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Reviews

02 Apr 2016

New from Opera Rara : Gounod La Colombe and Donizetti Le Duc d'Albe

Two new recordings from highly acclaimed specialists Opera Rara - Gounod La Colombe and Donizetti Le Duc d'Albe.

Opera Rara : Gounod La Colombe, Donizetti : Le Duc d'Albe. A review by Claire |Seymour

Above:

 

Charles Gounod: La Colombe
Sylvie - Erin Morley, Horace - Javier Camarena, Mazet - Michèle Losier, Maître Jean - Laurent Naouri; conductor - Sir Mark Elder, Hallé.
Opera Rara ORC53 [2 CDs, 40:48, 39:11]

Gaetano Donizetti: Le Duc d’Albe
Henri de Bruges - Michael Spyres, Hélène d’Egmont - Angela Meade, Le Duc d’Albe - Laurent Naouri, Daniel Brauer - Gianluca Buratto, Sandoval - David Stout, Carlos - Trystan Llŷr Griffiths, Balbuena - Robin Tritschler, Un Tavernier - Dawid Kimberg; Soldiers, Sailors, Flemings, Spaniards, People - Opera Rara Chorus; conductor - Sir Mark Elder, Hallé.
Opera Rara ORC54 [2 CDs, 44:58, 48:40]

With its latest two recordings, Opera Rara, with Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé, continues to excel in fulfilling its ambition to bring back forgotten operatic repertoire of the 19th-century. They resurrect operatic works from the margins: whether that’s the work of undeservedly overlooked composers, or undeservedly neglected work by the renowned, Opera Rara invariably make a convincing case.

With La Colombe (The Dove), released in October 2015, Opera Rara made their first foray into the work of Charles Gonoud. This opéra comique - premiered in a one-act version at the Theater der Stadt in Baden-Baden in 1860 and subsequently presented in an expanded two acts at the Salle Favart in Paris in 1866 - sets a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré based on the poem ‘Le Faucon’ by Jean de la Fontaine.

The plot is fairly slim: the wealthy Countess Sylvia wishes to buy a dove from her penniless admirer, Horace, for she desires a bird to rival the talking parrot of her social adversary. The smitten Horace refuses to sell his avian favourite, but when the hard-up ‘hero’ invites his beloved to dinner, he has to contemplate sacrificing his pet dove to provide a fitting supper for the Countess. Sylvia is initially horrified to learn that her dinner has comprised the longed-for dove, but she is placated when she discovers that it was in fact the loathed parrot that provided le repas.

It’s a neat four-hander, and mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier, in the trouser-role of the manservant Mazet, is the pick of the quartet - though there are certainly no weak links. Losier has a full, dark mezzo through which she is able to communicate feeling and character. Her opening aria, an ode to the eponymous dove, ‘Apaisez blanche colombe’, is notable for its rich timbre, controlled vibrato and composed phrasing - and Mark Elder ensures that the contributions of clarinet and flute are able to make their mark too. Mazet’s frustrated diatribe against women, later in the Act, is a tour de force of fantastically rolled ‘r’s, cackles and luscious, lyrical outbursts, above swirling chromatic strings and pounding timpani - genuine melodrama!

As the haughty Sylvie, soprano Erin Morley is a little strident in the spoken dialogue but more than makes up for this with the lovely clarity and fullness of tone, and impressive control, that she exhibits in Sylvie’s not insubstantial arias. Her voice feels youthful and fresh, and we can forgive her presumptions and foibles. In her lengthy Act 1 aria, ‘Je veux interroger’, in which she uses her charm to beguile the hapless Horace, Morley is untroubled by the demands of the coloratura: she hits the top C#s and D#s spot on, and slithers with precision through the roulades. Elder keeps things swirling along and again makes space for the woodwind solos. In the sincerely fond-hearted Act 2 Romance, ‘Que de rêves’, Morley’s focused, gleaming tone is again complemented by fine woodwind playing.

Mexican tenor Javier Camarena is a sympathetic Horace. Camarena sings with openness and directness, and his relaxed tenderness conveys sincerity in both the Act 1 Romance, ‘J’aimais jadis’, in which he reflects upon how the sweet dove reminds him of his beloved Sylvie, and the terzetto ‘O vision enchanteresse’. But, he finds ardency too, particularly in the quartet which concludes Act 1, ‘O douce joie’; and is Act 2 duet with Mazet, ‘Il faut d’abord dresser la table’, during which the pair set the table and decide to kill the dove, is utterly compelling - one as a real and vivid sense of how this scene might play out on stage. Camarena’s Act 2 Madrigal ‘Cet attraits’ - an ode to Sylvie’s beauty and grace - is exquisitely tender; the tenor is wonderfully relaxed above the stave, both sweet and ardent.

Maître Jean, the Countess’s major-domo, is played by French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri - and this is luxury casting. There is warmth of feeling in his Act 1 ariette, ‘Le amoureux’, but also a sense that Naouri is containing the sound - which means that he and Elder can take liberties, and indulge in some almost Straussian insouciance. In Act 2, Mister Jean volunteers to prepare the amatory feast, and Naouri’s aria, ‘Le grand art de cuisine’ combines honesty with swagger - how can he possibly cook without food!? - amid some Rossinian orchestral commentary. When Naouri does release his full vocal powers, the tone is gloriously faux-heroic - a dash of Falstaff, perhaps?

Overall, this is charmingly refined, genteel farce - which an occasional dash of piquancy; the comedy is swathed in Romantic indulgence and Elder does not rein in his players’ emotive utterances unnecessarily, though he does not allow for self-indulgence; similarly, the truncated dialogue trips along with just the right splash of nonchalant blitheness.

The score is light-weight but evocative, and Elder does his best to overcome the four-square nature of some of the melodic writing and the rather uninventive orchestration: he injects urgency and as required and encourages orchestral delicacies- such as the overture’s lovely cello solo, and the fine horn playing - including a fantastic sustained trill - that complements it. Elder appreciates the score’s harmonic sentiments and admits an appropriate degree of romantic schmaltz, while keeping things waltzing along in a manner sensitive to the singers’ needs. The sound engineers ensure that all is cleanly delivered.

The French language coach, Nicole Tibbels, has done a good job; and it must help to have several native speakers in the cast. Moreover, we are provided with a comprehensive booklet, containing a French-English libretto along generous commentary by Hugh Macdonald, and colour production images.

With their February 2016 release of Donizetti’s unfinished Le duc d’Albe of 1839, Opera Rara return to their roots, and to a composer whose unfamiliar treasures they have oft mined and brought to light.

The history of the Le duc d’Albe is one of truncated contracts, lost scores, reconstructions, translations and conjecture. Commissioned by the Paris Opéra in 1839, to a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier, the opera was subsequently shelved. Some, such as the Donizetti scholar William Ashbrook, have suggested that the appointment of new director was instrumental, for ‘Rosine Stoltz, the director’s mistress, disliked her intended role of Hélène and Donizetti put the work aside when it was half completed’. Others argue that there is little evidence that this was the case, and that Donizetti’s letters suggest that he thought the role well-suited to Stoltz. Whatever the reason, Le duc d’Albe bit the dust and by the time the Opéra again expressed an interest Donizetti was ill; he died three years later, with the manuscript still incomplete.

In 1881, Donizetti’s autograph score was sold to the Milanese publisher Lucca - after having been refused, in respect of the composer’s memory, by Ricordi - and a group of experts from the Milan Conservatory commissioned by the ambitious head of the firm, Giovannina Lucca, concluded that a revival was possible. Matteo Salvi, for a brief time a pupil of Donizetti, was entrusted with the task of providing the necessary additions. The text was translated into Italian by Angelo Zanardini and the completed opera received its first performance (as Il Duca d’Alba) at the Teatro Apollo in Rome on 22 March 1882. After a few revivals in the 1880s, Il Duca d’Alba enjoyed various revivals in the 1880s, but then disappeared once more.

Then, in late 1951/early 1952, the conductor Fernando Previtali discovered a copy of Salvi’s completion in a flea market book stall, and organised an Italian Radio broadcast. Since then, the Italian Il Duca has been revived and recorded several times. With such a fragmentary documentary history, the opera offers various routes to those wishing to present a new production and in an extensive liner-note article, scholar Roger Parker explains Opera Rara’s decision and intent:

‘We decided, as did those first juries in the 19th century, that the final two acts of the opera are simply too fragmentary to warrant revival as a ‘Donizetti’ opera. While, as mentioned, many of the vocal lines are intact in these last acts, the complete absence of orchestration (not to mention the large gaps in numbers at the start of Act 3 and at the end of Act 4), left - we thought - too much of a gap: reconstruction would not be possible, wholesale recomposition (in the manner of Vlaamse Opera with Battistelli) would have been the only option. On the other hand, the first two acts are almost completely by Donizetti, and we thought that the few missing sections could well be completed in a manner that stayed much closer to Donizetti’s idiom than did Salvi. To this end, we decided to limit this recording to those first two acts, and we commissioned Martin Fitzpatrick to complete the few parts of the score that were left unfinished.’

The plot of Le duc d’Albe is familiar as it was later reworked by Eugène Scribe for Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes of 1855, in which the action was transferred to 13th-century Sicily. Donizetti’s opera takes place in Brussels in 1573 and concerns an uprising against Spanish oppression in Flanders led by the daughter of the recently executed Count Egmont, Hélène, and her lover, Henri de Bruges. When Henri publicly condemns the Spanish, the Duke surprises all by questioning Henri in private about his parentage and inviting him to join the Spanish army. Henri remains defiant, but to his amazement he is released by the Duke. Despite participating in a foiled assassination attempt, Henri is spared, and is angrily confused at the reasons behind the Duke’s advocacy (he is the Duke’s son).

One of the joys of this recording is the performance of tenor Michael Spyres as Henri de Bruges. Spyres has strength, stamina, courage and sweetness of tone, and he calls upon all these qualities in a commanding performance. In his Act 1 duet with the Duke, Spyres conveys all of Henri’s disbelief, anxiety and vehemence when he finds himself released from imprisonment, feelings that are enhanced by the urgency present in the orchestral textures and interjections. Asked his name by the Duke, Spyres flings out ‘Henri!’ with real zeal and boldness; when questionned about his father - who was exiled and ‘died far from us’ - sadness tinges his insubordination, and there is a veritable explosion of passion when he sings of his mother, ‘Je vais la retrouver!’ (One day I shall see her again!)

Challenging the Duke to punish his alacrity, Spyres has the stamina to sustain and control the demanding line, to dip the dynamic and then turn up the throttle. The top of his voice is easy and appealing: when Henri is told that he is pardoned but that he must serve in the Spanish army, Spyres leaps up the octave with spring and vigour, ‘Moi? Moi? Servir nos bourreaux!’ (Me? Me? Serve our murderers?), exuding incredulity, defiance and integrity.

In Act 2, the directness of his appeal to Daniel’s workers to join his assassination plot reveals Henri to be a master of rhetorical persuasion, while his avowal of love to Helene in Act 2 is sophisticated and graceful, the smoothness of his melody anticipated by the warm woodwind prelude, the ardour of feeling embodied in the full and lyrical expansion that Donizetti intermittently grants the strings
.
Throughout Spyres copes readily with the relentless tessitura, as in this concluding exchanges with Duke in Act 1. Their voices blend thrillingly in the climactic, stratospheric curse, ‘Malheur à toi!’ (Woe on you!) Laurent Naouri’s Duke is a man of steely haughtiness, but also nobility and genuine feeling. Naouri makes him a three-dimensional figure, both an oppressive tyrant and an empathetic father. Defying Sandoval’s insistence that he should order Henri’s death, the Duke urges the latter to show prudence and keep away from the brewery (where Hélène is in hiding) and there is a mix of love and foreboding in his terrible warning, ‘De ce logis ne franchis pas le seuil, Je le défends ... moi Le Duc d’Albe!’ (Do not cross the threshold of that place, I forbid you... I, the Duke of Alba!)

Angela Meade exhibits temerity and technical prowess in tackling the demanding role of Hélène. From the first the line rises high above the stave and Meade is dauntless in expressing Hélène’s all-consuming desire for vengeance. Initially, her fast vibrato sometimes adds a slight shrillness - as when she first learns of her father’s execution, ‘O mon père! Je vengerai ta mort! ... Je t’en fais le serment!’ (O my father! I shall avenge your death! ... I swear it!) - but as the Act proceeds her soprano gains in richness and fullness.

Meade shows impressive strength across the whole range in ‘Au sein des mers et battu par l’orage, Voyez, ce beau vaisseau prêt à faire naufrage!’ (In the middle of the sea and prey to a storm, look, a fine ship is about to be wrecked!), building with astonishing power through the steadily climbing long-breathed lines, and the vitality of her exclamations to the crew to show courage would surely be inspiring to those in peril. She holds nothing back: no wonder the people fanatically revere her, ‘Quels accents! Quel langage!’ (What ardour! What words!). To complement such fervour, Hélène’s innate nobility of bearing and heart is made apparent in her Act 2 declaration of love for Henri; supported by a poised harp accompaniment, Meade produces a beautifully shaped line but makes intelligent use of vibrato and colour to suggest both the intensity and the fragility of the moment.

Baritone David Stout is excellent as the Duke’s henchman, Sandovel. The garrison captain is full of smug self-importance at the start of Act 1 when gloats and taunts the innkeeper, ‘Par Saint-Jacques, messieurs, on ne boit qu’à Bruxelles’ (By Saint-Jacques, sirs, only in Brussels do we drink). Espying Hélène he intones softly, ‘Voyez donc cette belle qui sort de sa maison! … Si c’est sa fille, amis, Je lui pardonne! ... Mais pour elle!’ (Look at the beautiful lady coming out of his house! ... If it’s his daughter, friends, I pardon him! ... but only for her sake!), but the string tremolo tells us all we need to know about his intent, while clarinet’s introspective lyricism conveys a daughter’s grief.
When Sandovel confronts the conspirators in Act 2, he is a tightly wound coil of frustrated viciousness; Stout’s tone is bronzed and menacing, the words clipped and tight - the rolled ‘r’s rip through the tense air, as when he orders his soldiers to break the barrel where the conspirators’’ weapons are secreted: ‘Brisez-les!’

The supporting roles are well cast and attractively sung too. As Daniel, the brewer, Gianluca Buratto demonstrates a secure, well-centred baritone which expresses real earnestness when he explains to Sandovel that Hélène is his ward, a truth of feeling that swells into protective anger in the light of the captain’s impudence, ‘Ah! C’est trop d’audace!’ (Ah! He is too bold!) When Daniels utters his shock at the Duke’s tyranny, ‘Quelle horreur m’environne, De fureur je frissonne’ (What horror invades me, I tremble with fury!) the tremor just evident within the intense line really does seem to suggest that, as Daniel avows, his blood is boiling.

Tenor Trystan Llŷr Griffiths displays tonal warmth and vigour as Carlos while baritone Dawid Kimberg is engaging as the Tavernier. Robin Tritschler’s drunken soldier, Balbuena, finds a nice balance between snide nasality and ampleness of tone during his vulgar taunting of Hélène in Act 1.

Sir Mark Elder injects Donizetti’s score with a revolutionary fervour worthy of Verdi. He shows masterly appreciation of the theatrical sweep, building effectively through the long sequence for Henri and the Duke that ends Act 1 and towards the close of the second Act, but he does not neglect a single detail or point of colour in any individual scene or number. The pizzicatos that underpin Henri’s assertion that he wants no mercy from the Duke ping with defiance, while the horns’ militaristic rat-a-tat at close of Act 1 is dry and ambiguous. Elder is alert to every nuance by which Donizetti conveys the rapid emotional fluctuations as Helene assures Henri of her love and urges him to avenge her father in Act 2. There is both tenderness and fear of what will come in their Act 2 duet, and Elder makes the most of the subdued orchestral colours: details such as snarling chromatic descent, or anxious fragmented conversation in the pianissimo strings communicate the instability of the moment. In this way, the darkness and violence in Donizetti’s score attain an unstoppable momentum.

The Opera Rara Chorus are in resplendent voice: in the opening scenes the feisty fury of the Chorus of Spaniards’ bragging cries, ‘Vive l’Espagne! Vive son roi!’ is counter-posed by the soft insistence of the Flemings’ bitter ‘Mort à l’Espagne! Mort à son roi!’, thereby initiating the irresolvable discord which powers the drama. The Spaniards’ subsequent eulogy of their Duke sweeps aside the tentative march-steps of the instrumental introduction with thunderous power. Similarly, in Act 2 the fervent excitement of the Chorus of Conspirators as they prepare to follow Henri is matched by the unflagging sense of duty exhibited by the Duke’s soldiers.

As always, Opera Rara provide a detailed accompanying booklet which includes Roger Parker’s extensive and informative liner notes, an English-French libretto and production images. This is a gripping performance which certainly does not, in a single regard, leave one feeling it is ‘incomplete’.

Claire Seymour



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