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Bernheim boulevard 4861964
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Benjamin Bernheim (tenor)
Boulevard des Italiens
Florian Sempey (baritone, Don Carlos)
Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Frédéric Chaslin
rec. 2021, Teatro Auditorium Manzoni, Bologna, Italy
Sung French texts with English translations included

Compiled with editorial assistance from Palazzetto Bru Zane – The Centre for French Romantic Music, Benjamin Bernheim’s programme for Boulevard des Italiens is a collection of eighteen excerpts sung to French texts from operas written by six Italian composers: Puccini, Donizetti, Verdi, Spontini, Cherubini and Mascagni. The chosen operas span almost a century from the late-classical/early-Romantic era, from Spontini’s La vestale (1807) to the post-Romantic style of verismo with Mascagni’s Amica (1905).

I first encountered Parisian lyric tenor Benjamin Bernheim in 2019, when, in sterling form, he was singing the role of the eponymous hero in Gounod’s masterpiece opera Faust (version 1859) in the Bru Zane CD-book series. That outstanding release was my 2019 ‘Recording of the Year’. Shortly after, the splendid debut album Benjamin Bernheim was released on Deutsche Grammophon, a selection of mainly French and Italian Romantic arias from operas by Berlioz, Donizetti, Godard, Gounod, Massenet, Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Verdi. In addition to his performances of standard repertoire such as Rodolfo (La bohème) and Germont (La traviata), Bernheim has emerged as a sought-after tenor in leading French romantic roles.

The theme of Boulevard des Italiens concerns the impact and success in Paris had by Italian composers with their operas sung in French. All of them at some point stayed in Paris but not all of them could be classed as actually living there. Rossini would have fitted the bill entirely, however, and I am surprised that none of his works is included here. The title here relates to the opera houses located in the famous boulevard des Italiens, one of the ‘grand Parisian boulevards’, with the Opéra-Comique at one end and Opéra Garnier at the other. I suggest that the album title is used as a blanket term and not too literally, as only some of the arias here were written for opera houses actually sited on that boulevard. 

Bernheim has cherry-picked a captivating collection of French language airs, duos and parts of scenes, from celebrated operas such as Puccini’s Tosca and Verdi’s Don Carlos to others only rarely encountered notably Cherubini’s Ali-Baba and Mascagni’s Amica. The tenor’s control throughout is exemplary, displaying his gift for convincing Romantic feeling and his prowess in interpreting the mood of the character. One of his major attributes is the natural warmth of his voice which can develop an appealing sweetness. Investing great care in the French text, he is blessed with voice projection that seldom sounds strained. 

I enjoy every one of Bernheim’s selections and cumulatively the collection provides a rewarding experience. A highlight is Giorgio’s air from Mascagni’s almost forgotten two-Act opera Amica. Premiered in 1905 at Monte Carlo, it is Mascagni’s only opera with an original French libretto. A classic drama in the verismo style, it is set in the mountainous region of Savoy. It is a love-triangle concerning two brothers Giorgio (tenor) and Rinaldo (baritone), both in love with the eponymous heroine, a country-girl who comes to a tragic end. Bernheim makes an admirable case for Giorgio’s air Amica! Vous restez à l’écart… Pourquoi garder ce silence obstiné? Giorgio is perturbed that Amico seems cold and withdrawn towards him at a time when everyone else is celebrating. In a beautifully warm and tender rendition, Bernheim really connects with the text by Paul Bérel (pen-name of Paul de Choudens).

Donizetti is represented here by airs from three operas La fille du régiment, La favorite and Dom Sébastien, roi du Portugal, all using French librettos. The five-act Grand Opera Dom Sébastien is rarely staged, although it’s an outstanding work. know it through the 2005 recording on Opera Rara. Dom Sébastien, King of Portugal is in love with Zayda a Moorish princess. Defeated in battle Sébastien in his act two air Seul sur la terre is faced with a wretched destiny and concludes only Zayda can restore his sunken spirit. In the title role of Sébastien, with its notably high tessitura, Bernheim successfully overcomes the challenges presented by the air, providing compelling drama, meritoriously portraying the intensity of the hero’s forlorn and anguished state of mind.

There are airs and duos from three Verdi grand operas, namely Jérusalem - a rarely encountered adaptation of I Lombardi using a new French libretto – and Don Carlos and Les vêpres siciliennes, both written expressly with French librettos. Undoubtedly, my highlight of the Verdi works is from Don Carlos (1867 Paris) the Act Two scène et duo between Don Carlos sung by Bernheim and Rodrigue taken by Bordeaux-born baritone Florian Sempey. The first section begins with the duo Le voilà! C’est l’infant! – Ô mon Rodrigue! set in the cloisters of the monastery of Saint-Just in Spain. The old friends meet with Carlos welcoming Rodrigue, who describes the dire situation in Flanders and pleads to Carlos for his assistance. Carlos reveals his love for Élisabeth (daughter of the French King) who has married his own father, King Philippe. Next is the second section of the duo, the renowned cabaletta – Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes as Carlos and Rodrigue pledge an oath of eternal friendship before God. These shoulder-to-shoulder moments provide inspiring singing from Sempey and Bernheim who combine their musical instincts to provide nobility and compelling sincerity. I notice this cabaletta is the single contribution on the album by the Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna.

Puccini’s operas La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly were introduced to Paris with the original Italian librettos translated into French by Paul Ferrier. Featured on this album are airs from Tosca and Madama Butterfly but none from La bohème. Here, Tosca is presented in a straight French translation by Ferrier while Madama Butterfly is also given in a Ferrier translation as Madame Butterfly but in conjunction with revisions that Puccini made to the score. Of Bernheim’s Puccini choices, especially gratifying from is the artist Mario Cavaradossi’s much admired aria Recondita armonia from Tosca, one of the most celebrated moments in opera sung here in French as the air Ô de beautés égales. This rendition by Bernheim is exemplary, and it is easy to imagine Cavaradossi inside the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle painting Mary Magdalene on an altarpiece. Cavaradossi compares the colour of Magdalene’s blonde hair to a miniature portrait he has of his raven-haired lover Tosca, the famous singer. Successfully capturing the ardour of the air, Bernheim radiates his trademark warmth, demonstrating how convincingly he sings in his top register.

Praise is due to Parisian Frédéric Chaslin who conducts with assurance and no suggestion of routine. The response from the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna is commendable; their playing contributes considerably to the success of the album. Of note, too, are a number of attractively played solos from section principals. I have no issues with the sound quality; the balance between voice and orchestra is especially good. The presentation of the album is of a high standard; the booklet contains a helpful essay, ‘The Italians in Paris’ written by Alexandre Dratwicki. Included, too, are the essential sung French texts with English translations.

From the first to last note, this collection of Italian opera arias sung to French texts, is given an entirely compelling performance. My thoughts now turn to the prospect of another solo collection from Bernheim.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Göran Forsling

List of works 
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Madame Butterfly (Act 3): Air (Pinkerton)
1. Adieu, séjour fleuri [2:17]
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
La Fille du régiment (Act 2): Romance (Tonio)
2. Pour me rapprocher de Marie [3:21]
La Favorite (Act 4): Cavatine (Fernand)
3. Ange si pur que dans un songe [3:23]
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Don Carlos (Act 1): Récit et Cavatine (Don Carlos)
4. Fontainebleau! forêt immense et solitaire! [2:19]
5. Je l’ai vue [2:35]
Don Carlos (Act 2): Scène et Duo (Rodrigue, Don Carlos)
6. Le voilà! C’est l’infant! – Ô mon Rodrigue! [5:55]
7. Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes [4:26]
Gaetano Donizetti
Dom Sébastien, roi du Portugal (Act 2): Air (Dom Sébastien)
8. Seul sur la terre [5:09]
Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851)
La Vestale (Act 3): Prélude, Récitatif et Air (Licinius)
9. Prélude [1:17]
10. Qu’ai-je vu! Quells apprêts! … Julia va mourir [3:08]
Giuseppe Verdi
Jérusalem (Act 2): Récit et Air (Gaston)
11. Lémir auprès de lui m’appelle, que dois je craindre encor? [2:39]
12. Je veux encore entendre ta voix [3:12]
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)
Ali-Baba, ou les Quarante Voleurs (Prologue): Prologue et Romance (Nadir)
13. C’en est donc fait, plus d’espérande! [2:39]
14. C’est de toi, ma Délie, que dépendait mon sort [4:38]
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)
Amica (Act 1): Scène (Giorgio)
15. Amica! Vous restez à l’écart [1:48]
16. Pourquoi garder ce silence obstiné? [3:46]
Giuseppe Verdi
Les vêpres siciliennes (Act 4): Romance de substitution (Henri)
17. Ô toi que j’ai chérie [3:45]
 Giacomo Puccini 
Tosca (Act 1): Air (Mario Cavaradossi)
18. Ô de beautés égales dissemblance féconde! [2:56]

Florian Sempey (baritone) - Don Carlos tracks 6 & 7
Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna - Don Carlos track 7

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