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Gounod: Polyeucte / Benzi, Casciarri, Vezzu, Grassi, Zhelev

Gounod / Benzi / Casciarri / Grassi / Naviglio
Release Date: 05/28/2013 
Label:  Dynamic   Catalog #: 7655  
Composer:  Charles Gounod
Performer:  Emile ZhelevNicola AmodioFernando BlancoPietro Naviglio,   ... 
Conductor:  Manlio Benzi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Italian International OrchestraBratislava Chamber Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GOUNOD Polyeucte Manlio Benci, cond, Giorgio Casciarri ( Polyeucte ); Luca Grassi ( Sévère ); Pietro Naviglio ( Félix ); Vincenzo Taormina ( Néarque ); Fernando Blanco ( Albin ); Emil Zhelev ( Siméon ); Nicola Amodio Read more ( Sextus ); Nadia Vezzu ( Pauline ); Tiziana Portoghese ( Stratonice ); Bratislava Ch C; O Internazionale d’Italia DYNAMIC 7655/1-2 (2 CDs: 152:27) Live: Martina Franca 2004

Charles Gounod’s reputation really does lie under a layer of Victorian dust and neglect. A flop at its premiere in 1878, Polyeucte is a mature work, adapted from Pierre Corneille’s 1643 play of the same name (also the basis of Donizetti’s Les martyrs , later revised as the better known Poliuto , made famous by the Callas and Corelli recording). Musically very interesting, the drama, it has to be said, is a pretty fusty Romans vs. Christians tale of religious duty and honor. Polyeuctus is the Armenian prince who is condemned to death for daring to betray the Roman gods by receiving Christian baptism, validating the ghastly premonition that his wife, Pauline, has in a dream. What seems an unhappy marriage (at least in the eyes of Pauline’s former suitor, Severus) ends up becoming a hymn to matrimonial duty, with Pauline joining her defiant husband in martyrdom. The bizarre genesis of this forgotten work is fascinating and neatly told in the booklet here. Written in exile in London, Polyeucte’s female lead was promised to a married woman, Georgina Weldon, with whom Gounod had fallen in love and in whose household he had conveniently installed himself. Although initially hailed in London, he couldn’t keep his promise to the ambitious hostess, and when dragged back to France by concerned friends, he found himself cut off from his London manuscripts and at the wrong end of a £30,000 litigation suit for breach of contract and alleged defamation. A woman scorned....

Polyeucte was finally premiered in Paris eight years after his arrival in London. What Dynamic don’t make clear from this important premiere recording is that this is (I assume) the revised four-act version from 1887, rather than the first five-act version, both of which are listed on imslp.org. Whatever version, this is a fabulous score that in better days would have received a recording from EMI France. Without a full score to hand, I can only trust the performance here; but there are some interesting effects, like the bird song and use of piano opening the Second Act’s lovely chorus “Que le myrte et la rose.” A catchy tune is never far off, with some fabulous choral writing, as in act I’s pro-Roman ovations; some heartfelt duets, especially in the final act; and some rousing ensembles. And, surely the ballet, with its fabulous Bacchanale, could be brought out more to the public. Although there is no immediate “hit” tune such as with his Faust , I kept thinking how much better and more mature his recitative and orchestral writing had become since his 1859 smash success.

The performance is a good one, mainly. The leads are fine, with a clean-toned, pleasing performance from Giorgio Casciarri as the pious Polyeutus. Luca Grassi is a firm, authoritative Severus, Nadia Vezzu a strong, sometimes strident Pauline. Other members are more average, with Fernando Blanco’s wobbly, grainy Albin being a real liability. There’s some woolly French elsewhere too, but overall this is a committed cast, overseen with conviction by Manlio Benci, who seems to have a firm handle on the score. The ballet has real bounce and flow and ensembles are built up to well. The chorus is spirited, as is the rough and ready orchestra, and such is the score’s strength that I wasn’t forever missing the slight lack of polish. Albeit boxy, the sound is better balanced than on previous Dynamic releases and the result is bright and forward, although this does also mean every cough and stage noise is prominent. Unlike before, there appears not to be a simultaneous DVD release, so there’s no way of having at least subtitles. There’s a synopsis and pretty good essay, but that’s it. I hadn’t expected any more with Dynamic but my bemoaning of the lack of text and translation is more serious than usual; this is the first (and potentially last) Polyeucte recording we have, and it deserves more serious treatment. Performance-wise, though, this makes the cut.

FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield
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Works on This Recording

Polyeucte by Charles Gounod
Performer:  Emile Zhelev (Bass), Nicola Amodio (Tenor), Fernando Blanco (Bass),
Pietro Naviglio (Bass), Tiziana Portoghese (Mezzo Soprano), Giorgio Casciarri (Tenor),
Vincenzo Taormina (Baritone), Luca Grassi (Bass), Nadia Vezzů (Soprano)
Conductor:  Manlio Benzi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Italian International Orchestra,  Bratislava Chamber Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1864; France 

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