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Recordings

<em>La Jacquerie</em>
10 May 2017

LALO and COQUARD: La Jacquerie

La Jacquerie—here recorded for the first time—proves to be a wonderful opera, bringing delight upon delight.

La Jacquerie

Édouard Lalo and Arthur Coquard

‘Opéra français’ Palazzetto Bru Zane series (Ediciones Singulares) | 2016 | Volume 12 [2CDs]

$29.19  Click to buy

The work had a tortuous genesis. In 1889, three years before his death, Edouard Lalo began working on it. He managed to complete the first act, interpolating into it—with new words—some extended passages from Fièsque, an early opera of his that had never reached the stage. (Fièsque survives and has in recent years been recorded—starring Roberto Alagna—and has even been staged.) Lalo orchestrated the first half or so of the first act—very effectively, as those who know his famous Symphonie espagnole will not be surprised to learn.

After Lalo died, Arthur Coquard, a composer-friend, completed the orchestration of the first act and wrote the remaining three acts, occasionally bringing back some of Lalo’s music from Act 1 and reworking it in dramatically apposite ways. Coquard is not entirely unknown today. Clarinetists still play one lovely instrumental work of his: Mélodie et scherzetto, which can be heard in five recordings on YouTube. Coquard also wrote notable music criticism and published two books that are still worth reading: one on the history of French music, the other a “critical biography” (as Coquard entitled it) of Berlioz.

The libretto of La Jacquerie, like the music, is the work of multiple hands. Begun by Edouard Blau, it was completed, at Coquard’s invitation, by Simone Arnaud, a playwright who attained substantial public success in her own day. Several of her plays were performed at the Odéon and the Comédie-française, and she provided librettos for two operas composed entirely by Coquard and another for an opera by Louis Bourgault-Ducoudray.

La Jacquerie had its first three productions in Monte Carlo, Aix-les-Bains, and Paris—all in 1895—and then more or less vanished. The small hardcover book that comes with the recording reprints an extended review of the Paris production (which took place at the Opéra-Comique). Written by Arthur Pougin, a celebrated critic and scholar of the day, the review praises the entire second act (“utterly moving and poignant”) and much of the fourth. The book also contains three essays by present-day scholars, one of which, by Gerard Condé, points out some attractive moments in the sung verses as well as recurring musical features that help unify the score.

When La Jacquerie reached the Opéra-Comique, the performers that made the strongest impression were mezzo-soprano Marie Delna, as the widowed farm-owner Jeanne, and tenor Henri Jérome, as her politically idealistic son Robert. On the present recording, the tenor playing Robert, New York-born Charles Castronovo, is first-rate. Some readers may recall him as Natalie Dessay’s sweet-voiced co-star in the documentary film Becoming Traviata. Here he is even more remarkable, emitting clarion phrases that may remind opera lovers of Bizet’s Don José or Saint-Saëns’s Samson. The soprano, Véronique Gens, is utterly magnificent as Blanche, a count’s daughter, whom Robert loves despite the social gulf between them. Her tone has a delightful shimmer, yet she also conveys the changing phases of Blanche’s devotion, distress, and—at several points—bitter anger. The remarkable “fit” between soprano and tenor can be sampled in their duet, online. The other singers are capable and mostly firm; only Nora Gubisch reveals a touch of wobble, but this is not out of character for the aging farm-owner Jeanne.

The singers, mostly French-born, deliver the text clearly and naturally, helping the listener appreciate Lalo’s and Coquard’s sensitivity to words and to dramatic situations. (Lalo was a masterful song composer: see my review here of a 2-CD set of his complete mélodies.) The only serious problems in pronunciation come from the 29-year-old Russian-born Boris Pinkhasovich as the hotheaded revolutionary Guillaume. I often had to check the libretto to find out what Guillaume was saying. Also, Pinkhasovich’s voice lies high for the role, making it difficult for him to deliver low notes with sufficient menace. Jean-Sébastien Bou, as Blanche’s father, likewise is strong in his high register—indeed eloquent and powerful—and weak where the role lies low. The choral forces of Radio-France sing superbly in their several dramatically crucial scenes.

The plot derives freely from an experimentalist play (in 36 highly episodic scenes, without division into acts) by Prosper Mérimée, who also penned the novella that is the source of Bizet’s Carmen. The two librettists added numerous then-standard operatic elements, including a central love story and a choral prayer (Stabat Mater) by a wayside cross. At the dramatic climax, the heroine, Blanche, shields her aristocratic father from attack by the peasant mob and is, in turn, shielded by her beloved Robert. The moment seems an elaborate riff on the climax of Beethoven’s Fidelio, where Leonore interposes herself between her beloved Florestan and the tyrant about to murder him. Though these elements may seem overly familiar when one reads the libretto by itself, in practice they provide welcome opportunities for ­­extended and sonorous musical numbers rich in dramatic impact. And, despite these moments of expansion, the opera as a whole moves forward at a satisfyingly brisk pace. I particularly love the moment when the ferocious orchestral music that opens Act 4 returns to signal that the army of the feudal landowners is arriving to put down the rebellion. The soldiers are not seen on stage: the music speaks for them, powerfully.

The Jacquerie was a major uprising of peasants and farmers in northern France during the summer of 1358. The term “Jacquerie” refers to the condescending nickname for a man from the rural provinces: “Jacques Bonhomme” (Jack Goodfellow). The Jacquerie uprising was finally put down by the landowners, but memory of it remained strong in France for centuries. By the time of Lalo and Coquard, a tale of a peasant uprising could resonate also with memories of more recent French revolutions and revolts, including ones in 1789, 1830/32, 1848, and 1871. A letter from Lalo drew just such a parallel, calling Guillaume a communard, i.e., someone who, had he been born centuries later, would have been a leader of the heavily socialistic Paris Commune (which ruled Paris for two months in 1871 until it was suppressed by the government).

Some of the strongest material in Act 1 (Lalo’s act) and Act 2 occurs when Guillaume, Robert, and the chorus bewail the lot of the working poor and argue over how much violence to undertake against the overlords. The single best scene occurs toward the end of Act 2, where Jeanne pleads with Robert not to risk his life by leading the impending revolt. (The scene resembles in some ways a famous one between John of Leyden and his mother Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Le prophète.) Also particularly strong are two numbers in the final act: a duet for Jeanne and Blanche—both of whom are obsessed, in different ways, with Robert—and the subsequent duet, in which Robert and Blanche finally confess their love for each other. Though Lalo had begged Blau, without success, to de-emphasize the love element in the libretto, this long-awaited interchange between soprano and tenor ended up inspiring some of Coquard’s best music. And why not? This is opera, after all!

In the love duet, as elsewhere in the work, the orchestra is given stirring phrases that the voices either soar over or join, as in many of the mature operas of Wagner and other composers of the time. There is also an attention-getting chromatic sequence (over a rapid descending line in the low strings) that represents the demands of the peasants in Acts 2 and 3 and that seems directly inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The passage is introduced in the prelude to Act 2, and it gets reworked in fascinating ways, such as when Jeanne—no revolutionary herself—is singing about the uprising.

The phrase structure in the work is quite un-Wagnerian, being relatively clear-cut and thus closer to what one finds in mid-nineteenth century Italian and French operas by, say, Verdi, Gounod, and Bizet. Also, the work as a whole consists largely of a succession of relatively self-enclosed numbers, much as is the case in other French operas of Lalo’s and Coquard’s era, e.g., by Saint-Saëns and Massenet. The Blanche-Robert duet even ends with a cabaletta that gets repeated in full, harking back to a tradition from earlier in the century, but the repeat is dramatically enlivened by death threats from the peasant warriors who have just broken into the lovers’ hideaway. Two intriguing rhythms in the orchestral accompaniment reminded me of specific works by Brahms: a dotted rhythm on the upbeat, prominent in Brahms’s Tragic Overture (Lalo uses it at the beginning of Act 1, after the prelude) and a sarabande-like rhythm—triple meter with lengthened second beat—heard midway through the finale to the Fourth Symphony. (Coquard uses the latter rhythm near the beginning of Act 4 when Jeanne waits in agony for word of Robert’s fate.) A propulsive triple-meter dotted rhythm in Lalo’s Act 1 may have been inspired by various polonaise- or bolero-style cabalettas by Verdi (“Di quella pira”), Ambroise Thomas (“Je suis Titania”), and others; Coquard brings that very rhythm back toward the end of Act 3 to help ratchet up the tension as the revolutionaries face off against the nobles. These and other echoes of different European musical and operatic traditions—I think Coquard may have been listening to some Russian music—remind us how cosmopolitan French music could be at the turn of the twentieth century, and how fruitful that cosmopolitanism could be.

The orchestral preludes and postludes to the various acts are extremely characterful and involving, as are the three ballet numbers plus choral hymn-to-springtime that begin Act 3. (Blanche is being entertained by her handmaidens but cannot fully join in the joy.) Some enterprising conductor could make a fine suite for orchestra—perhaps with chorus—out of these portions alone.

Throughout the opera, the nicely detailed recorded sound allows the orchestral part to make its full impact, without ever scanting the solo voices or chorus. The numerous passages of commentary for solo winds (notably flute, horn, English horn, and saxophone) are beautifully rendered, and the engineers have balanced them well against the larger orchestral and vocal fabric. The brass plays superbly in the recurring orchestral passage (mentioned above) that represents the powerful landowners. One cavil: at a few points in the work, the pizzicato playing by the strings is so quiet that I have to strain to decipher the harmonic progressions.

La Jacquerie is the latest in “Opéra français,” a series of recordings that is produced by the Center for French Romantic Music (based at the Palazzetto Bru Zane, Venice) and is devoted to unjustly forgotten French operas. Previous releases in the “Opéra français” series include works by such composers as Méhul, Félicien David, Gounod, and Saint-Saëns. (On the Center for French Romantic Music, see my review of a 3-CD set from a different Palazzetto series, “Portrait”; the album consists of music by Marie Jaëll.) The accompanying book contains a synopsis and libretto plus (as mentioned above) essays and documents about the work and its history, and everything is provided in two languages: French and English.

The English translations are largely smooth and clear, but some wordings are a bit laconic or even misleading. Many may wonder why one essayist briefly mentions an operatic character named Chimène. (My guess is that this is an elliptical reference to Debussy’s unfinished opera Rodrigue et Chimène.) Jeanne is described as a “farmer’s wife,” whereas a fermière can be, as Jeanne indeed is, a woman who owns a farm and works it. Most confusingly of all, the translated synopsis tells us that, in the final duet, Robert “conceals” his love from Blanche, but the French word means “reveal,” which is indeed what happens in the libretto.

All in all, the recording and its accompanying book comprise a major contribution to our understanding of what a skillful and relatively successful work could be like in the world of French opera during the era of the youngish Debussy. La Jacquerie would, I wager, hold the stage very well today. (The recording was made during a concert performance at Montpellier in southern France.) The enthusiasm of the performers on this recording can be sensed in a video. I certainly will now be on the lookout for other works by Arthur Coquard. And I await eagerly the next offerings in the Palazzetto’s “Opéra français” series. It occurs to me that the inherent problems of singing French correctly and sensitively may have worked against many fine French operas that deserve a hearing at least as much as—or perhaps in some cases even more than—certain more familiar Italian works by Boito, Cilea, Giordano, Ponchielli, or Zandonai. All praise to the Palazzetto for bringing these works back to life in such an admirable fashion, and for providing, in the accompanying books, materials that can help a listener today see what we have been missing all along!

Ralph Locke

Ralph Locke taught musicology for forty years at the Eastman School of Music. He continues to do specialized research but also enjoys writing for music lovers everywhere at American Record Guide (where a version of this review first appeared) and at OperaToday.com, NewYorkArts.net, and MusicologyNow.ams-net.org.

      

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