Notes and Editorial Reviews
As I write this review, deception in the world of music is very much the topic of the day (week, month …). My concern here is with another tale of deception, but one that is rather happier than the sad story/stories of Joyce Hatto.
Napoleon was especially fond of Italian music; he made an Italian, Giovanni Paisiello his official musician. He declared that “Italian singing has a charm which is always new” - and perhaps the same went for Italian vocalists, given his affair with the Milanese singer Giuseppina Grassini …. It is said that Napoleon, though he respected Méhul, complained that his music was too ‘academic’ and lacked Italianate grace. Méhul hatched a scheme to write an opera very much in the prevailing Italian style, with a libretto by Benoît-Joseph Marsollier (1750-1817). The opera, which as you will have guessed, was the one here recorded, was written away from prying eyes and ears and staged as the supposed work of a non-existent Neapolitan composer called Fiorelli - shades of the Marx Brothers and A Night at the Opera! - who had died young. Napoleon attended a performance, seated next to Méhul, and praised this new Italian work. When Méhul revealed that he was the composer, Napoleon declared himself happy to be tricked in this way when the resulting music gave him so much pleasure. This story may be apocryphal, though it is told by Mme Ducrest, the adopted daughter of the Empress Josephine. Whether or not it is literally true, the story certainly illustrates very aptly – and memorably – how a significant French composer responded to the prevailing fashion set by operas such as Paisiello’s La Molinara (1788) and Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto (1792).
Méhul’s own story is an interesting one. Born in a family with no musical traditions, at Givet in the Ardennes, the young Méhul, fascinated by music, studied with the blind organist of a local church, Eventually, after such further teaching as he could afford, he made his way to Paris in 1778. He is reported to have been at the premiere of Iphigénie en Tauride in the following year. It was the example – and the advice – of Gluck which encouraged the young Méhul to write for the theatre rather than devote himself solely to music for the church. Success only really came with his opera comique Euphrosine et Coradin, performed at the Théâtre Favart in 1790. The duet ‘Gardez-vous de la jalousie’ became a decided hit. Méhul’s career was properly launched and, with only minor setbacks, he was established as a significant composer, working in a number of genres, his output including many more operas, both comic and serious, cantatas, songs, sinfonias. Berlioz, though his admiration was not unqualified, thought him one of the ablest French composers of the previous generation. His work remained an influence on later French composers for some considerable time. In his book École buissonnière of 1913 Saint-Saens still recalled with pleasure performances he heard in his teens of Méhul’s Joseph and of “Irato, a curious and charming work”. In 1898 the sixty three year old Saint-Saens had refused an invitation to join a committee working for the erection of a monument to Franck, declaring “Franck's influence on the French school was not a benign one, and a monument to Rameau, Méhul or Hérold would seem to me far more fitting”. A full-scale reassessment of Méhul would be a very desirable thing.
The plot of L’Irato adheres to a comic pattern familiar at least from the time of the Roman comedies of Plautus in the second century BC. The young man is thwarted in his love for a young woman by the opposition of an older representative of authority (his father, her father, an uncle or whatever), but with the aid of a clever servant he finally rescues her from an unsuitable suitor and gets to marry her. It is a plot that has served a legion of dramatists (not least Molière) throughout European theatrical history and it does its job well enough here in Marsollier’s libretto and, in Méhul’s setting the results are, indeed “curious and charming”.
Played with great vivacity by the period instruments of L’arte del mondo, sung – and spoken – with commitment and wit by what appears to be a mostly very young cast, and conducted with clear understanding of the stylistic idiom by Werner Ehrhardt, this is delightful way of passing an hour. None of the singers strike one as necessarily destined for major stardom, but all are, at the very least highly competent. As Isabelle, Pauline Courtin sings with a kind of sparky charm that refuses all sentimentality (except when it serves her own interests); Miljenko Turk might perhaps have made his Scapin a tad more rogueish, but he has a pleasant, clear baritone and is very easy on the ear; so too is the light tenor voice of Cyril Auvitry, who invests Lysandre with a slightly naïve heroism entirely appropriate to the role; Alain Buet’s bass is well-used in the characterisation of the obstructive uncle, Pandolphe, whose grumpiness comes close to shading over into madness; as Nerine and Balouard, respectively, Svenja Hempel and Georg Poplutz acquit themselves well, though Poplutz sounds vocally too young for the role.
Marsollier’s libretto is full of witty self-awareness; he – and his younger characters at any rate – know that they are acting out a familiar plot. When Marsollier’s Scapin invokes the aid of “the spirit of my predecessors” he is thinking of a whole tradition of witty stage-servants and, above all, of his namesake (not accidentally), the Scapin of Molière’s marvellous play Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671); Isabelle declares: “Je chéris la scène lyrique, / je chante la nuit et le jour” and certainly is happy to find herself part of a plot which imitates “la scène lyrique”. When the young lovers approach Pandolphe, at the work’s conclusion, for his permission to marry, Lysandre councils “my companions in misfortune, let us all throw ourselves at his feet … this never fails to work at the end of comic plays”. In much the same way that Marsollier’s libretto repeatedly acknowledges the tradition to which it belongs, so Méhul’s music is full of echoes of, allusions to, that of his operatic predecessors. The result – words and music taken together – is a work which contrives to be simultaneously innocent and thoroughly knowing.
L’Irato ou l’Emporté would, I suspect, still work well on stage, in a sympathetic production, if sung and played as well as it is here. Its charming duets and quartets, its drunken trio, its witty arias all offer plenty of scope for the right singers, its narrative plenty of suggestive possibilities for the right director.
This is not profound music and L’Irato is not a neglected masterpiece; but it is a representative example of one aspect of an interesting (and historically significant) composer’s work, a very sympathetic recording of a fine example of a largely neglected genre – and it is great fun!
The CD is rounded off by one of Méhul’s overtures, originally performed in March 1793, for a work devised by the choreographer and dancer Pierre Gardel. After initial popularity the Ouverture was forgotten, until revived by Michael Stegemann and Werner Ehrhardt for a seminar in Dortmund in 2004. It is not, perhaps, a piece of especial distinction, but it is characterised by some intriguing orchestral colours and it makes a pleasant bonus to an attractive CD.
-- Glyn Pursglove, MusicWeb International