Rodolphe KREUTZER (1766 - 1831)
La mort d'Abel
Katia Velletaz (soprano) - Méala, Yumiko Tanimura (soprano) -
Tirsa, Jennifer Borghi (mezzo) - Ève, Sébastien Droy (tenor)
- Abel, Jean-Sébastien Bou (baritone) - Caïn, Pierre-Yves
Pruvot (bass) - Adam, Alain Buet (bass) - Anamalech
Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Les Agrémens/Guy Van Waas
rec. 8-14 November 2010, Salle Philharmonique, Liège, Belgium.
EDICIONES SINGULARES ES 1008 [55:27 + 35:48 & book]
The title of this piece suggests that what we have
here is an oratorio. However, it is called a tragédie lyrique
in the list of Kreutzer's works in New Grove. The book which
accompanies the two discs includes a chapter about the reception of
this work in the press, and one of the paragraphs bears the title "An
ambiguous libretto, between opera and oratorio". That sums it up pretty
Let us first turn to the composer who is hardly a household name and
whose works lie outside today’s standard repertoire. Kreutzer's
father was from Breslau (today Wroclaw) and came to France to play in
the newly formed Swiss Guards of the Duke of Choiseul. He also performed
in Versailles as a violinist. Rodolphe received his first music education
from him. In 1778 he became a pupil of Anton Stamitz. Rodolphe was a
prodigy: he played in public at an early age and when 13 performed a
violin concerto by his teacher at the Concert Spirituel. At the end
of the 18th century Kreutzer was one of the main violin virtuosos in
Kreutzer also had strong ambitions in the field of music for the stage.
From 1790 onwards he regularly composed operas, apparently not to great
acclaim. His ballet-pantomime Paul et Virginie was probably his
first really successful composition for the theatre. In the article
on Kreutzer in New Grove David Charlton writes: "His harmonic
language is not without variety, but too often his musical thinking
does not progress beyond simple melody and accompaniment (...)". This
could be explained by his lack of formal training in this department.
The 19th-century music historian François-Joseph Fétis
stated that "Kreutzer owed everything to his natural instinct, and nothing
to academic training". Earlier he wrote that "all notions of harmony
were still alien to him. His custom, while composing, was to walk about
his room, singing his melodies, and playing on his violin, until he
found an accompaniment which pleased him".
La mort d'Abel is an opera on a sacred subject, and it was not
the only one in this genre. The first version dates from 1810 and at
that time various works of this kind were being written. There was a
direct reason for that: the first performance of Haydn's oratorio Die
Schöpfung in France in 1800 with a French text under the title
La Création du monde. It was performed in an adaptation
by Daniel Steibelt which wasn't received all that well by the press.
That said, the performance - with a huge orchestra of more than 160
players - made a great and lasting impression. It raised interest in
sacred music and inspired several composers to create works for the
stage on a biblical subject.
There was no real tradition of oratorios in France. At the end of the
17th century Charpentier had composed such works under the influence
of the oratorios of Carissimi, but the performances took place in private
surroundings and no tradition took root. Charpentier also created an
opéra sacrée: David et Jonathas, but this
form was hardly copied in the ensuing decades. During the 18th century
some dramatic works with a sacred subject were written, but they met
with strong rejection from the ecclesiastical authorities as they considered
sacred history not a fit subject for secular entertainment. At the end
of the century the general interest in sacred music waned, in the wake
of the French Revolution.
Ironically, Napoleon Bonaparte shared the view of the church. "Generally
speaking, I do not approve of the performances of any work based on
the Holy Scripture; such subjects are to be left to the Church". This
cam just as preparations for the performance of La mort d'Abel
in the Opéra were well in hand and the composr couldn't or didn't
want to stop it. The subject of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain
had been treated in the past. Today two oratorios on this subject are
fairly well-known: Caino e Abele by Bernardo Pasquini and especially
Il primo omicidio by Alessandro Scarlatti.
The first act of La mort d'Abel recounts that Cain hates his
brother Abel and resists the attempts of his parents Adam and Eve to
reconcile them. After a while he relents and Cain and Abel promise "lasting
peace". Suddenly a voice from Hell is heard: "Peace? Never! No, never!".
It is the voice of the fiend Anamalech, representing Satan. When the
two brothers make offerings to God, Abel's are accepted and Cain's rejected.
Cain gets angry and leaves his family. In the second act he falls asleep
and in his sleep Anamalech shows him the misery which awaits his descendants
and the happiness of Abel's heirs. He then urges Cain to wake as his
brother is coming and he gives him an iron club. Abel tries to calm
Cain down and seeks reconciliation. In his fury, driven by Satan, Cain
uses the club to kill Abel. He then flees. After a while Adam and Eve
arrive and they realise that Abel is dead. "God's decree has been accomplished.
This is death, as the Angel predicted". Cain returns and confesses his
crime. He decides to leave his relatives for good, only followed - against
his wishes - by his wife and children. A choir of angels then brings
Abel into heaven.
Originally this opera had three acts. The second was situated in Hell,
and it was much criticised, not so much for religious as for dramatic
reasons. Le Publiciste wrote that the authors "had not taken
into account the fact that the lack of contrasts within the act itself
would be wearisome to the audience. A whole act of barbaric music is
more than the ear can stand". Another paper emphasized that it was the
librettist who was to blame "for not providing him [Kreutzer] with the
slightest opportunity for variety in an act in which there are only
demons thirsting for blood". In the second version of 1825 which is
recorded here the whole second act was cut. This performance won lavish
praise from none other than Hector Berlioz.
La mort d'Abel is a most interesting and intriguing work which
shows some features of French opera tradition and modern traits. The
sleeping aria in the second act combines the two. It refers to the air
de sommeil which was frequently included in the tragédies
lyriques of Lully, for instance, whereas the subject - the infernal
vision instigated by Satan - points in the direction of romantic opera.
The orchestra has an illustrative role: the overture creates the atmosphere
of the scenes which are to come, and that is also the case with the
short introduction to the second act. The 18th-century texture of a
sequence of recitatives and arias has gone. The opera comprises mostly
longer scenes which now and then include an aria which one could probably
compare with an 18th century arioso: they are often quite long and there
is hardly any repetition. The content is connected in such a way to
the story that it is impossible to isolate the arias from their context.
Guy Van Waas is an expert in the French repertoire from the decades
around 1800. This part of music history has been more or less neglected
for a long time. It is therefore praiseworthy that he has performed
and recorded a considerable number of forgotten compositions. It seems
that there a general trend twoards taking this episode in history more
seriously has developed as the likes of Hervé Niquet and Christophe
Rousset are also exploring the dramatic repertoire of this period. The
cast is generally very good. The main roles are those of Adam, Abel
and Cain. Pierre-Yves Pruvot sings the role of Adam with much authority
but also with sensitivity in those episodes where that is required,
for instance when he tries to reconcile his sons. Sébastien Droy
does well in the role of Abel, but I would have preferred a nicer voice.
That is a matter of taste but I feel that his voice has just too many
sharp edges and isn't smooth enough for the role. Jean-Sébastien
Bou is probably the most convincing interpreter who does the right things
in the role of Cain which is sharply differentiated. Cain is torn between
various emotions and that comes off convincingly. Bou gives his role
much credibility and doesn't push Cain's anger too far. Alain Buet is
good as Anamalech: he focuses on the text and the colouring of his voice
rather than the volume of his singing. The smaller roles are all well
done. That said, I don't like the fluttering of the voices. It is not
a very fast heavy vibrato but rather a consistent variation in pitch.
After a while I got used to it, and it didn't spoil my enjoyment. Even
so, it should not be there and I can't figure out why it has been adopted
These discs come with a book of 144 pages in French and English, with
various essays on the opera and how it was received, the tradition of
the oratorio and sacred opera in France and a biography of Kreutzer
by Fétis. Moreover, we get a synopsis and the lyrics with an
English translation. It is presented as a "limited and numbered edition
of 3000". I wonder whether this is a commercial ploy. I don't know how
many copies are made of a common classical disc, but I doubt that it
is many more than 3,000. This production may be less 'unique' than the
producers probably want to suggest. Moreover, if there were a realistic
danger of this production being sold out very quickly, what would be
the point of a review?
Johan van Veen
A generally convincing interpretation of an intriguing musical drama
from the early 19th century.