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
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.
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,
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