Notes and Editorial Reviews
Hervé Niquet, cond; Maria Riccarda Wesseling (
); Gabrielle Philiponet (
); Mathias Vidal(Arzace); Nicolas Courjal (
); Le Concert Spirituel
GLOSSA GCD 921625 (2 CDs: 105:21
Text and Translation) Live: Opéra-Berlioz Le Corum, Montpellier 7/15/2011
A search of the
Archive turns up only a few short overtures and marches by Charles-Simon Catel. A search of the ArkivMusic.com database turns up only this new recording of
. So this is a composer of some obscurity, but after hearing this opera a few times, I don’t understand why. Catel was the first professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, author of an important “Treatise on Harmony” in 1802, the composer of a number of military pieces for state ceremonies, and an important link between Gluck and Rossini. Here is a historical, or at least chronological, context for Catel:
dates from 1802, two decades before Rossini’s much more famous treatment of the same story. There is no question that Rossini was a genius and Catel merely a very good composer, but this music does deserve occasional hearing, and it is capable of bringing real pleasure to any lover of French vocal music looking for a new discovery. Catel’s strong interest in harmony shows itself in many ways in
, with a great deal of emphasis on harmonic change and on the effect of harmonic development on the drama. The very ending of the opera is a stark example. As Sémiramis dies, the chorus sings: “Oh terrible fate, oh lamentable end of her disastrous greatness. Thus there are crimes which the gods in their wrath never forgive.” The music is slow, grave in atmosphere, and is followed by a soft orchestral postlude that is very advanced harmonically for 1802, and striking in its darkness. Throughout the work, adventurous harmonic language is evident. There is, though, also real melodic invention, and many of the ensembles stay in the memory. Because of his interest in harmony, Catel used fewer arias and traditional set pieces, which cost him popularity in his day. But what he did create were some strikingly imaginative orchestral accompaniments to declamatory passages or pure recitatives, which allowed for an uncommon dramatic vitality.
One aspect of Catel’s style is its compactness.
is direct, impactful, and doesn’t linger much. Even when he writes an aria, it is not just there for vocal exercise or pleasure. Apparently Azéma’s aria from the first act was subject to the following criticism in its day: “[Catel has] moved away from the unity of tone that holds the opera-lover’s attention, while the use, or rather the abuse, of variety in the modulations within the same aria is bewildering and distracting, making the audience uncomfortably aware of the changes made and the rules applied in making them, rather than allowing it to concentrate on the interest of the situation.” That same critic also said “melody and simplicity are to everyone’s taste, and without them there is, to my knowledge, no real music.” Catel was composing at a time when there was a real divide between the “melodists” and the “harmonists,” and he defined himself as one of the latter. But to infer that there is no melodic imagination or inspiration in this opera would be to make a big mistake. Its strength may well be in its ensembles and in the choral writing, but that strength is considerable, and in the end, this is a work that makes an impact, that has a real musical and theatrical presence about it.
The performance is a fine one, with taut but expressive leadership from Hervé Niquet that gives shape and momentum to a score that would drag with uninflected note-reading. Niquet manages a performance that incorporates the stately, the majestic, and the incisive, and his orchestra plays well throughout. Mezzo-soprano Wesseling exhibits a wide vocal range, a warm but focused voice, and she sings with abandon in the title role. Much the same can be said for soprano Philiponet as Azéma. Both ladies also blend their voices nicely in duets. Tenor Vidal also sings well, with fluidity and shape, as Arzace, though I would prefer a slightly less reedy, richer timbre. As Assur, Courjal displays a reedy bass voice that could use more support, but he too sings accurately.
The audience in this live recording is unobtrusive, with applause reserved only for the end of the opera. The recorded sound, a product of Radio France, is very well balanced and smooth. One has to make no accommodation for it being live. There is a fine essay on Catel and this work, though it is not gracefully rendered in English, and a full libretto and English translation. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Henry Fogel
Works on This Recording
Sémiramis by Charles-Simon Catel
Nicolas Maire (Tenor),
Mathias Vidal (Tenor),
Andrew Foster-Williams (Bass Baritone),
Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Mezzo Soprano),
Gabrielle Philiponet (Soprano),
Nicolas Courjal (Bass)
Le Concert Spirituel
Written: by 1802
Date of Recording: 7/25/2011
Venue: Live Opéra-Berlioz Le Corum, Montpellie
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