Etienne MÉHUL (1763-1817)
La Legende de Joseph en Egypte - Opera in three Acts (1807) [96:00]
Joseph – Laurence Dale (tenor); Jacob – Frédéric Vassar (baritone); Simeon – René Massis (baritone); Benjamin – Brigitte Lafon (mezzo); Utobal – Phillippe Jorquera (baritone); Une jeune fille – Natalie Dessay (soprano); Mme Putiphar – Jezabel Carpi (silent); L’Instituteur – Abbi Patrix (speaker)
Le Conseil Régional de Picardie et L’Orchestre “Le Sinfonietta”/Claude Bardon
Adaptation for film – Pierre Jourdan
Filmed in the Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne before 1991
No subtitles or texts provided
Picture: 16:9: regions not specified
DISQUES DOM – DOM DVD 11012 [96:00]

Méhul’s opera Joseph is more often spoken of than performed. After its first performance in Paris in 1807 it took over 100 years to reach the London stage (there was an earlier concert performance), and I do not recall any English performances in recent years. Whatever the faults, or perhaps oddities, of the present issue it does at least bring to attention a work crying out for a new staging on this side of the Channel. They make very clear his position as a follower of Gluck and a predecessor of Berlioz. Whether he came anywhere near them in musical quality I am doubtful, but in the absence of performances of his many operas it is hard to make a proper assessment. Both Joseph and Uthal (based on Macpherson) would seem likely to be worthy of revival.

In the meantime we have this interesting if curious version. Its curiosity consists primarily in abandoning the original dialogue and substituting a new telling by Christianne Besse of the entire Biblical story of Joseph by a teacher to a small group of children while wandering around the grand but empty Compiègne theatre, presumably during the period before its reopening in October 1991. This is not ineffective, especially as the actor in question speaks for the most part sufficiently slowly to be followed even with severely limited French. Nonetheless subtitles, a libretto, or even simply an adequate synopsis would have been helpful in this respect. The singers appear to be miming to a recording - indeed the CDs of that recording once issued by Le Chant du Monde are displayed by the teacher along with a portable CD player - although the synchronisation is poor. The singers are encouraged to adopt a slow style of movement and reaction more akin to silent films, and this, combined with costumes which could have come from the illustrations to a nineteenth century Bible, might suggest to the viewer a Sunday School Magic Lantern show. But somehow the grandeur of the building in which it was filmed and the imaginative lighting prevent the laughter which at first seems inevitable. That is prevented even more by the grand simplicity of the music which has a character all of its own.

The musical performance is dominated by the Joseph of Laurence Dale, a tenor with the right mixture of grace and steel in his voice who is simply peerless in this kind of music, and with a wonderful understanding of how to phrase it. Brigitte Lafon is also outstanding as Benjamin. The rest are never less than adequate - including a very young Natalie Dessay in a minor part - and the orchestra play with great commitment under Claude Bardon who shamefully is not named on the box or in the booklet. After the Overture the order of the two successive arias for Joseph is reversed. This fits in better with the new narration and does no great musical harm.

Once I had got used to its eccentricities I enjoyed this disc. Partly this may be simply that it was a welcome change to see an opera presented so straightforwardly, with none of the bizarre director’s fancies that we have become used to. I suspect that I would have enjoyed at least as much a single CD with just the music, or perhaps with some much reduced dialogue, but this is a performance that does at least take the work seriously and manages to capture very well its grand simplicity in both musical and dramatic terms. I can easily imagine a superior version but in the meantime this fills an important gap very adequately.

John Sheppard

Fills an important gap.