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Etienne-Nicolas MÉHUL (1763-1817)
L’Irato ou l’Emporté - opéra comique in one Act (libretto: Benoit-Joseph Marsollier) (1801)
Ouverture du Ballet de Paris a Grand Orchestre (1793)
Scapin (servant to Lasandre): Miljenko Turk, (bass)
Lysandre (in love with Isabelle): Cyril Auvity, (tenor)
Isabelle (Pandolphe’s daughter): Pauline Courtin, (soprano)
Pandolphe (Uncle to Lysandre): Alain Buet, (bass)
Nérine (servant to Isabelle): Svenja Hempel, (soprano)
Balouard (Tutor): Georg Poplutz (tenor)
Bonn Chamber Choir
L’Arte du Mondo/Werner Ehrhardt
rec. Bonn Bundeskunsthalle, 18 September 2005. DDD
CAPRICCIO 60 128 [64:20]

 

This disc requires some introduction since the composer, let alone the work, may be unknown to many of our readers. Méhul isn’t even listed in The Complete Oxford Dictionary of Opera.

Born in the Ardennes, Méhul lived through the harrowing period of the French Revolution and even joined the cause by composing his Hymne à la Raison, Le Chant du Départ and other pieces of patriotic music. Ten years on, the French had tired of the patriotically pathos-heavy repertoire of the stage works to which they were continually exposed. They were ready for something fresh. By 1800, Méhul had provided fourteen operas, many of which were Parisian successes. He could be regarded as a competent composer in this field.

Napoléon Bonaparte was seriously interested in music and was a friend of Méhul. Being something of a connoisseur of Italian opera he was responsible for steering Méhul towards this fashionable style, pointing out that his works were too Teutonic, and rather more scientific than pleasing. To impress his patron, the composer took up this challenge in his next work and L’Irato was the result. We hear something that can be broadly described as music not too dissimilar to that of Mozart.

L’Irato ou l’Emporté is a six character work written in the opera-comique style (that is opera buffa with dialogue). Whether the work was presented as a curtain-raiser or separately is not clear from the notes.

The ten numbers comprise four arias, duet, trio, quartette, chorus and ensemble (finale). They provide us with a fairly balanced stage work. It is something of a mystery why a chorus (backstage?) is suddenly introduced singing unhelpful lyrics:–
"How handsome, how charming.
This must be Mars indeed,"

The plot, set in a garden of Pandolphe’s house, is slight and concerns a rich relation, Pandolphe, who tries to sever the bond between a doting couple who intend to marry.

Lysandre and Scapin (servant) are found strolling about in deep thought as the curtain rises. Lysandre is upset because his uncle, who curses, grumbles and swears at him, has decided to marry his daughter, Isabelle, to Lysandre’s tutor – ‘a Venetian by birth, a pedant by profession, a fool by nature, and a groveller’ who accepts the uncle’s whims. The charming Isabelle is Lysandre’s sweetheart yet she doesn’t write to him. Scapin is upset because he is in the uncle’s employ and can’t do anything right. His love Nérine (Isabelle’s maid) also doesn’t write – principally because she can’t read or write. So that the two don’t have to listen to each other’s complaints (which are similar) they decide to speak and sing in unison. A duet now follows where they declare their promises in a clever bit of writing, one echoing the other. Lysandre then exits.

Scapin is determined to find a way to stay in Lysandre’s service even if the uncle, Pandolphe, stops the allowance to his master. He sings an aria buffa with well crafted lyrics.

Seeing Pandolphe approaching, Scapin flees. In another aria buffa, Pandolphe curses the fact that he can never find his servants and ends up complaining that he is now losing his voice.

Lysandre reappears and the moody Pandolphe criticises his composure and reports that he is to be cut from the will. He makes threats to try to get Lysandre to lose his temper: it doesn’t work and the uncle leaves, furious that Lysandre is so polite.

Isabelle now enters, with Nèrine and Scapin. Lysandre tells her of an uncouth rival to whom she must give her hand: he is sixty, ugly and has no qualities – it is Balouard, the tutor! The dilemma is now sung about in a nicely constructed quartette. They swear an oath to marriage or death.

Isabelle decides that she will thwart the tutor by appearing ridiculous, thoughtless and fickle. She sings an aria in which she declares her virtues and promises.

Lysandre and Scapin now get the Tutor drunk: he falls down paralytic. Isabelle and Nèrine rush in having escaped from being locked in the house and embrace. Pandolphe, who has been spying, now enters and tells them their love is useless. They decide to throw themselves at his feet ("It always works in comic plays", says Lysandre)

A finale where they agree to sing ‘piano’ if the uncle will consent or sing loudly and an octave higher if he doesn’t, causes the uncle to give in ‘with a benevolent eye’.

Maybe the plot isn’t perfect: more could be made by insertion of a scene with the drunken Tutor being confronted by Pandolphe. Also the finale could have ended on a more secure note of regained affection since only inferences are made. But even so, the frothy plot seems just what the Parisian audience of the time wanted. Certainly, the opera was a success when first presented.

Musically, the work may well have been scored for a small pit/chamber orchestra since the orchestration is not so multi-layered. However, the construction is fitting and the marrying of lyrics to music in the Italian vein is good. The soloists are appropriately fitted to their roles. Cyril Auvity (Lysandre) is a light tenor who left Lille Conservatoire seven years ago. He is an agile singer who has a clear upper reach. Croatian, baritone Miljenko Turk, is equally light and has a voice with wide compass. Isabelle has a good timbre and clean top while Nèrine supports well in the quartette. Pandolphe gives the authority demanded of the part as a secure and resonant bass.

The disc concludes with the Ouverture du Ballet de Paris a Grand Orchestre (1793). Written to accompany a ballet pastiche by choreographer, Gardel, it was so successful that the score was published and the piece adopted by a number of European court orchestras by the turn of the century. Of interest to the listener is the style of this early Méhul, a style so criticized by Bonaparte for being stilted and inflexible. One can recognize German characteristics in the work, giving a hint of Beethoven perhaps?

Conductor, Ehrhardt has made a particular study of Méhul, first by resurrecting his Ouverture du Ballet de Pâris in 2004 for a seminar at Dortmund University and now with this opera. His interpretation of the material is consequently the result of in-depth study for which we should be grateful. The recording gives an ideal balance between soloists and orchestra: the 34 players of L’Arte du Mondo are excellent and take the work at a lively pace under Ehrhardt’s direction.

Elegantly packaged, the booklet in French, English and German gives the full libretto and Michael Stegemann gives excellent notes on the composer. Mention of how the work was presented and a synopsis of the plot would have been welcomed.

Raymond J Walker

 



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