DESTOUCHES Callirhoé • Hervé Niquet, cond; Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Callirhoé); Cyril Auvity (Agénor); Joáo Fernandes (Corésus); Ingrid Perruche (Queen); Renaud Delaigue (Priest); Le Concert Spirituel (period instruments) •Read more GLOSSA 921612 (2 CDs: 99: 51 Text and Translation)
It’s the midpoint of the Sun King’s reign. France is troubled by wars, structural economic mismanagement, religious bigotry, and a depletion of manpower, but the court is exciting—and who cares about the rest, anyway? You’re a young teen, polite and affable, the heir to a merchant, Etienne Cardinal, who was far more than wealthy enough to purchase his charter of nobility. The world excites you, so at the age of 15 you join the Jesuit missionary Gui Tachard on his second trip to Siam. Returning two years later, you work for your father a while, but again desire more out of life than counting money—so your old man indulges you, and secures an order for you to join the King’s Musketeers. Though cushioned by your station as is customary, you take part in the siege of Namur; and it is while bivouacked, with little else to do except teach yourself how to play the guitar, that you discover your true métier. You want to be a composer.
Thus, at the age of 22, André Cardinal Destouches secured instruction from the illustrious André Campra, who was to prove his only teacher. His social contacts were enough to accomplish the rest: his good friend Antoine Grimaldi, the future Prince of Monaco, made him known to Louis XIV. In 1697, the young composer’s heroic pastorale, Issé, was directed by Grimaldi at Fountainebleau, before an audience that also included William and Mary of England. The Sun King, who could be generous to those whose skill he respected, gave Destouches 200 louis, and declared, according to one reliable source, that “since Lully, no music had given him so much pleasure.” Destouches never lost his hold on the royal patronage. In later years, he became master of the king’s musique de la chambre and director of a series of prestigious concerts under the Queen’s sponsorship.
Callirhoé was among his greatest successes, though as ever with his theatrical works, there remains a question whether its repeated stagings and publications were due, at least in part, to his strong connections among the royalty and upper nobility. It was premiered in 1712, one of the last tragédie en musique to be created during the Sun King’s reign. Performed regularly for several months, it was issued in two editions that eliminated all parts between the bass and the thematic line, as was customary at the time. Callirhoé resurfaced in 1731, and again in 1743, when it was treated to a thorough revision by its aging but vigorous composer. The production performed and recorded here is based on the full score of that revision.
In France at the time, opera librettos were at least as important as their music. (A good argument can be made for the libretto being paramount in Lully’s day.) Destouches was fortunate in securing the services of his cousin, the talented Antoine Houdar de la Motte, who produced a very effective libretto detailing the fallout from the godly vengeance unleashed by impulsive Corésus, a high priest of Bacchus, when Princess Callirhoé rejects his advances and prefers the heroic Agénor. But among the various arias and duets of quality, it is the opportunity for dances, airs, and choruses that set Callirhoé structurally apart. The quantity of these, though inevitably justified within the opera’s context, show that composer and librettist were well aware of their audience’s shifting tastes. The court of Louis XV wished to be touched rather more often than awed, and they preferred pastoral scenes and romances to tragedies. There is enough of the new spirit in Callirhoé almost to qualify it as an opéra-ballet, though the best things in it are pretty evenly spread throughout all its elements.
It is a very inspired score, shrewdly designed so that no one mood, form, or texture would have outstayed its welcome from that 1743 audience. Dances, preludes, airs, choruses, arias, and duets, follow one another quickly, sometimes intruding upon each other’s toes to great effect. The Queen’s desire to sacrifice herself to Bacchus to save her people, for example, is presented as a majestic recitative, repeatedly interrupted by quick, unison exclamations from the chorus in full harmony. Or again, Destouches intermixes elements of accompanied recitative, chorus, dance, and instrumental virtuosity in act II, scene 5, when Corésus and his priests work themselves up into a whirlwind of retributive rage. These factors interfere with one another at an ever increasing and disjunctive pace, with exciting results that are likely to please even a die-hard fan of 19th-century opera.
There remains much that is outstanding, such as the prelude to act III, scene 4, with its modal inflections, and the air of the shepherdess from act IV, scene 3, presented as a rustic rigaudon. (The latter was to prove a period favorite, often copied by hand, and turning up today in family archives.) Agénor’s aria, “Espoir, revenez dans mon âme,” is a meditation on hope that moves movingly from sunlit to pensive shadow. The recitative, too, is often brilliantly written, as act III, scene 2 illustrates in a lengthy scene of charged psychological conflict between Corésus and Callirhoé. Perhaps the best of all is the act V aria of Corésus, poster-boy for self-conflict, “Troubles secrets dont l’horreur me dévore,” as he considers the prospect of Agénor’s willing sacrifice of his life, and the frustration of his own desires.
Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel are as ever technically proficient. They offer great accuracy, vigor, and focus. The soloists in the production are somewhat problematic. The best is Auvity, a lyric high-tenor whose tone is slightly acidulous at low volume, but opens up nicely when produced in full without any pressure. He has an occasional trick of beginning a loud note without vibrato, before fading in his distinctive flicker sound; it reminds me of the celebrated lyric David Devries, who sang at the big French and American opera houses from roughly 1900 to almost 1930. Good, too, is Fernandes, a true basse chantante despite a lack of chest resonance, but with excellent coloratura that adds greatly to the scene conjuring the anger of Bacchus.
I recently reviewed d’Oustrac’s new solo album (Ambroisie 157). Its virtues and vices are present here as well: a strong dramatic gift, a careless approach to intonation, only moderately successful in enunciating the text, and a voice that has difficulty negotiating turns. Perruche manages the turns and enunciation better, but she also forgets about intonation in the emotional turmoil of the moment. Both d’Oustrac and Perruche also have a way of sliding between pitches that is an annoying habit.
The sound is distinctly better than in Sémélé (Glossa 921614), with voices placed more prominently against the orchestra save once during an act IV air for two shepherdesses (“Loin de nous les plaintes”) that was so distant as to make it impossible to define the number of voices involved, much less what they were singing. Several short but intelligent essays from a book on Callirhoé are provided, as well as full text alongside Spanish and English translations. A very few, small, intriguing production shots are provided, but we do get a black-and-white full page photo of a studiously casual Niquet dressed like an extra in Pagnol’s Fanny trilogy.
Of all the operas to be unearthed recently in the French Baroque revival, I feel that the score to Callirhoé is one of the most consistently inventive. It is also gifted with a libretto of unusual insight, and performance by orchestral forces that are second to none. I could wish that Niquet had selected more meticulous artists for both the Queen and the title role, but they are competent enough to the task at hand. In short, highly recommended, and a Want List choice for me this year too.
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