Notes and Editorial Reviews
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In Venice, with the carnival in full swing, the Duke of Pesaro arranges for his lieutenant Spadoni to abduct the beautiful Leonor. To make the young girl love him, he has hired Stradella, a famous singer and singing teacher. The Duke, however, is unaware that Stradella loves and is loved in secret by the beautiful girl. The lovers will be pursued by Pesaro's men all the way to Rome.
"Stradella" was probably composed between 1841 and 1842 (César Franck was just 21 years old) and is probably the result of his early experiences as accompanist to the Italian tenor Mario Bordogni. The opera has come to us virtually
complete, as a piano score with some hints of orchestration. Luc van Hove orchestrated it and Stradella was thus staged for the first time at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie on 19th September 2012. Indeed the revival of this stunning opera provides an important tile in the mosaic of the artistic personality of one of the protagonists of 19th-century.
R E V I E W:
FRANCK Stradella • Paolo Arrivabeni, cond; Isabelle Kabatu (Léonor); Marc Laho (Stradella); Werner Van Mechelen (Spadoni); Philippe Rouillon (Le Duc); Ch & O Op Royal de Wallonie • DYNAMIC 2 CDs: 7692/1-2. DVD: 37692 (106:14) Live: Liège 9/25-27/2012
Franck’s first opera poses questions, and its production—onstage and as a CD album—raises more. Joël-Marie Fauquet assigns Stradella to “c. 1841”—Franck’s 19th year. The vocal score manuscript, with directions for its orchestration, was apparently left behind when Franck abandoned his tyrannical father’s house to move in with his fiancée’s family in 1846. His Australian biographer, R. J. Stove—César Franck: His Life and Times (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012)—notes, “Stradella’s entire score is in an unusually disheveled state for a Franck autograph,” while Fauquet mentions two manuscripts surviving, perhaps from home auditions of excerpts in 1843 and 1845. All of which is to say that the provenance of the score is a matter of mystery calling for scholarly attention. Stradella achieved its premiere only in 1985 with the Opéra-Comique, accompanied by an arrangement for two pianos. For this Opéra Royal de Wallonie production, composer Luc Van Hove provided orchestration. Fauquet sardonically notes that, given Franck’s renown as the composer of lofty, spiritual organ works, there is irony in the fact that his first essay for organ should have occurred in a theatrical context, providing a stereotypical complement where religion is broached, obligatory since its use in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable. Relevant here, despite being called for by Franck, as well as by the libretto, there is no organ in Van Hove’s scoring.
The libretto itself, by Émile Deschamps and Emilien Pacini, is a cause for wonder, as its five-act version had already been set by Louis Niedermeyer (the teacher of Fauré) and performed at the Paris Opéra in 1837. Franck, very likely with help from his fiancée’s family (actors with the Comédie-Française), condensed the libretto to three acts, eliminating plot complications to focus the denouement on the vocally ecstatic Stradella’s rhapsodic, celebratory prayer. In the original Franckist version, assassins sent to dispatch the singer are moved to abandon their mission by Stradella’s perfervid croon. Among many other alterations to the drama, the director, Jaco Van Dormael, has the hirelings carry out their plan, replacing Franck’s happy ending with a tragic conclusion, with the triumphal music salvaged by video projections of Stradella and Léonor, his betrothed, united in heaven. Similarly, the second act, as Franck composed it, was to have ended with Stradella wounding Léonor’s captor, the Duke of Pesaro, as the singer and his love make their escape. In Dornael’s staging, however, the act ends with the Duke striking Stradella unconscious, leaving Léonor at the Duke’s mercy. Program notes by Danilo Prefumo assert that no music has been changed, that the same strains serve equally for both conclusions. Those hearing the work from CDs will notice nothing, but the visual presentation belies the booklet’s plot synopsis.
In Dornael’s ongoing vandalism, the silliest conceit—because the action is set in Venice?—is flooding the stage, compelling the characters to tread water through all three acts. Mischief begins as the curtain rises on a slender naked redhead moving languorously through a shallow watery trough, drawing wands from a floating suitcase, and blowing large bubbles across the stage as the overture plays. And so on.
Stradella exhibits an easy mastery of Italian operatic conventions—deft choral writing, impassioned arias, duets, trios—enabled by resourceful invention and melodic readiness, though young Franck had not yet mastered dramatic timing and proportion, and the numbers outstay their welcome. The idiom is reminiscent of Arthur Sullivan’s tongue-in-cheek allusions to grand opera, though without the great tunes. One is entertained as the score unfolds but may find little or nothing of it memorable when it’s over. Stradella’s enraptured prayer, taken up by the chorus, at the opera’s conclusion looks forward to similar things in Le Béatitudes two decades on but, that aside, there’s little or nothing portending the Franck we know. Soloists and chorus work nimbly around Van Dornael’s awkward staging. As Stradella, whose voice is reputed to be a bridge to heaven, Marc Laho acquits himself nobly, but the lustrous vocalism which might open pearly gates emanates from the, literally, enchanting Isabelle Kabatu as Léonor. Subsidiary roles are strongly taken, and conductor Paolo Arrivabeni keeps things moving. Voices are slightly recessed, but the orchestral sound is close and detailed. A curiosity, no doubt, but it gives pleasure and is, hence, recommendable.
Franck followed Stradella a decade on with a comic opera, Le valet de ferme (The Farmhand), which remains unpublished and unproduced. This is not to suggest a forgotten masterpiece. Franck, in later life, was embarrassed when friends mentioned it, and dismissed it as “very bad.” His hagiographer, Vincent d’Indy, who looked askance at all of Franck’s operatic ventures, was himself guilty of a youthful indiscretion, Attendez-moi sous l’orme (1876–1882), an opéra comique not without charm. Thus, two more curiosities, which might together make an evening’s entertainment—the entertainment stemming at least as much from a wry consideration of the sources as from these works at face value.
Franck’s operatic ambitions took on grandiose proportions in the latter part of his life, from which loom Hulda (1879–1885) and Ghiselle (1888–1890), substantial works both, usually dismissed as hopelessly unstageworthy, but which anyone who knows the scores, or has been fortunate enough to hear them in their few scattered performances, will recognize as containing some of Franck’s finest music. Considering the works he was composing through his last decade—e.g., the violin sonata, string quartet, Le Chasseur maudit, Psyché, Symphony in D Minor, Trois Chorals, etc.—it’s inconceivable that a similar strange richness should not permeate both operas, albeit mingled with crude melodrama. And it does! As artists seek to score in novel and neglected Romantic repertoire, it’s possible—in fact, it’s quite likely—that Hulda and Ghiselle will triumph over their habitually misinformed bad press in resplendent recorded performances. May it be so.
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Works on This Recording
Stradella by César Franck
Xavier Rouillon (Tenor),
Philippe Rouillon (Bass),
Isabelle Kabatu (Soprano),
Marc Laho (Tenor),
Werner Van Mechelen (Baritone)
Wallonie Royal Opera Chorus,
Wallonie Royal Opera Orchestra
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