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Joseph-Guy ROPARTZ (1864-1955)
Drame en musique en trois actes et quatre tableaux (1908-10)
Poème de Charles Le Goffic
Mireille Delunsch (sop) ... Kæthe
Gilles Ragon (ten) ... Tual
Olivier Lallouette (bar) ... Jörgen
Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg/Jean-Yves Ossonce
rec Luxembourg, May 2001
world premiere recording
TIMPANI 2C2065 [CD1 Acts 1 and 2: 61.00; CD 2 Act 3: 49.00]
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Breton regional identity is virile and robust. The place names share the same 'tre', 'ker', 'pol' and 'pen' prefixes and suffixes as many of the towns west of the Tamar. The nineteenth and twentieth century nationalism that surged forward in the arts in Brittany is echoed by the resurgence of the Gaelic language in Scotland and Eire. It was borne along in defiance of the centralising influence of Paris in both Brittany and in Provence by the likes of Auguste Brizeux, Joseph Roumanille, Frédéric Mistral, Anatole Le Braz (a surname familiar to those who know the modern folk music of Brittany) and the writer who provided the basis for this opera, Charles Le Goffic (1863-1932). In music we look to the Bretons - Lazzari, Cras, Ladmirault and Ropartz for the same Celtic immersion as we do for George Lloyd, Inglis Gundry and William Lewarne Harris in Cornwall.
Le Pays, (i.e. the Country) of the title is the land of Brittany. Although the opera is set in Iceland the thoughts and emotions of the tragic anti-hero reach back, all the time, to the Armorican coastline. This adds a root tension to the surface of the plot.
The plot is from Le Goffic's story, 'L'Islandaise', the second tale in his 1908 collection, Passions Celte. Its backdrop is the hazardous tradition of Breton fishermen plying Iceland's malevolent waters for fishing. This practice petered out and finally expired in 1934 after almost a century. Ropartz had already written incidental music (Pêcheur d'Islande) for Tiercelin's stage adaptation of the novel 'Iceland Fisherman' by Pierre Lôti (a book once published in English in the Everyman Library).
Ropartz commissioned the libretto for Le Pays from Le Goffic and had to hold him back from introducing the lingua franca operatic conventions of the crowd scenes (there is no chorus), the panoply, the set pieces. Ropartz wanted to preserve the essence of the plot and did so.
The shipwrecked Tual falls in love with Kæthe who at first fends him off knowing the inconstant ways of Bretons who tend to disappear in the spring to return to their native Brittany. They are married by Jörgen. Tual pledges himself, vowing that if he breaks his oath may he be swallowed up by the bogs of Hrafuaga - a counterpart to Conan Doyle's Grimpen Mire of Dartmoor.
Tual's infatuation fades and dies over the winter months. By then Kæthe is pregnant by Tual. Tual sets off across the bogland of Hrafuaga to the port where the other Breton fishermen are gathering for the return to their homeland. Kæthe, shadowing him, watches as the prematurely thawed marshland, with its tell-tale cloud of circling crows, drags Tual and his hapless pony to their deaths in the mire. The scene is lit by the aurora borealis, and far above the crows (les corbeaux - the Scots 'cawbies') caw and cackle - a malign echo of the blissful song of Holbrooke's Birds of Rhiannon from his and Lord Howard de Walden's Celtic folk-epic trilogy, The Cauldron of Annwn (1908-20).
The eight minute orchestral prelude is rhapsodic rather than dramatic - adopting a softly contoured style like the orchestral tone poems of Paul Ladmirault (recorded on Pierre Verany PV700021). The approach reminded me of Delius although less static in effect. Perhaps it is similar to Ropartz's 1913 tone poem Sur Les Chaumes although that work is descriptive of the mist-wreathed heights of the Vosges. Fleury posits a commonality between the mists of Armorica and the shrouded high hills of the Vosges.
Le Pays was premiered in Nancy on 1 February 1912 with the composer conducting. 14 April 1913 saw the work given a first hearing in Paris. There has been at least one broadcast on Radio France and a tape of that broadcast has been circulating on the tape 'underground' ever since.
Ian Lace and David Wishart (Silva Screen) have recently revisited their tributes to Christopher Palmer and readers are urged to read their articles on this site. Chris has a living counterpart in the note-writer for this set, Michel Fleury. Michel's writing rather like that of another distinguished musical writer, Colin Scott-Sutherland, is informed by references far broader than the merely musical. He is just as likely to relate the music to literary, visual arts and political developments. His writing is always dense with wide-ranging resonances and luxurious in expression. So it proves here. If you have some grasp of French try Michel's 1995 book 'L'Impressionisme et la Musique' which would make a useful contrast with Chris Palmer's similar and much earlier study.
The full libretto is printed in the booklet which shares a cardboard slipcase with a slimline double jewel box. The sung French is printed side by side with the English translation. It is also available on-line for those wishing to download these discs rather than purchase the retail copy.
This is not a turbulently dramatic opera. Its character is lyric, tragic and moody rather similar to Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet. There are some parallels with Boughton's Immortal Hour but it is more dynamic than that work. It should also be noted that the plot is concerned with everyday folk not with caricature kings, queens, princes and nights. The score has many highlights. Try track 4 CD1 [2.34] where the plaintive and the ardent meet in song. There is a lissom ripeness at start of track 5 CD1 - one of the strongest lyrical inspirations in the opera.
A hesitant, tremulous and luminous Baxian skein of sound plays out the end of Act 2. This is all the more remarkable given that Bax's earliest effects of this type date from the late 1920s onwards although the contemporaneous orchestral scores Spring Fire and Nympholept have some similar qualities. In this music is perhaps encapsulated Bretagne lointaine entwined with the grief and the fate-bitterness of the mental conflict of separation from Kæthe and from his other light of love in Brittany.
Act III has some boisterous and exuberant music as in the Straussian orchestral climaxes at 6.02 in track 2. The music surges and strides forward at times with the combined power of Elgar and the intoxication of Korngold. In the orchestral interlude preceding scene 1 of act III (track 5, CD2) the music takes on a Sibelian semblance with a sinister night scene in which Hrafuaga becomes a sort of Breton equivalent of Lemminkainen in Tuonela. Ropartz ends the piece with a sigh not a shout - daring to the end.
The voices which are secure, clean toned, strong and attractive, are placed assertively without unnatural intrusion. Delunsch has a voice which merits the sort of fame meted out to Bartoli and Flemming. She also has a credible stage presence for Kæthe. Her previous recordings for Timpani include songs by Vierne, Duparc and Bloch. Ragon has many operatic triumphs to his name the most intriguing being Aulis Sallinen's opera Kullervo. Lallouette has recorded Honegger's Amphion for Timpani but has also sung in Chausson's Le Roi Arthur at La Monnaie, Brussels.
Earlier mention of Bax prompts a further observation. Bax's literary talents in prose and poetry - rosg 's rann - find some shadow in Ropartz. Ropartz, having completed his legal studies, was torn between careers in music and in writing. He published short stories and four collections of poetry under the aegis of Louis Tiercelin and the Parnasse Breton Contemporain (1889). He did this under his own name rather than Bax who until his partial memoirs came out in the 1940s used the Irish pseudonym, Dermot O'Byrne.
The conductor, Jean-Yves Ossonce's French renaissance credentials are resolutely well founded. He has already recorded the complete Magnard symphonies and Chabrier's opera Briséis - both for Hyperion. I hope that there will be more from him. I hear that Timpani will soon be issuing a CD of Magnard's complete orchestral works apart from the four symphonies. We will look out also, more in hope than anything else, for orchestral works by Max d'Ollone, Witkowski and Bonnal.
Le Pays's chances of further revival are enhanced by the economy of forces used. While the orchestra is a large one there are only three principals - no chorus and no other characters. It could be produced as a lyric cantata but without the need for a chorus. The publisher is Editions Salabert.
It is becoming something of a boring mantra with my reviews but this much welcomed set is a cue for another plea. French opera would be the stronger for Timpani also recording Canteloube's Le Mas, Ladmirault's Myrddhin, Lazzari's La Lépreuse and Louis Aubert's Le Train Bleue.
Timpani have begun to make of Ropartz almost as much a speciality as they did with Jan Cras, Louis Vierne and Furtwängler. Their catalogue is worth browsing. Do request a copy via email@example.com; they are, as much as their Belgian confrères, Cyprès, a very friendly and approachable label. Their Ropartz includes a very low key and modest orchestral recital as well as an outstanding chamber music anthology: Piano Trio (1918); Prelude, Marine et Chansons (1928); String Quartet No. 4 (1934) on Timpani 1C1047.
Ropartz's symphonies (four of the five - No. 3 has been well done by Pathé-Marconi-EMI) also need premiere recordings. The First and Second are completely closed books. Were they ever performed? Four and Five are fine romantic works touching on the breaker-pummelled coastline of Brittany, its scatter of islands and inlets, its dazzling summers and its mist-shrouded dolmens and menhirs. Riches in prospect. In this recording Le Pays the rewards are there to be heard now. Don't delay.
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