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French Romantic Cantatas / Stern, Deshayes, Opera Fuoco

Boisselot / Cherubini / Opera Fuoco / Stern
Release Date: 03/25/2014 
Label:  Zig Zag   Catalog #: 337   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Luigi CherubiniLouis Ferdinand HeroldCharles-Simon CatelDominique-François-Xavier Boisselot
Performer:  Karine Deshayes
Conductor:  David Stern
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Opera Fuoco
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

FRENCH ROMANTIC CANTATAS • David Stern, cond; Karine Deshayes (mez); Op Fuoco • ZIG ZAG 337 (77:15 Text and Translation)

CHERUBINI Medée: Overture; Ah! Nos peines seront communes; Circé. BOISSELOT Velléda. HÉROLD Ariane. CATEL Sémiramis: Overture

This intriguing program is as much a showcase for the top-notch French period instrument orchestra Opera Fuoco, founded in 2004 by conductor David Stern and dedicated to the performance of 18th- and 19th-century operatic repertoire, as for the impressive singing of the featured mezzo-soprano, Karine Deshayes.

Cherubini’s music dominates the program, with the inclusion of the Overture and Neris’s aria “Ah! Nos peines seront communes”
Read more from the opera Medée (1797), as well as his cantata Circé. The vigor of Stern’s reading of the Medée Overture, in a version with added brass and modified string parts that Cherubini made for a planned, but abandoned, 1820 revival of the opera, makes me wish for a performance of the entire work by Opera Fuoco. The reorchestrated version receives its first recording here. Deshayes sings the lovely aria, with its unusual bassoon obbligato, with rich tone.

Another orchestral selection, fitting with the period and style, is the exciting, portentous Overture to the tragédie lyrique, Sémiramis (1801), by Charles-Simon Catel (1773–1830). It was regarded as a model of the overture genre during the Empire and was frequently performed, separate from the opera. Catel’s Sémiramis has recently been recorded and reviewed favorably—both the work and the performance led by Hervé Niquet on the Glossa label—by Henry Fogel in Fanfare 36:4.

The program’s other selections fall into the categories of scène lyrique and the related scène dramatique, terms that apply to French cantatas of the early 19th century. These are multiple-movement works for solo voice and orchestra, with a sequence of two or three recitatives and arias. The texts are usually on classical subjects, with dramatic urgency increasing through the series of movements. The scène lyrique was a French alternative to Italian opera, and an established form for French composers entering the Prix de Rome contest. The best-known work in the genre from this period is probably Berlioz’s Le mort de Cléopâtre, the 1830 Prix de Rome winner. Hearing the careful text setting and experimentation with orchestration in several works by his lesser-known contemporaries reminds us that Berlioz’s striking originality didn’t develop in a vacuum.

The great discovery among the three unfamiliar cantatas on the program, all of which are substantial and engaging, is Velléda, an imaginative, operatic-sounding work that won the Prix de Rome in 1836. Its composer is the little-known Xavier Boisselot (1811–1893), who studied with Jean-Francois Le Sueur, Berlioz’s teacher. Vélléda tells of the tragic love of the Druidess (Velléda) for a Roman, Eudore, (Bellini’s Norma, with similar subject matter, but no other connection, premiered in 1831.) Berlioz praised Vélleda at length in the Revue et Gazette musicale, noting its elegant style, masterful orchestration, picturesque effects, and dramatic energy. The work, in what I think is its first recording, is a tour de force for Karine Deshayes, whose clear, high mezzo easily moves into the work’s soprano range. Of all the music here, this cantata is where she sings with most variety of tone, and sounds the most dramatically engaged.

The longest of the program’s cantatas, and the one that builds to the most impassioned conclusion, is Ariane, an 1811 work by Louis-Ferdinand Hérold, a student of Méhul, best known for his opera La fille mal gardée. Large portions of Ariane are recitatives that tell the story of her abandonment on Naxos by Theseus. The vocal part lies in a lower, more comfortable-sounding range for Deshayes than that of Velleda or Circé, and she excels in it with fine diction, and dramatic power in the cantata’s second half. Circé, the disc’s concluding Cherubini selection, is a work of dignity and fervor, with a first aria that sounds quite Mozartian. Its tessitura lies high for Deshayes, who manages, but sounds less interpretively free than in the other selections, her sound more forwardly placed and brightly monochromatic.

This is an exciting, thoughtfully programmed recording that gives new, deserved exposure to the work of three obscure composers (Boisselot, Hérold, Catel) in an overlooked genre that turns out to contain some very affecting music. Listening to these cantatas is like hearing the best parts of operas that we probably would never have the time or opportunity to listen to. The program also serves as a reminder of the high quality of Cherubini’s music. (How Berlioz reviled him in his memoirs, but how close their musical aesthetic was, with Gluck’s operas providing their shared inspiration.) It’s a pleasure to encounter the beautiful voice of Karine Deshayes, who shows the potential of becoming a major French singer. Berlioz’s music would be an obvious choice for her.

Zigzag provides lively sound, detailed notes by Stern, and texts, which are good to have, though printing the translations alongside the original French would be a more user-friendly format.

FANFARE: Paul Orgel
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Works on This Recording

Medea by Luigi Cherubini
Performer:  Karine Deshayes (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  David Stern
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Opera Fuoco
Period: Classical 
Written: 1797; France 
Circé by Luigi Cherubini
Performer:  Karine Deshayes (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  David Stern
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Opera Fuoco
Ariane by Louis Ferdinand Herold
Performer:  Karine Deshayes (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  David Stern
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Opera Fuoco
Sémiramis by Charles-Simon Catel
Performer:  Karine Deshayes (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  David Stern
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Opera Fuoco
Period: Classical 
Written: by 1802 
Velleda by Dominique-François-Xavier Boisselot
Performer:  Karine Deshayes (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  David Stern
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Opera Fuoco
Period: Romantic 

Sound Samples

Medea (Medee): Overture
Medea (Medee) (Sung in French): Medea (Medee), Act II: Ah! Nos peines seront communes (Sung in French)
Semiramis: Overture
Circe: Sur un rocher desert

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