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Antonio SALIERI (1750-1825)
Les Danaïdes (1784) [109.50]
Margaret Marshall (soprano) - Hypermnestre, Dimitri Kavrakos (bass) - Danaus, Raúl Giménez (tenor) - Lyncée, Clarry Bartha (mezzo) - Plancippe, Andrea Martin (tenor) - Pélagus, First Officer, Enrico Cossutta (baritone) - Second and Third Officers
Südfunk Choir, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gianluigi Gelmetti
rec. Villa Berg, Stuttgart, 13-18 January 1990
EMI CLASSICS 9123202 [49.07 + 60.43]

I suppose any review of music by Antonio Salieri must begin by lamenting the fact that his reputation nowadays is almost entirely based on the idea that he poisoned Mozart. It’s a charge based on his own senile deathbed confession. This was in turn given wings by Pushkin’s play (set to music by Rimsky-Korsakov) Mozart and Salieri, and has been further dinned into the public consciousness by Peter Schaffer’s play and film Amadeus. These make absolutely sure that the universal view of Salieri is as a self-recognised second-rate composer.
Some years back I made an effort to hear as much of Salieri’s music as I could - although this recording of Les Danaïdes was then out of the catalogues. I immediately recognised that, contrary to expectations, he showed considerable signs both of genius and innovation. Some of this Mozart was not afraid to imitate. The final scene of Don Giovanni, for example, clearly owes something to Salieri’s infernal music for Il grotto di Trifonio. It is also clear that Mozart managed to get more mileage out of his material than Salieri could do. One cannot pretend that Salieri’s muse, for all its flashes of something great, worked on the same level as his Viennese contemporaries such as Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven.
His earlier opera Les Danaïdes, on the other hand, operates more in the realm of Gluck, and this is no accident. The text was originally written by Gluck’s librettist Calzabigi with the intention that it should be set by Gluck. Following the failure of his opera Echo et Narcise in Paris Gluck refused to write another opera for the French market. He lent his name to the advance publicity for Les Danaïdes, but once its success was assured he hastened to tell the public that his role had been purely advisory and that the music was entirely by his pupil Salieri. Berlioz, a great admirer of Gluck, heard the opera in Paris in 1822, and was enthusiastic about it: “The pomp and excitement of the spectacle, the sheer weight and richness of sound produced by the chorus and orchestra … excited and disturbed me to an extent which I cannot describe. It was as though a youth possessing all the navigational instincts, but knowing only the small boats on the lakes of his native mountains, were suddenly to find himself on board an ocean-going galleon” [my translation]. Earlier, William Bennett, an Englishman on the Grand Tour, had encountered the opera in 1785 and was similarly overwhelmed by it: “Our Opera ended with a representation of Hell, in which the fifty Danaïdes were hauled and pulled about as if the Devils had been going to ravish them … and they were at last buried in such a shower of fire, that I wonder the Playhouse has not burned to the ground.”
Why then did Les Danaïdes subsequently disappear so completely from the operatic stage? Part of the problem must be placed at the door of Gluck, whose example Salieri strove to valiantly to emulate. Calzabigi’s libretto, in five Acts, moves at a brisk pace which cannot however disguise the fact that the first three Acts are perilously short of dramatic content. The plot, from Greek mythology, is a pretty thin one to start with: Danaus has, presumably by a string of different women, fifty daughters, whom he proposes to marry to the fifty sons of his equally productive brother as a gesture of reconciliation following a family feud. He has an ulterior motive, commanding his daughters to kill their husbands on their wedding night, which they do with considerable enthusiasm. Only one daughter, Hypermnestre, refuses to do her father’s bidding, and is thus saved from the damnation which overtakes her sisters and father. The first three Acts consist of a series of choruses and solos leading to the weddings. Although Salieri manages to introduce plenty of contrast with the use of dances and variety of pace one is really waiting for matters to reach their gory climax. When they do, suddenly the music gains immeasurably in dramatic power. The final Act with its confrontation between Hypermnestre and her father and the transition to the scene in Hell is strong stuff indeed. Berlioz clearly recalled his enthusiastic reception of the final scene when he wrote his music for the fall of Troy in Les Troyens. Yes, it really is that good.
The cast here don’t really throw themselves into the gruesome elements of the plot as enthusiastically as they might have done. Margaret Marshall as the virtuous daughter is rather too polite, although she sings with classical poise and strength of line. One can imagine what Callas might have done with a part like this, with its overtones of Cherubini’s Medea. Similarly Dimitri Kavrakos does not really start to behave like the villain he should be until the final Act. At that point he manages to conjure up a real storm as he condemns his disobedient daughter to death; she is rescued in the nick of time by the husband whose life she has preserved. As that husband, Raúl Giménez is perhaps rather a wimp, whose persistent misunderstandings of the veiled warnings that his wife is giving him seem obtuse to the point of fatuity. On the other hand he does sing with a real sense of line and beauty of tone which quite redeems the basic stupidity of the character. These are the only three roles of any substance - Calzabigi always endeavoured to trim down his plots to the dramatic essentials. The remainder of the singers are fine, even if Andrea Martin as the rebellious captain who eventually puts an end to Danaus’s murderous career is a bit rough in tone. Gianluigi Gelmetti is not able to do much with the music of the first three Acts, but he gets better as the opera proceeds and he milks the final catastrophe for all it is worth. The recorded sound is excellent, and the chorus - if clearly not numerically the fifty each of husbands and wives called for by the plot - is firm, expressive and dramatic by turns.
Sad to say, dramatic engagement in this excellent performance is fatally compromised by the failure to provide any text or translation. The original issue apparently contained only the text in French and German, which caused complaint at the time; this reissue removes the French altogether and gives us a historical background note in German and English together with a synopsis which is certainly inadequate to explain the intricacies of the plot, such as they are. There is a copy of the full score as published in 1784 available online but it is a very large file to download, and I have not been able to find any online copy of the text in either French or translation. The diction of the singers is good, but fully to appreciate the opera you will need to be able to follow the French without assistance. Poor Salieri - he deserves rather better than this.
Paul Corfield Godfrey