Déodat de SÉVERAC (1872–1921)
Le Coeur du Moulin – Opera in two acts (1909)
Jean-Sébastien Bou (baritone) -Jacques; Sophie Marin-Degor (soprano) - Marie; Pierre-Yves Pruvot (baritone) - The Miller; Marie-Thérèse Keller (soprano) - The Mother
Choeur et Maîtrise de l’Opéra de Tours
Orchestre Symphonique Région Centre-Tours/Jean-Yves Ossonce
rec. Espace André Malraux, Joué-les-Tours, 15-19 September 2009
Libretto in French and translation
TIMPANI 1C1176 [75:30]

Déodat de Séverac is fairly well-known as the composer of some wonderful piano music such as En Languedoc (1904), Cerdaña (1911) and Le Chant de la terre (1900), which have been regularly recorded although it is still all-too-rarely heard in recital. His output also includes some short orchestral works, songs for voice and orchestra such as Le Mirage (1903) as well as incidental music and two large-scale ‘outdoor’ pageants Fille de la Terre and Héliogabale. The latter is a monumental work featuring song, dance and recitation and was performed in the Arènes de Béziers in 1910. Incidentally, some of his orchestral music with and without voices has been recorded on Cascavelle RSR 6197, a disc that is well worth looking out for. He also composed an opera based on a play Le Retour by a young writer from Toulouse, Maurice Magre (1877–1941). It seems that the composer and the writer were friends and that the idea of composing an opera on Le Retour was planned – and apparently partly completed – as early as 1901. During 1903, however, Magre and de Séverac reworked and expanded the opera. At that time, too, it seems that the definitive title of the opera was fixed. It was to be Le Coeur du Moulin and was then entered at the music competition of the City of Paris. Several musicians quickly showed some real interest in the work, among them André Messager. After some later reworking in 1905, it was played for Albert Carré, manager of the Opéra-Comique. The first stage performances were planned for late 1906 but Carré hesitated. In the meantime de Séverac further expanded the work by adding some more scenes. It was eventually first performed on 8 December 1909. The critics’ reactions were fairly enthusiastic about the music while the libretto – fine as it might be – was found to be slighted dated.

The synopsis is fairly simple. Jacques has left the village years ago and his fiancée Marie has married Jacques’ friend Pierre. She cannot help but feel guilty about what she considers to be a betrayal. Jacques returns. He is greeted by the voices of the Well and of the Mill and by the Voices of Nature. He still loves Marie who has never stopped loving him. The couple plan to leave the village for ever. However Marie confesses that she has married Pierre. The harvesters return, Pierre among them, after having worked in the vineyards. The old miller and Jacques’ mother arrive from the village. The miller overhears Marie vowing her love to Jacques. This concludes the first act. In the second act, some time later in the day, the miller becomes the key character for it is he who will determine the end of the opera. The harvesters and people of the village set up a feast to mark Jacques’ homecoming. When the feasting is over Marie arrives at the old mill. The miller then realises the real situation and Marie is forced to confess her plans to leave the village for ever with Jacques. The miller tries to dissuade Jacques from leaving with Marie and encourages him to go off alone. Jacques is unwilling to do so and the miller then proposes that Jacques’ mother should decide. The mother wants her son to stay with her in the village but the miller reminds her that everyone on earth must do what is right. The mother, the Voice of the Well and the Voices of Nature try to entice him to stay, but the Owl – the bird of wisdom – convinces Jacques that he must carry on down the road. Four dream characters appear. They are Jacques’ Childhood Memories who encourage him to go. “You shall come back, but do your duty, in the name of your childhood.” Jacques goes while the villagers are heard singing in the distance.

As already mentioned earlier in this review parts of the libretto are slightly dated and at times artificial especially when the Voice of the Mill, the Voice of the Well and the Voices of Nature have their say. De Séverac, however, found in the words a splendid opportunity to develop his music which is in turn warmly lyrical and atmospheric when needed. Debussy, who was a staunch admirer of de Séverac’s music, is never far away. There are many beautiful orchestral moments in this wonderful score. Indeed, chorus and orchestra very often appear to be the main protagonists. Although he was a pupil of the sometimes rigid Vincent d’Indy, de Séverac never shared his master’s dislike for more modern harmonies. This is generously displayed in a score that also quotes folksongs from Languedoc. These are often noticeable in the harvesters’ choruses and in the dances that open the second act. There are too many fine things in this music to single them all out but one of the most moving moments in the entire work is the short quartet sung by the Childhood Memories near the end of the opera.

The present recording of this marvellous work has been carefully prepared if one is to judge by the fine singing and playing heard throughout. Soloists, chorus and orchestra obviously relish every moment of this superb score and Jean-Yves Ossonce, whom some of you may know for his very fine recording of Magnard’s symphonies on Hyperion and for his recording of Ropartz’s opera Le Pays on Timpani, conducts a superbly committed reading of this neglected but highly rewarding opera. Incidentally I was particularly delighted to hear Pierre-Yves Pruvot again, who was one of the finalists of the 2000 Queen Elisabeth Competition. Both recording and production are to be praised for they are well up to Timpani’s best standards. Timpani too deserve our gratitude for giving such fine music the wider exposure that it definitely deserves.

Hubert Culot

A magnificent recording of de Séverac’s marvellous opera - definitely deserves to be heard