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Antonio SACCHINI (1730–1786)
Oedipe a Colonne – opera (1786) [112.07]
Oedipe – Francois Loup (baritone)
Antigone – Nathalie Paulin (mezzo)
Polinice – Robert Getchell (tenor)
Thésée - Tony Boutte (tenor)
Eriphile – Kirsten Blaise (soprano)
Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus/Ryan Brown
rec. 13–15 May 2005, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Centre, University of Maryland, USA
NAXOS 8.660196-97 [67.54 + 44.53]

You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Antonio Sacchini. Born in Florence, trained in Naples, he specialised in writing opera seria; he spent 10 years in London where his initial success was eventually marred by financial troubles. Fleeing London in 1781 he moved to Paris. There he won the support of Queen Marie Antoinette but got caught up in the warfare between Gluck and Piccini. His opera, Dardanus, was staged by the French court in 1785 and was a success but the Queen failed to get Oedipe a Colonne staged in 1786. This fact is said to have contributed to Sacchini’s death. When Oedipe a Colonne was finally staged in 1787 - at the Paris Opera rather than at the court theatre - it was a great success and was performed regularly there until 1830.
This is not the first recording of the work; that palm goes to Jean-Paul Penin and his Camerata Bourgogne. The Gramophone review of that disc describes the performance as a bit rough and ready and looks forward to one of the major early music groups taking up the work. That has not happened; after all, early music groups are hardly falling over themselves to give us authentic performances of Gluck’s French works, so we can hardly expect to hear many of Sacchini’s. Still, Ryan Brown and group Opera Lafayette have now taken up the challenge.
The story is based on the Sophocles play, but without the really gruesome bits. In the play, blind Oedipus struggles to Colonnus supported by his daughter Antigone. There Theseus, King of Athens agrees to support him against Creon, Jocasta’s brother, who now rules Athens. Oedipus’s son Polynices comes to gain his father’s forgiveness. Oedipus curses Polynices, who is slain by Creon and Oedipus is taken by the Gods.
So much for Sophocles. In Sacchini’s version Oedipe - as he is called in the opera - is still blind and more than a little intemperate but he is eventually reconciled with his son and all ends happily. The opera opens with the planned wedding celebrations for Polynice and Eriphile, Thésée’s daughter. Thésée, King of Athens, is supporting Polynice against his brother Eteocles, who currently rules Thebes. Act 1 is taken up with setting the scene, the wedding preparations (complete with dancing) and finally Thésée and Polynice’s visit to the temple for Polynice’s act of expiation. The act ends with the High Priest announcing that the gods have rejected Polynice’s offerings.
Act 2 starts with Polynice lamenting his lot and deciding that his father, who has cursed him, would surely forgive him. At this moment Oedipe appears with Antigone and Polynice flees. The remainder of the act is concerned with Oedipe’s troubles and concludes with Thésée offering Oedipe his support.
Act 3 covers the attempts of Polynice, Antigone and Thésée to reach a resolution with Oedipe. Though Oedipe calls down curses on Polynice and Eteocles, he is finally reconciled to his children, the High Priest announces that the anger of the gods is calmed and that Polynice and Eriphile may marry.
The construction of the libretto is not ideal. A large chunk of act 1 is concerned with the marriage preparations of Eriphile who barely re-appears in the opera. The two strongest characters, Oedipe and Antigone, do not appear until Act 2.
What struck me, upon listening to the music, was how much like Gluck it sounds, even down to the cast of some of the melodies. Sacchini is very flexible in his use of accompanied recitative, of which there is a great deal in the opera. The overall feel is of freedom and expressive mellifluousness. There are no really great melodies, though some are memorable, more it is the flexibility of the drama and the way the piece flows that stays with you.
A stronger composer could probably have made the extraneous bits - like the dance movements in Act 1 - seem more germane, but Sacchini is never less than poised and charming and sometimes a lot more so.
French baritone Francois Loup plays troubled Oedipe. His voice is a little rough at the edges but he still manages to conjure up the requisite suavity of line and expression. He creates a real character out of Oedipe. The other strong portrayal on the disc is Nathalie Paulin as Antigone. Her voice tends to spread a little under pressure, which is not ideal in this music but she is moving in her expression. She succeeds in bringing warmth to the character of someone who seems annoyingly to like being permanently downtrodden.
This period of French opera comes with its own problems of course, notably the requirement to cast high tenors; in this case both Polynice and Thésée are tenors. Both Robert Getchell and Tony Boutte manage the tessitura well and Getchell impresses in Polynice’s Act 2 aria. Neither tenor is quite ideal in that both are rather too light-voiced, but this is to be preferred to an over-strained tenor voice in these roles.
But this raises a more general issue of style in this period of opera. The singers on this disc are all adept at spinning out Sacchini’s flexible vocal lines and are undoubtedly expressive. But none are quite able to imbue the vocal lines with focused passion; Getchell and Boutte have a tendency to sound a little too light-voiced in their big moments and both Loup and Paulin have voices which spread under pressure.
This is not to deny that this disc has many vocal pleasures, it is just that we seem to have lost the art of combining vocal purity and focused passion. If you listen to singers like Régine Crespin and Diana Montague singing Gluck then you will understand what is needed.
The singers are ably supported by Ryan Brown and his band, the recording is live, so there are the odd smudgy bits, but overall they play with poise. Sacchini’s long lines are given flexibility and generally made to seem suitably effortless. The group don’t quite manage the style of some of the best French groups in music of this period, but they go a long way towards it.
As might be expected from an ensemble that includes French and Canadian singers, the French diction is pretty good and remarkably clear; the chorus also contribute in this respect.
The CD booklet includes a detailed plot summary in English and the complete libretto in French. An English translation of the libretto is available to be downloaded from the Naxos web site.
If you have never heard of Sacchini but enjoy Gluck’s French operas then do try this disc, you will not be disappointed.
Robert Hugill

see also review by Göran Forsling



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