Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Recordings

Lisbon under ashes - rediscovered Portuguese Baroque

In 1755, Lisbon was destroyed, first by a massive earthquake, then by a tsunami pouring in from the Atlantic, then by fire and civil unrest. The scale of the disaster is almost unimaginable today. The centre of the Portuguese Empire, with treasures from India, Africa, Brazil and beyond, was never to recover. The royal palaces, with their libraries and priceless collections, were annihilated.

Beyond Gilbert and Sullivan: Edward Loder’s Raymond and Agnes and the Apotheosis of English Romantic Opera

Mention ‘nineteenth-century English opera’ to most people, and they will immediately think ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’. If they really know their Gilbert and Sullivan, they’ll probably remember that Sullivan always wanted to compose more serious operas, but that Gilbert resisted this, believing they should ‘stick to their last’: light, comic, tuneful satire.

Pan-European Orpheus : Julian Prégardien

"Orpheus I am!" - An unusual but very well chosen collection of songs, arias and madrigals from the 17th century, featuring Julian Prégardien and Teatro del mondo. Devised by Andreas Küppers, this collection crosses boundaries demonstrating how Italian, German, French and English contemporaries responded to the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Laci Boldemann’s Opera Black Is White, Said the Emperor

We normally think of operas as being serious or comical. But a number of operas-some familiar, others forgotten-are neither of these. Instead, they are fantastical, dealing with such things as the fairy world and sorcerers, or with the world of dreams.

The Devil, Greed, War, and Simple Goodness: Ostrčil’s Jack’s Kingdom

Here is a little-known opera that, like an opera by the Swedish composer Laci Boldemann that I have reviewed here, and like Ravel’s amazing L’enfant et les sortilèges, utterly bypasses the usual categories of comic and grand/tragic by cultivating instead the rich realm of fantasy and folk tale.

Grands motets de Lalande

Majesté, a new recording by Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre, of music by Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726) new from Alpha Classics. Le Poème Harmonique are regular visitors to London, appreciated for the variety of their programes. On Friday this week, (11/5) they'll be at St John's Smith Square as part of the London Festival of Baroque, with a programme titled "At the World's Courts".

Perpetual Night - Early English Baroque, Ensemble Correspondances

New from Harmonia Mundi, Perpetual Night. a superb recording of ayres and songs from the 17th century, by Ensemble Correspondances with Sébastien Daucé and Lucile Richardot. Ensemble Correspondances are among the foremost exponents of the music of Versailles and the French royalty, so it's good to hear them turn to the music of the Stuart court.

Maria Callas: Tosca 1964: A film by Holger Preusse

When I reviewed Tosca at Covent Garden in January this year for Opera Today, Maria Callas’s 1964 Royal Opera House performance was still fresh in my mind. This is a recording I have grown up with and which, despite its flaws, is one of the greatest operatic statements - a glorious production which Zeffirelli finally agreed to staging, etched in gothic black and white film (albeit just Act II), with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, if not always as vocally commanding as they once were, acting out their roles like no one has before, or since.

Hubert Parry and the birth of English Song

British music would not be where it is today without the influence of Charles Hubert Parry. His large choral and orchestral works are well known, and his Jerusalem is almost the national anthem. But in the centenary of his death, we can re-appraise his role in the birth of modern British song.

Camille Saint-Saens: Mélodies avec orchestra

Saint-Saëns Mélodies avec orchestra with Yann Beuron and Tassis Christoyannis with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Markus Poschner.

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV recreated at Versailles

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV, with Ensemble Pygmalion, conducted by Raphaël Pichon now on DVD/Blu -ray from Harmonia Mundi. This captures the historic performance at the Chapelle Royale de Versailles in November 2015, on the 300th anniversary of the King's death.

Tenebræ Responsories
recording by Stile Antico

Tomas Luis de Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories are designed to occupy the final three days of Holy Week, and contemplate the themes of loss, betrayal and death that dominate the Easter week. As such, the Responsories demand a sense of darkness, reflection and depth that this new recording by Stile Antico - at least partially - captures.

Mahler Symphony no 9, Daniel Harding SRSO

Mahler Symphony no 9 in D major, with Daniel Harding conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, new from Harmonia Mundi. A rewarding performance on many levels, not least because it's thoughtfully sculpted, connecting structure to meaning.

A Splendid Italian Spoken-Dialogue Opera: De Giosa’s Don Checco

Never heard of Nicola De Giosa (1819-85), a composer who was born in Bari (a town on the Adriatic, near the heel of Italy), but who spent most of his career in Naples? Me, neither!

Winterreise by Mark Padmore

Schubert's Winterreise is almost certainly the most performed Lieder cycle in the repertoire. Thousands of performances and hundreds of recordings ! But Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout's recording for Harmonia Mundi is proof of concept that the better the music the more it lends itself to re-discovery and endless revelation.

The Epic of Gilgamesh - Bohuslav Martinů

New recording of the English version of Bohuslav Martinů's The Epic of Gilgamesh, from Supraphon, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. This is the world premiere recording of the text in English, the original language in which it was written.

Maybe the Best L’heure espagnole Yet

The new recording, from Munich, has features in common with one from Stuttgart that I greatly enjoyed and reviewed here: the singers are all native French-speakers, the orchestra is associated with a German radio channel, we are hearing an actual performance (or in this case an edited version from several performances, in April 2016), and the recording is released by the orchestra itself or its institutional parent.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac in Two Exotic Masterpieces by Maurice Ravel

The two works on this CD make an apt and welcome pair. First we have Ravel’s sumptuous three-song cycle about the mysteries of love and fantasies of exotic lands. Then we have his one-act opera that takes place in a land that, to French people at the time, was beckoningly exotic, and whose title might be freely translated “The Nutty and Delightful Things That Can Happen in Spain in Just One Hour”.

Stefano Secco: Crescendo

I had never heard of Stefano Secco before receiving this CD. But I see that, at age 34, he already has had a substantial career, singing major roles at important houses throughout Europe and, while I was not paying attention, occasionally in the US.

French orientalism : songs and arias, Sabine Devieilhe

Mirages : visions of the exotic East, a selection of French opera arias and songs from Sabine Devieilhe, with Alexandre Tharaud and Les Siècles conducted by François-Xavier Roth, new from Erato

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Recordings

Ediciones Singulares ES1026 [CD]
24 Nov 2017

Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: Uthal

The opera world barely knows how to handle works that have significant amounts of spoken dialogue. Conductors and stage directors will often trim the dialogue to a bare minimum (Magic Flute), have it rendered as sung recitative (Carmen), or have it spoken in the vernacular though the sung numbers may often be performed in the original language (Die Fledermaus).

Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: Uthal

Karine Deshayes (Malvina), Yann Beuron (Uthal), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Larmor), Sébastien Droy (Ullin), Philippe-Nicolas Martin, Reinoud Van Mechelen, Aravazd Sargsyan, Jacques-Greg Belobo (bards). Les Talens Lyriques, Choeur de Chambre de Namur, conducted by Christophe Rousset.

Ediciones Singulares ES1026 [CD]

$34.99  Click to buy

Or they avoid the problem by not performing the work at all. The French operatic tradition, in particular, is full of important works with spoken dialogue that we rarely get to see on stage: some comic (e.g., by Auber or Adam), others serious (e.g., by Cherubini or, as here, Méhul).

Recording a little-known work, whether in the studio or during a performance, can give performers a chance to find out whether it retains enough vitality to speak to present-day listeners. I am currently reviewing two works with spoken dialogue and will soon post them here: Hérold’s Le pré aux clercs, a long-loved French opéra-comique whose tone alternates between giddy and grim; and, most unusually, an Italian work: De Giosa’s comic opera Don Checco. (The latter recording was actually made during a staged performance, apparently quite a successful one.)

Here we have the first fully satisfactory modern recording of the one-act opera Uthal (1806) by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763-1817). This work has long been praised for its unusual treatment of the orchestra, but performances have been few. An LP of a BBC studio performance from 1972 was once available on a pirate LP; it can now be retired.

The opera’s story comes from the writings of “Ossian,” a bard purported to have lived in southern Scotland in the third century. The Ossian epics were beloved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, even after it became known that they were, to a significant degree, inventions by a Scottish poet named James Macpherson, not (as Macpherson had at first claimed) translations from Gaelic originals. In Méhul’s opera we meet Malvina, her aged father Larmor, and her husband Uthal, who has deposed Larmor. There is much mention of Fingal, the people’s leader; many of us still recognize that brave warrior’s name through the other standard title for Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture: “Fingal’s Cave.” The libretto was written by J. B. de Saint-Victor, largely in classical alexandrines (rhymed verses consisting of six-plus-six syllables, as in the great tragedies of Corneille and Racine).

The many intriguing musical moments include an arioso for Malvina (track 9) in which orchestral fragments of the tramp-tramp of the warriors (who have just left the stage) can still be heard; the first chorus of bards, to which Malvina then overlays an entirely different melody (track 10); and the soliloquy aria for Uthal upon his long-awaited first appearance, halfway through the work (track 12). One senses here an opera composer who is never content to provide music in an automatic, conventional manner—and one from whom Berlioz, who likewise loved to layer disparate musical materials on top of one another, learned a lot.

Another intriguing moment: a solo cello, in high register, threads its quiet way through that aria of Uthal’s, playing long notes that form the melodic core of his vocal line, which has been somewhat more elaborated by the composer to allow for extra syllables in the text. (The vocal lines throughout the opera are on the plain and direct side, with nary a hint of coloratura.)

The singers here all have steady and attractive voices and sing their texts persuasively. They speak the dialogues well, though with a very wide dynamic range: I had to turn the volume up for some patches of whispering and then turn it down again when a character became agitated or insistent, or when the singing returned. But this complaint is also a compliment: the performers take the work seriously and make sure to convey the drama at every turn. And of course one can skip the dialogue tracks (clearly marked in the track list) and go from musical number to musical number.

My favorite singer here is Karine Deshayes, whom I have previously praised in Rossini arias and as the pagan queen in Félicien David’s 1859 opera Herculanum. Jean-Sébastien Bou sings beautifully as the father, though his lowest notes lack fullness, as was also true when he played another heroine’s father: in Lalo and Coquard’s La Jacquerie. The much-recorded tenor Yann Beuron—his voice still firm at 48—conveys well the resoluteness of the title character Uthal.

Christophe Rousset’s early-instrument group plays with spirit, accuracy, and much tonal variety. The orchestration is somewhat dark, because Méhul excluded the violins: instead, he called for a larger-than-usual viola section and divided it into two parts to provide the top lines of the string choir. (Brahms would similarly do without violins in his orchestral Serenade No. 2 and in the first movement of the German Requiem.) The absence of violins is frequently relieved by many other interesting instrumental effects. We often hear two very woodsy flutes, colorful stopped notes from two unvalved horns, and glinting arpeggios from two light-toned period harps. Passages of tremolo for the string sections are full of energy and impulse. The chorus (men only) is small but spirited and nearly always clear in pitch. The solo singers playing Ullin and four other bards—cousins, in a sense, to Oroveso and the druids in Bellini’s Norma—have only a little to sing, but they do it superbly.

The small book that comes with the CD contains excellent essays and background readings in French and English (including substantial passages by the composer, the librettist, and three nineteenth-century critics, one of them being Berlioz); the libretto is likewise given in both languages. The alexandrine lines are broken up into shorter ones on the page. This inadvertently disguises the verse meter and the rhyme schemes. But a reader, once alerted, should be easily able to restore mentally the original layout. Translations throughout are straightforward but occasionally too literal to be immediately clear.

The performance materials were prepared, and the recording funded, by the Center for French Romantic Music, located at the Palazzetto Bru Zane (Venice). The recording sessions took place in the Versailles-palace opera house, whose acoustics have long been admired. The Center’s website offers one track from the CD—Uthal’s cello-aria discussed above—plus a video interview with the conductor.  An informative interview with the conductor can be seen on YouTube (with snippets from the recording). And YouTube offers track 18, in which the bards calmly of glorious battles from the past, while Malvina keeps interrupting them as the sounds of actual battle increase offstage, pitting her husband against her father, increase offstage. The published score can be downloaded at IMSLP.org.

I urge anyone who has a fondness for Cherubini’s Médée (or Medea, as it is known in its more usual Italianized version) to get to know this work by Méhul. You are in for an hour of pleasant surprises in the areas of melody, harmony, orchestral color, musico-dramatic cogency, and Napoleonic-era cultural mythology.

Ralph P. Locke

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book).

      

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):