meant to stand on its own—as it must in a recording—but to accompany a spectacular visual effect: Vesuvius erupting and destroying the town and everyone in it.

Among the many notable passages in the opera, I particularly like four that occur (or, in two cases, first occur) in Act 1. The romance sung by Hélios and then Lilia, “Dans une retraite profonde,” is a touching, sweet-sad description—with an exotically sighing oboe solo in the coda—of the modest, secluded life, religious commitment, and pure love that the two innocents share. (In Act 3, this romance will be restated in its entirety by the English horn while Lilia, in freer phrases over it, attempts to draw Hélios back from pagan bliss.) Olympia’s drinking song, the centerpiece of Act 1, uses a vigorous polonaise or bolero rhythm; perhaps this attractive number served as a model for “Je suis Titania,” a splendid aria—with similar rhythm—in Ambroise Thomas’s opera Mignon. The orchestral interlude portraying the effect of the love potion on Hélios is vividly descriptive, an aspect that Berlioz—not surprisingly, given his compositional inclination toward the descriptive or programmatic—specifically admired in his review. Hélios’s ecstatic declaration of love for Olympia, “Je veux aimer toujours” (“I want to love forever in the air that you breathe, O goddess of sensuality!”)—sung soon after the weak-willed man drains the potion-filled goblet—was much praised by Berlioz and other critics as being “truly inspired” and full of “passion” and “elegiac gracefulness.” Lilia is not on stage when Hélios sings this hymn in praise of the queen’s eyes, smiles, and “flower gardens” full of “balmy ecstasy.” The Christian maiden finally gets to hear, horrified, his traitorous song at the end of Act 2, when Satan, as noted earlier, uses his supernatural powers to let her see and hear—as if on a closed-circuit television monitor—Hélios, now decked in royal finery, sitting at the feet of the pagan queen Olympia, and singing his smitten joy .

All in all, this 2-CD set allows us to appreciate new aspects of David’s compositional deftness. For example, when a vocal melody or phrase is restated but to a different set of words, the composer often subtly adapts it to the new words, more than was usual in French and Italian operas of the day. This may make the vocal parts a little trickier to learn. But, in the end, it surely helps the singer articulate the new words in a natural and expressive manner and thus also helps the audience hear the words and grasp their point. (See, for example, Lilia’s reworking of the melodic line of “Dans une retraite profonde,” which had first been sung by Hélios. Not to speak of the more extensively altered return of this music in Act 3, involving the aforementioned English-horn solo; this moment was among the many that Berlioz singled out for special praise.) More generally, even certain numbers that may sound conventional at first—the festive choruses, an orchestral march—display intriguing touches in phrase structure, orchestration, or choral texture.

The five vocal soloists do the score proud, articulating vividly the old-fashioned but elegantly worded text. (Mary Pardoe’s English rendering in the accompanying book is admirable: accurate without ever sounding stilted. Her English version of the synopsis is more helpful on a few plot points than the version printed in French.) Orchestra and chorus are precise and full-toned. One minor objection: the English-horn player could have been more eloquent in his Act 3 solo, and even omits a particularly beautiful ornament written into the score.

My only overall complaint is that the recording favors the voices too much. For example, in CD 2, tracks 9 and 11, I had trouble hearing the orchestra’s changing harmonies until I switched to headphones. Similarly, in Hélios’s song of ecstasy to Olympia (CD 1, track 21), a listener is not made clearly and consistently aware of the 12/8 meter. David’s decision here to divide the beat into triplets, in the orchestral accompaniment, could have been made more evident to the ear; this would have increased the sense of illicit, throbbing desire that contributes so much to the dramatic tension in this work. Herculanum sometimes feels like a close predecessor to Samson et Dalila, a work that Saint-Saëns was just beginning to compose around this time and would toil away at for more than a decade.

Edgaras Montvidas is a Lithuanian tenor who performs in major opera houses and concert halls in Europe and America: for example, Lensky at Glyndebourne and the Bavarian State Opera, and Don Ottavio in Santa Fe. As Hélios, he maintains a firm, sweet tone, even when expressing (very well) such extreme emotions as ecstasy or remorse. His French is remarkably good, except on the nasal-i (e.g., jardin, ainsi). Véronique Gens is utterly magnificent as Lilia, maintaining a full, rounded sound even while conveying much dramatic specificity. Karine Deshayes, as Olympia, is at once commanding and subtle, quite an achievement. Occasionally she seems too far from the microphone to make full effect (as in Olympia’s coloratura-rich commentaries over the second statement of Hélios’s “Je veux aimer toujours”). Though these three masterful singers have never performed the work on stage, they bring remarkable alertness and seeming spontaneity to their solos and to ensemble scenes.

Nicolas Courjal , the singer of the roles of Nicanor and Satan, engages in frequent, incisive word-pointing, which would be welcome in a live performance. But, for a recording that one may want to listen to numerous times, I find his vocal quality grating: the vibrato on long notes is slowish (though fortunately not wide), the coloratura is labored, and short notes are not always perfectly pitched. As a result, his Nicanor is less than seductive in the fascinating Act 2 duet with Lilia. Imagine a young Samuel Ramey sinking his teeth into this double-role! Still, Courjal never forces or barks.

(An interesting complication: At the premiere, the roles of Nicanor—plus Satan in the guise of Nicanor—and Satan—as himself—were split between two different bass-baritones, perhaps mainly as a way of managing to have Satan appear while Nicanor’s lightning-struck body is still on stage. But having one singer take both roles works just fine on a recording, perhaps even better, since the characters are never present—or, rather, present and alive—at the same time.)

At the end of Satan’s scene with the slaves, Courjal manages the tricky scalar runs by gargling the notes rather than connecting them smoothly as the score plainly implies (“Ah . . .”); this can be heard in the ten-minute-long YouTube excerpt mentioned above, beginning just after the eight-minute mark. I suspect that here the performer is turning a limitation into an asset: the odd vocal production intensifies the weirdness of the moment and impresses the runs on our memory, so that, when the string instruments restate them in the scene’s creepy coda, we instantly recall Satan and his nastiness.

As for Julien Véronèse, who sings the smaller role of Magnus, he is a youngish bass (born 1982), frequently appearing in roles such as Sharpless, Colline, and Dr. Grenvil at secondary opera houses in France. He is capable here but, like Courjal, not ideally steady. More basically, he lacks the deep, rolling resonance that would help convey the moral authority of this divinely inspired prophet. One’s thoughts naturally turn to the sort of singer who could have made more of this character’s dramatic recitatives: say, José Van Dam or René Pape.

The recording omits, in Act 3, one major vocal number for Olympia (a Hymn to Venus: “Viens, ô blonde déesse”)—much praised by Berlioz and others—and the entire divertissement that follows it: an extended ballet, a choral hymn to Bacchus, and a chorus-assisted Bacchanale. Since CD 2 is only 49 minutes long, it could easily have included all the omitted numbers. (The aria was omitted because the mezzo-soprano was indisposed in the final days of the recording sessions.) This drastic cut, though, should in no way dissuade anyone from purchasing the recording, which—many opera lovers who hear it will agree—is one of the most important classical releases of 2015.

Herculanum is the tenth item in the ongoing “Opéra français” series produced by the renowned Centre de musique romantique française, located at the Palazetto Bru Zane (Venice, Italy). A convenient listing of the whole series, as well as of two parallel series—Prix de Rome cantatas and composer-portraits—is located at the website of the Centre. A lengthy article about the French-opera series—including an interview with the Centre’s enterprising and astute director Alexandre Dratwicki—appeared in the October 2015 issue of Gramophone.

As for the upcoming performances at Wexford, I trust that the missing sections of Act 3 will be reinstated, and hope that a video recording will be released commercially or made available online.

Ralph P. Locke

Musicologist Ralph P. Locke (Eastman School of Music) comments further on music by Félicien David in Jonathan Bellman, ed., The Exotic in Western Music (Northeastern University Press, paperback). The present review appears here with the kind permission of American Record Guide, where it first appeared (in somewhat briefer form).


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