RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Marie Victoire - Opera in Four Acts and Five Scenes (1912) [164:45]
Marie de Lanjallay - Takesha Meshé Kizart (soprano)
Maurice de Lanjallay - Markus Brück (baritone)
Clorivière - Germán Villar (tenor)
Simon - Simon Pauly (baritone)
Cloteau - Stephen Bronk (bass-baritone)
Kermarec - Jörn Schümann (bass-baritone)
Lison/Emérantine - Martina Welschenbach (soprano)
Caracalla - Gregory Warren (tenor)
Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin/Michail Jurowski
rec. Deutsch Oper Berlin, Germany, 6-7, 9 April 2009
CPO 777 121-2 [3 CDs: 42:12 + 63:31 + 59:02]
Received wisdom would have you think that Ottorino Respighi was Italy’s most famous composer of the 19th/20th centuries not for opera but for orchestral music. That might well be true to a degree but it masks the fact - which still comes as something of a surprise - that he wrote ten or so operas, plus two major ballets plus others and re-arranged Monteverdi’s Orfeo along the way. In fact his appointment as professor of composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome in 1913 was as much based on the perceived success of his first two operas - Re Enzo (1905) and Semirâma (1909) as anything else since all the orchestral works on which his fame rests today lay in the future.
Marie Victoire was Respighi’s third opera - and a rather unloved offspring it proved to be. Respighi’s wife in her biography of the composer relates how he struggled with its composition and how after his death she felt her energies were better spent ensuring the completion of his final stage work Lucrezia. Indeed, it had to wait nearly ninety years for a first performance in 2004. Nowhere in the notes is there any reference to the need to edit for performance or ‘complete’ the work so it would seem that Respighi finished the work in its long and complex entirety and then put it in a bottom drawer - a thought I find extraordinary. This is not a world-premiere recording; there is a review of an off-air recording of the 2004 Rome performance and detailed synopsis elsewhere on this site. However, this new performance is in effect the first ‘recorded-for-CD’ set.
Hurrah for CPO. They really are one of my favourite recording companies regularly releasing discs of completely unknown works or composers. More importantly, they are one of very few companies actively expanding our knowledge of operatic repertoire. In this they are fortunate to be able to make use of the extensive network of opera houses in Germany that are still dedicated to producing high quality work. The downside for some collectors is that this results in many of the recordings being made live with the attendant bumps, clumps and applause that implies and that the casts are rarely international singers of huge renown. This Marie Victoire is just such a live performance and the stage noise is often audible and it is substantial enough to teeter on the edge of being distracting. CPO recorded this performance at one of Germany’s premier houses, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin with all the quality that implies. The large cast (some 22 named singing roles plus chorus) are not stellar but in soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart in the title role they have a singer bound for stardom. So, to be blunt, did it deserve to be ignored for ninety years? - on the evidence presented here resoundingly no. For sure, it is not Respighi’s most consistently inspired opera and the style of the writing changes through its two and three-quarter hour duration but there is enough of substantial interest to tickle the fancy of admirers of Italian opera in general or this composer in particular.
A very brief synopsis probably helps. The work is set in France - and curiously for an Italian composer not writing for the French market setting a French language libretto - and opens four years after the Revolution in the home of Count Maurice de Lanjallay (baritone Markus Brück) and his wife the eponymous Marie. They have managed to live in relative peace and tranquillity. A new maid informs on their royalist sympathies and while Maurice leaves to help his father, Marie and another old friend of the Lanjallay’s - Clorivière (tenor Germán Villar) - are arrested by revolutionary guards. In the second act a year has passed and Marie and other Aristocrats/Royalists are in prison awaiting sentencing and probable death. Oddly, her former gardener Cloteau (bass-baritone Stephen Bronk) is now her jailer and has split loyalties. Meanwhile Clorivière is making advances. Cloteau sees the list that marks Marie down for execution and kills the informant who carries it. Marie believing herself about to die allows Clorivière to seduce her. During the night there is a great tumult due to the news that Robespierre is dead and the prisoners are saved. Marie, now a fallen woman, longs to die. Another six years pass before Act 3. Marie runs a millinery shop in Paris and is known as Marie Victoire - her past a closely guarded secret. Cloteau the jailer/gardener still works for her and she has a son Georges as a result of her seduction. Ridden with guilt, she will not allow Clorivière access to his son but he begs one last visit before leaving France forever. Shortly after his departure the long-thought dead Maurice appears and Marie admits to him that Georges is not his son. Suddenly a massive explosion is heard - a failed attempt on Napoleon’s life. The would-be assassin is Clorivière driven by his despair to such acts. He appears closely pursued by a mob. Maurice is broken by the revelation of Georges’ parentage and although guiltless confesses to the mob guilt for the bombing. Act 4 takes place the same night in the criminal court. Maurice refuses to defend himself so Marie tells all assembled what has happened during and since her imprisonment. Maurice forgives her but refuses to name the would-be assassin. Clorivière suddenly appears in the crowd, admits his responsibility and with the words “Long live the King!” shoots himself in the head - the curtain falls.
If that reads like some penny-dreadful story then I would say it’s about right. Clearly, the interest lies in the musical setting not the narrative. My guess the reason Respighi put this into a bottom drawer was that he sensed his musical style was drawing him in a different direction from that he used here. There is none - not surprisingly given the narrative! - of the modal quasi-antique style that dominated so much of his music from the 1920s onwards. Neither is there a great deal of evidence of what might be termed the Mediterranean impressionism that suffuses elements of the Rome triptych he was to start only a couple of years later with the Fountains of Rome. Instead, and this is of real interest to the operatic archaeologist, he created a style which shares a kinship with some of the hothouse fantasy operas emanating from just north of the Alps. I’m thinking here of Schrecker’s Die Gezeichneten (1911; 1913-1915) or Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie (1915). I have no idea if Respighi knew - or could have known - either work. The Respighi does not share the same musical vocabulary but there is a similar heady intoxication in the spirit of the writing. A valuable and interesting point the liner throws up is that this libretto is ‘realistic’ - historical events portrayed in a quasi-factual manner - in the way that no other Respighi opera - or indeed those favoured by the composers mentioned above - are.
The first act is the shortest and the simplest by some way since its real function is just to set up the drama to follow. So the characters are introduced in a fairly perfunctory way and the love-duet between husband and wife is touching rather than passionate. Even so, there is music of some considerable interest - if not melodies to indelibly etch on your memory - and, as implied above, Kizart establishes herself as the dominant personality on the stage. Hers is a fantastic voice; vibrant, exciting and with a tremendous presence. Add to that a lustrous sound and pitch-perfect tuning and you can understand why she makes such a positive impression. The best compliment I can pay her is to say that her voice reminded me of a young Leontyne Price - her Scene 8 monologue in Act II is a prime example of the focus and intensity of her performance. Indeed the entire sequence from here to the end of this Act is probably the most dramatically effective sequence in the work.
I’m guessing that Respighi’s dissatisfaction sprang from an awareness of the musical and dramatic unevenness of the work. The plot depends too heavily on characters introduced solely to generate ‘an event’ which cause the central roles to respond. Also, the basic dramatic shape of the work is very uneven. Act II runs in performance for over an hour - and as mentioned above in the main succeeds very well in slowly ratcheting up the drama - but the opera’s dénouement is the single scene fifteen minute Act IV. Brevity alone is no sin but after the power of Marie’s defence, Clorivière’s blustering appearance, confession and suicide feels anti-climactic and somewhat contrived. The music lacks a core continuity - it does sound rather like a sampler for Romantic operatic styles 1890 - 1920. For all the undoubted skill in orchestration the fatal flaw is the lack of a great melody to embody Marie’s love for Maurice or the lusting passion of her liaison with Clorivière. That said, many of the ‘big’ moments work tremendously well - I like a lot the layering of the drama in the second Act with some of the prisoners taking their minds off their incarceration/imminent execution by rehearsing a popular play with onstage music whilst Marie laments her fate and others mutter prayers. For moments like this the music deserves to be known without a shadow of a doubt. The more one listens the more one realises that again - in the spirit of seeking musico-dramatic balance - too often the best and weightiest music is reserved for Marie alone. Not that this is a hardship when sung by Ms Kizart. I wish I warmed more to Villar’s voice - it sounds harsh and generalised next to Kizart.
A mention here for the conducting of Michail Jurowski. This strikes me as a very assured and convincing interpretation of a big and unfamiliar score. CPO have caught the fine orchestra the Deutsche Oper in excellent form - rich and full-toned amply alive to the sensuous writing. Likewise the chorus, are very impressive when required so to be.
The centre-piece of the two final Acts are again monologues for Marie - her Act III lament Je suis laisse and her passionate defence at the tribunal in Act IV. As mentioned previously the opera’s ending is unsatisfactorily abrupt. What is it about Revolutionary subjects in opera that makes the characters act with even more self-sacrificing heroic stupidity than normal? Allowing for that, all credit to the performers; especially the orchestra and Jurowski’s direction for driving the drama as convincingly as possible through to this breathless conclusion.
Now to gather some thoughts: Respighi’s admirers need not hesitate - this is a big and significant work that in no way deserved the neglect its composer and his associates imposed on it. Yes, it might be uneven, and more tellingly for the composer, lead in a direction he chose not to follow, but there is much to enjoy. Every character is subservient to the eponymous Marie - indeed her music and the performance of it here is the over-riding reason to hear this work. Takesha Meshé Kizart is the real deal as a dramatic soprano - I see from her website recent roles include Tosca and Norma. If she can sustain the thrilling intensity and control of her singing over a number of years I suspect she will cement her position as a major international star. Her performance does rather eclipse all the others singing here but that is due in part to the ancillary roles Respighi has written. Even the two men in Marie’s life are given little chance to shine musically - decent husband baritone and bounder lover tenor are too stereotyped in what and how they do. CPO’s liner - in their usual rather overwritten academic style - tries to makes a case for them representing the two poles of aesthetic and erotic love but ultimately they have not been given any cherries to sing. While mentioning the liner - as well as the earnest but interesting essays, synopsis and biographies there is a full libretto. All are supplied in CPO’s standard three languages; German, French and English.
The ‘live’ nature of the recording will bother some - not that there is any apparent musical fallibility. Put simply there’s a degree of extraneous staging and audience noises including enthusiastic applause. Against this, the voice/orchestra balance is remarkably stable and effective. One minor observation - the pronunciation of the French libretto is a somewhat moveable feast - none of the principal singers is native French speakers and it does show. However, this is most definitely not a French opera, simply an opera in French so personally this does not grate too much. The scale of this work and the demands it places on any cast and indeed opera house are going to preclude its ascension to anything like standard repertoire. I hope though that this recording will serve two purposes: to enshrine a fine collective performance by a high calibre team and to provide a reference point to encourage other houses to stage more productions.
A major release of great value and interest.
A major release of great value and interest.
see also review of the live production by Josť M™ Irurzun
Respighi resources on Musicweb International