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Antoine Dauvergne: Hercule Mourant

Dauvergne / Azzaretti
Release Date: 01/08/2013 
Label:  Aparte   Catalog #: 42   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Antoine Dauvergne
Conductor:  Christophe Rousset
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 19 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DAUVERGNE Hercule mourant Christophe Rousset, cond; Andrew Foster-Williams ( Hercules ); Véronique Gens ( Deianira ); Emiliano Gonzalez Toro ( Hyllus ); Edwin Crossley-Mercer ( Philoctetes ); Julie Fuchs ( Iole ); Alain Buet ( Jealousy, Jupiter ); Read more Jennifer Borghi ( Juno ); Les Talens Lyriques APARTE 042 (2 CDs: 138:28 Text and Translation)

Antoine Dauvergne (1713-1797) achieved his first and greatest success as it were by stealth. In his 1773 memoirs, Jean Monnet, the Opéra-Comique’s former impresario, discussed how impressed he was with the young composer’s first work for the Paris Opéra. Monnet conceived the idea of making the Bouffonistes—the “only music out of Italy is good and natural” crowd, who had many well-placed supporters—ridiculous by getting Dauvergne to write a work in their favored style. He let it be known that this new piece, Les Troqueurs , had been taken from a Viennese text, then set by a little-known Italian composer who understood French and was eager to try his hand at it. The result became so popular that it played to full, enthusiastic houses for as long as Monnet’s patent allowed. When the truth of its composition was revealed, the Bouffonistes fell over themselves attacking Dauvergne for being French even while maintaining that Les Troqueurs was superb because its style was Italian.

(This incident may have left its marks on the composer later in life. He became a champion for operas composed by France’s native sons, and his three relatively brief tenures as a director at the Opéra were mired in loud and dramatic controversy over this. On one famous occasion he overstepped, responding to Gluck’s offering of the First Act of Iphigénie for review by requesting five more such works as well before it could be performed, to satisfy what would be the obvious demand for his music. Gluck’s response to this means of putting him off was an end run to his former pupil, Marie Antoniette, and he won.)

Hercule mourant , on the other hand, was a brave attempt in 1761 to revitalize an earlier French operatic tradition, the tragédie lyrique . Its story was unusually austere for an upper class audience raised on the light, sentimental entertainments preferred by the court of Louis XV. Dauvergne in turn applied a musical style reminiscent of early Rameau, who in fact was his teacher.

The public divided over the opera according to their preference for the older or newer aesthetic. Those who preferred Rameau and Destouches were delighted with the natural way Dauvergne deployed structures and expressive devices that recalled theirs, as to the manner born. Others who preferred lighter subjects and simpler treatments dismissed it out of hand. Baron Grimm, who loved only the Italianate style, not surprisingly wrote, “The libretto and the music are not worth mentioning.” Perhaps the most telling criticism was one published in a contemporary review that referred to sections of Hercules mourant as “affected by the monotony of early French music,” by which was clearly meant Lully. The court and friends of Marie Antoinette were more interested in lovers divided and reunited, than vengeful goddesses and dying demi-gods.

It’s most difficult to understand those who, like another critic, wrote “[I left] an opera composed by the author of… Les Troqueurs , without remembering a single air.” I was humming three airs myself after taking a break at the end of act I, that occurred in the first ten minutes (discounting the Overture) alone: Deianira’s “je crois le voir environné,” Hyllus’s delightful “Tout en elle intéresse, enchante,” and the “Victoire, victoire!” chorus. Dauvergne’s ability to generate dances as expressive as any in the oeuvre of Rameau is equally telling. His short and longer airs (the latter often in an abbreviated rondo form that resembles foreshortened da capo) are expressive: Hercules’s “Trompeuse image,” possesses a weight of shame and self-directed anger, while Hyllus’s “De l’amour le plus tendre” is as sweet as anything by Rameau, again; and his “Couvert de la robe fatale,” a retelling of Hercules’s death, as powerful as one could wish. The short orchestral introductions to each act recall Rameau’s brilliance yet once more, especially the overlapping, quickly descending violin figures of act IV that move in imitative chase.

In the end, Hercules mourant is an inspired attempt to create an opera of grandeur and pathos. But it was based on a model the French artistic and political elite no longer supported, and found no followers. Gluck’s highly Italianate Iphigénie displays the same qualities, but in a musical language that for better or worse was embraced by many. Perhaps Dauvergne, reading through that score, discovered more than just its composer’s land of birth to object to.

Despite the fact that the recording was made at a concert performance, there’s no lack of expressive singing from all the performers. Véronique Gens and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro are in excellent form, the latter a high tenor I’ve not heard before, and look forward to hearing again. Andrew Foster-Williams seems to be having a slightly off-night, his voice losing its focus and pitch when singing out full, but colorful, varied in character, and in complete control at all other times. His enunciation is especially welcome, as it is from Edwin Crossley-Mercer, whose brighter, higher sound makes for a good contrast. Jennifer Borghi is much as I recall in her performance in Lully’s Bellérophon , rich toned, but suffering from poor focus and pitch issues in her chest notes. Alain Buet has an unpleasant wobble, and resorts to shouting occasionally, though the quality of his dark bass is pleasant. Julie Fuchs has both the agility and silvery tone to make much of Iole, though she has a habit of swelling some notes without vibrato, and with a tightened throat, that shows her voice off to little advantage. Rousset leads a taut, vivid performance, no less theatrical for being unstaged, and Les Talens Lyriques, as usual, is fully up to the demands placed upon it. The sound is exceptionally well balanced, the singers not upstaged by, nor unnaturally loud when compared to, the orchestra.

This one’s definitely welcome. Without meaning to suggest that this work is on a consistent level with Dauvergne’s mentor, anybody who likes Rameau’s operas should find much to enjoy in Hercules mourant.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Hercule Mourant, opera in 5 acts by Antoine Dauvergne
Conductor:  Christophe Rousset
Period: Classical 
Written: 1761 
Date of Recording: 11/19/2011 
Venue:  L'Opéra Royal de Versailles 
Length: 2 Minutes 32 Secs. 

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