Notes and Editorial Reviews
La mort d’Abel
Guy Van Waas, cond; Jennifer Borghi (
); Sébastien Droy (
); Jean-Sébastien Bou (
); Pierre-Yves Pruvot (
); Alain Buet (
); Namur Chamber Ch; Les Agrémens
PALAZZETTO BRU ZANE
1008 (2 CDs: 91:15
Text and Translation)
Rudolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) is known today almost exclusively as the musician to whom Beethoven dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 (though he only learned of the dedication after the work’s publication, and never played it). He seems to have had a knack for flourishing through all the violent vicissitudes of French politics in his day: a favorite of Marie Antoinette, professor of violin at the Conservatoire of Paris from 1795, a member of Napoleon’s chapel orchestra from 1802, chief conductor of the Paris Opéra starting in 1817, and a chevalier of the
in 1824. As a composer he wrote many violin concertos, exercises, chamber music, and dozens of stage works.
La mort d’Abel
was first seen in 1810. It was a three-act opera set to a text by E. T. A. Hoffman. Following a French tradition, devils in it are seen as external forces who target, torment, and damn good people. In this case, Anamalech seemingly enlists the entire hierarchy of hell to plague Cain with nightmares that feed on his typical sibling envy of Abel, leading to the expected outcome. The work was very well received upon its debut, though not restaged until 1825—at which time the Opéra’s directors chose to completely eliminate the second act, set in hell. Perhaps it was a cost-cutting measure, though even Rossini had many abusive terms for the establishment years later when it chose to chop his revived works to pieces. For reasons not elaborated upon by the producers of this album (who elaborate upon so much more; read below), the 1825 version is given, here.
This work is not dependent upon the contemporary broader trends of the Italian operatic or German Singspiel traditions. The nearest analogies at least some listeners will find—Mozart, Beethoven—are actually due to the omnivorous musical mind of the first, learning from many cultures, and to Beethoven’s interest in his French contemporaries. Cherubini (Italian by birth, but as much a naturalized Frenchman by the mid 1780s as another Italian, Lully, had been earlier) in particular he regarded with great admiration; so it isn’t really Mozart or Beethoven Beethovenian one finds in
La mort d’Abel
, but some aspects of a French tradition that both these composers came to utilize.
The writing is for the most part very plain. It suited French tastes of the period well enough, given that the
les goûts réunis
had ended with the triumph of Italian simplicity in melody, and the jettisoning of previously favored contrapuntal and harmonic complexities. (When Kreutzer in later works attempted to move beyond a fairly basic accompaniment, he was accused by his contemporaries of losing his “originality” through “over-complexity.”) The origin of the duet “Unissons-nous pour le render sensible” and the multi-part air “Insensible aux tourments,” to pick just two of many examples, lay in 18th-century
, despite the serious tone of the latter piece. Both are primitive, and neither is terribly interesting.
As much can be said for the lengthy passages of accompanied recitative. In Kreutzer’s hands it facilitates the delivery of emotion but doesn’t sustain attention over time, lacking again the more complex elements that made it so interesting under the likes of Lully, Destouches, Campra, Marais, and Rameau. Cherubini among Kreutzer’s contemporaries was able to do this kind of thing much better.
But when Kreutzer is inspired, as in much of the Third Act, he produces something worth hearing. Cain’s “Doux sommeil” is a fine, Janus-faced aria, filled with the seductive warmth of the earlier
on the one hand, while weaving a memorable, sinuous French melody whose like can be heard in some of the most celebrated arias of Boieldieu, Thomas, Delibes, Massé, Lalo, Gounod, and Massenet. It is the most appealing piece in the score, but there are others: Cain’s raging aria from act I, “Quoi! Toujours ton image,” sustains its energy well, even if successive musical phrases are a patchwork of clichés. The pastoral act I finale for soloists and chorus, “Ô moment plein de charmes,” is a pretty thing with effective vocal exchanges, and some slight but colorful wind writing. And Kreutzer makes simplicity work for him in the act III finale, an angel’s chorus (“Viens dans”). It’s very brief homophonic music that achieves much merely by throwing a single instance of nonfunctional harmony into the mix.
The performers are all above average, though none are without fault. A single one unites most: a widening vibrato that causes loss of focus in some part of the voice, and in Alain Buet’s case, produces a uniform wobble that undercuts his good phrasing and dark bass tone. Jean-Sébastien Bou is the best interpretatively speaking, making an excellent job of it in his extended recitative, “Ou vais-je?” He also sings softly to strong effect. Sébastien Droy can do the latter as well, but has an annoying habit of increasing volume as he rises in range. Pierre-Yves Pruvot is better here than in the title role of Salieri’s
(Dynamic 405/1-2), more attentive to the meaning of the text, while Jennifer Borghi doesn’t always enunciate as clearly as the others, but sings with an attractive lyric soprano. Guy Van Waas conducts Les Agrémans with spirit and discipline, but I admit the complete lack of vibrato throws me off. This isn’t the Baroque (when vibrato was used, though less regularly), but the early 19th century, and there are plenty of instruction manuals and reviews of the day teaching and citing the regular use of vibrato as a standard tone-coloring device. Its loss makes the instruments sound anemic at times, especially when the violins are exposed.
The jewel box is actually a digest-sized book in French and English. Aside from the original text and transliteration of the opera, you also get a remarkably fine series of essays, including a historical introduction, a piece on the work’s reception by the contemporary press, Fétis’s entry on Kreutzer in his
Universal Biography of Musicians
, a lengthy examination of oratorio and
in 18th- and early 19th-century France, one on the fantastic genre at the Paris Opéra under Napoleon I, and a forward to the 1825 libretto written by E. T. A. Hoffman, in answer to claims that another, far less innovative work years before had been plagiarized for his ideas.
La mort d’Abel
is an uneven work, but at its best, demonstrates why Kreutzer’s operas were so well regarded by his contemporaries. It fails when it tries to be profound, but succeeds whenever it maintains a light, charming tone. And there’s enough of the latter to more than sustain it. Recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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