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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Stradella - opera in three acts (1841) [115:00]
Léonor - Isabelle Kabatu
Stradella - Marc Laho
Spadoni - Werner Van Mechelen
Duke of Pesaro - Philippe Rouillon
Pietro - Xavier Rouillon
Michael - Giovanni Iovino
Beppo - Patrick Mignon
An officer - Roger Joakim
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie/Paolo Arrivabeni
rec. L'Opera de Liège, Belgium, 25-27 September 2012
Picture format: 16:9; NTSC
DYNAMIC CDS 7692/1-2 [2 CDs: 63.53 + 43.25] 37692 DVD [115:00]

Sometimes a particular song will, if only briefly, grab the public's interest and attention to a degree out of all proportion to its real merits. In some instances, such as when Vera Lynn sang We'll meet again in 1939, it may have captured the Zeitgeist in an obvious way. In others, its wide appeal can be utterly perplexing: Joe Dolce's Shaddap you face, anyone? Thus, in 1833, a new aria suddenly became all the rage among the beau monde of Paris. Even though it is now thought to have been written by the 19th century composer François-Joseph Fétis, Sei i miei so sospiri was instead attributed at the time to the Italian composer, embezzler and serial seducer Alessandro Stradella (1644-1682).
 
That aria's "rediscovery" provoked a new wave of interest in Stradella and, as details of his life emerged, his colourful Casanova-like exploits quickly became a popular subject for operatic treatment. Virginio Marchi's Il cantore di Venezia of 1835 was followed within little more than a decade by fanciful versions of the same story from Louis Niedermeyer (Stradella, 1837), the rather better remembered Friedrich von Flotow (Alessandro Stradella, 1844) and Vincenzo Moscuzza (Stradella il trovatore, 1850). As a budding composer at the time, the teenaged César Franck added his own contribution to the genre, Stradella (1841), now so long-forgotten that The Oxford Dictionary of Opera (John Warrack and Ewan West, Oxford, 1992, p.682) fails to mention it at all.
 
The story of Franck's opera, which will, I suspect, be unfamiliar to most readers, is quickly told. In Act 1, Léonor, about to elope from Venice with her beloved Stradella, is instead kidnapped by agents of the lecherous Duke of Pesaro who desires her for himself; the second Act takes place in the ducal dungeon from which Stradella successfully rescues her; in the final Act, the runaways are found by the vengeful aristocrat's agents in Rome, but, instead of ordering the lovers' death, the Duke, won over by Stradella's exquisite singing, forgives them instead. In this Liège production, however, events in the last act don't go quite so swimmingly after all, with Léonor passing away from shock at the sight of the assassins and Stradella viciously knifed to death.
 
Franck was not a lucky composer when it came to operas. He worked on four in all: Stradella was followed by Le valet de ferme (1851-1853) and two excessively blood-drenched historical melodramas Hulda (1882-1885) and Ghiselle (1889). None of them was ever to be performed in complete form during his lifetime.
 
In the case of Stradella, the inexperienced 19 year old composer was simply not yet up to producing much beyond a rudimentary attempt at the genre. It is not that the music is unenjoyable, for, as far as it goes, it is often very attractive, with an abundance of light, lyrical melodies. The most accomplished writing is for the chorus, and Franck plays to his evident strengths with effective numbers for groups of students (Act 1), shopkeepers (Act 2) and mourners (Act 3). There is also an engaging if rather truncated Act 2 duet for the lovers Léonor and Stradella ("By what sad destiny has this happy day turned to sorrow?") and a subsequent trio when they are confronted by the Duke. The final Act delivers another winning trio, this time for the Duke's murderous henchman Spadoni and his paid assassins Pietro and Michael. Enjoyable though those various moments undoubtedly are, they are each all too brief and Franck proves not yet able to develop them much beyond straightforward, conventionally formulaic musical forms and patterns.
 
More seriously, the young composer, as yet understandably unversed in sophisticated adult human emotions and the ways of the world, proves unable to progress beyond the most simplistic ideas of characterisation, so that, as a result, all the figures on stage emerge as one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. Léonor is the standard virtuous heroine in peril - and, just to engage the tear ducts even more, a poor orphan to boot - while her lover Stradella is the heroic artist of humble origins who is ensnared in the machinations of a corrupt and decadent court. We are also presented with that clichéd pantomime-villain the lecherous aristocrat, a figure whose character is so poorly delineated that, in the opera's final couple of minutes, he undergoes a complete change of motivation at which nothing in the preceding two hours of downright dastardliness even remotely hints. While middle-period Verdi might have made an entertaining stab at the story's melodrama - and late Verdi would have had an absolute field day with the characters' psychological complexities - early Franck is clearly out of his depth in dealing with emotions that he had presumably encountered so far only in his school books.
 
In giving their full commitment to the enterprise, though, the performers on the Liège stage gradually succeed in winning us over to Stradella's cause. By that process, the theatre audience, which, for reasons to be considered shortly, initially appears rather bemused and lukewarm, becomes increasingly appreciative as the evening goes on. The most positive impression is made by soprano Isabelle Kabatu who sings securely and passionately despite being given awkward-sounding - and sometimes oddly translated - lines such as "A poor orphan since childhood, who will come to my rescue? My beloved, I am being offended - can you not come to my rescue?" As Stradella, Marc Laho starts somewhat tentatively but gains in authority as the performance continues so that, by the final Act, he develops into a strong presence both vocally and dramatically. Both Philippe Rouillon and Werner Van Mechelen as, respectively, the Duke of Pesaro and Spadoni, deliver their well-sung wickedness effectively and in spades. As a pair of greedy but apparently music-loving assassins, Xavier Rouillon (Philippe Rouillon's real-life son) and Giovanni Iovino sing pleasingly and to welcome, if brief, comic effect under some very trying physical conditions - of which more in a moment. In the meantime, the well-drilled chorus makes the most of its opportunities in each Act. Conductor Paolo Arrivabeni, of whom the video director shows us rather a lot even during the on-stage action, directs the Liège orchestra very effectively in Luc Van Hove's orchestrations, though at times I could have wished for a fuller sound from the strings.
 
So we arrive at this production's most striking feature - its design. Like many opera/ballet/theatre patrons these days, I am occasionally baffled by the concepts imposed upon us by apparently self-indulgent directors. I readily agree that the simple device of a shift in time, whereby Rienzi becomes a 20th century fascist dictator or the Pagliacci troupe plies its trade through the 1950s countryside, can often offer valuable alternative perspectives on familiar works. However, productions set in completely surreal surroundings where characters are costumed in utterly outlandish outfits can, on the contrary, deprive us of even the remotest connection with real life, whether of the past or the present day. Such distracting and seemingly meaningless physical trappings can, at worst, cause many of us to wonder, by the end of the evening, what on earth the performance had actually been about.
 
My initial thought was that this Liège Stradella, devised by the well-regarded Belgian film director and playwright Jaco Van Dormael, was going to be such a production. It begins, after all, with a nude actress wading across the stage through water, a foot or so deep, in order to recover a floating suitcase. She opens it to remove a giant wand which then becomes the source of a series of giant wind-blown soap bubbles. That brief, somewhat bizarre episode may be completely unrelated to Stradella's plot but, in retrospect, it can be seen as serving to introduce two of the production's most significant visual elements - the water-covered stage and a recurring motif of bubble shapes.
 
The submerged stage is the more obviously striking feature. Sometimes it is crossed by a causeway or stepping stones set above water-level. At other times those constructions sink below the surface, leaving the singers performing while up to their knees in rather grimy water or even, as with the Act 3 assassins, swimming in it. That semi-submerged setting remains in place, in fact, for the whole performance, slowing down any physical movement in general and placing particular burdens on Ms Kabatu who is often found trailing a long, waterlogged and presumably very heavy dress behind her. At first I presumed that this was some sort of directorial conceit to remind us that the first and second Acts are set in Venice but, as it is perpetuated in the third Act, set in Rome, I was ultimately not so sure.
 
Oddly enough, one quickly gets used to the water - if only because some of the director's other ideas are even more surreal and quirky, as the following examples may suggest. The otherwise unremarkably costumed Duke is always identifiable by a balloon-filled cloak that billows up four feet or so above his head ... Meanwhile, the members of the Venice police force, a body of men who will be somewhat familiar to anyone who knows The Pirates of Penzance, sport some natty transparent plastic raincoats as they wade - and later dance - through the water. The Man in the Moon makes a couple of appearances in the sky to join in the choruses. Then, in the production's closing moments, some remotely-controlled giant clown fish "swim" slowly and majestically above the stage.
 
As we are offered no extra feature material on the disc to elucidate the point, my theory is that those fish are there to create an impression that the whole performance has taken place inside a glass fishbowl, which in turn reminds us of those bubble shapes. Similarly, apart from those balloons in the Duke's cloak, other bubble-like images also feature in various earlier episodes where large circular projections - either of the on-stage action or, more bizarrely, of the conductor, orchestra and audience - appear on the rear wall of the stage. The same motif recurs once more after Léonor's death - from shock, according to Danilo Prefumo's booklet notes but, naturally enough, from drowning in this particular production. Her spirit is seen thereafter treading water in a heavenly "bubble", where it is ultimately joined by that of the murdered Stradella - though it looks to me as though a couple of rather unconvincing body doubles are actually used instead. You will easily get a good flavour of the look of the whole production by searching Google's images library for "Stradella Liège". You may also watch what I take to be a six-minute promotional video posted on YouTube as "Stradella (César Franck)".
 
I imagine that there may well have been a few practical difficulties in filming such an idiosyncratic staging, but the direction for video has been generally well executed in a straightforward way. Watched on my 50" screen, the DVD picture was certainly of good quality but, inevitably, not as crisply sharp as a Blu-ray disc might have rendered it. The sound quality was fine. At a not particularly well chosen point in the action (60:43), what I take to be dual-layering on the disc triggered a minuscule split-second judder. The English subtitles were, as I have mentioned before, a little literal and, at times, stilted. The word "valet" was used several times, for instance, when the speaker was clearly referring more properly to social inferiors in general. A more idiomatic touch would certainly have helped the English translation, though the apparent use of contemporary text-speak at 11:25 ("The carnival favours u") was probably, if genuinely intentioned, a step too far.
 
Given my usual antipathy to wildly unconventional productions, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed this disc - a world premiere recording - a great deal. Franck's attractive, if at times excusably naive, music and the performers' commitment to it account for much of its success. Coming to Stradella with absolutely no preconceptions of how it ought to be done, I also found Mr Van Dormael's conception both visually striking - how could it not be with all that water? - and thought-provoking. It's well worth a look.
 
Rob Maynard

And a review of the CD version ...

It is indubitably the case, as Danilo Prefumo states in his booklet note for this issue, that the name of Franck is generally associated nowadays with organ and instrumental music. Oddly enough he does not mention the Symphonic Variations, probably the composer’s best-known orchestral work. However those who are familiar with the dramatic potential demonstrated in Franck’s extended symphonic poem Psyché — especially in its full-length version with chorus — will not be surprised that he was attracted to the operatic form, and made four attempts to write works for the stage. Of these Ghisèle was left unfinished at the time of the composer’s death, and the relatively early 1855 comic opera Le valet de ferme was never staged. His late opera Hulda, written in 1882-5 on a pseudo-Wagnerian Viking subject, was not mounted until 1894, after the composer’s death — and then in an incomplete version — and after a few presentations in the following years disappeared without trace until a complete performance at Reading University in 1979 and a few subsequent revivals. Only some orchestral sections of the score appear ever to have been commercially recorded, and one would be interested to encounter the complete work. The CD of the Ballet allégorique by the Liège Philharmonic reveals a piece that is far from Wagnerian in the manner that one might expect from Franck’s disciple Vincent d’Indy, although this section of the score may be atypical of the whole.
 
In any event, here we are given a first recording – and indeed a first performance – of Franck’s very early opera Stradella written by the composer in his late teens. The work was never orchestrated, although the booklet informs us that it was “virtually complete;” and it is given here in a realisation by Luc van Hove. That said, the culmination of the plot has been changed, with a tragic ending substituted for Franck’s original happy one. This was the idea of the producer Jaco van Dormael. It would seem an odd notion in the case of a score which is totally unknown in its original form. We are told that the music remains unchanged, but one suspects that the text may have been subjected to alteration. The scenario, which appears to owe more than a little to the example of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini staged in Paris a few years earlier, centres around the power of art — here music, rather than sculpture — to redeem humanity from its petty jealousies. The parallels with Benvenuto Cellini extend beyond motivation, with a Venice Carnival opening scene which surely owes more than a little to the idea of Berlioz’s Roman one. The plot, however, unlike Cellini, is pure fiction. The composer Stradella is a rival in love to a Duke who arranges for his murder although Stradella did indeed meet an untimely end. In the original score the Duke, moved by Stradella’s music, pardons the composer and blesses his union; in the altered version given here, the hired assassins fulfil their task although the Duke then grants the lovers his posthumous pardon. There are elements here of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet – another Berliozian echo.
 
The young Franck is very far from being able to rival the more experienced Berlioz in his treatment of his subject. His Venetian carnival is a very lacklustre event by the side of the sparkling Berlioz treatment of his similar subject. It has very little rhythmic spring and none of Berlioz’s syncopated energy. When Stradella arrives, his serenade is a very conventional number with a rather appealing little refrain but little else to distinguish it from many other similar examples of the period by such composers as Auber or Meyerbeer. Luc van Hove manages to inject some novelty into the score by some deliciously piquant orchestration. One wonders if the student Franck would have had the originality of touch that is on display here. What we get is an attractive French romantic opera, but nothing that one would associate with the mature and late-developing Franck. Stradella’s apostrophe O mon art! (CD 1, track 12) begins promisingly with an accompaniment for trombones — did the arranger have the model of Berlioz’s Voici des roses in mind? — but all too soon breaks off into rather conventional recitative. The following duet Quel coup de ciel for the two lovers, on the other hand, has what is really rather a good tune (CD 1, track 13, 2.13) which seems to anticipate Massenet’s prayer in Le Cid although it proceeds less interestingly. On the other hand the closing pages (CD 2, track 12), with their sense of forced rejoicing, sound pretty tawdry and are not helped by some decidedly scrappy choral singing.
 
The performance, which I first heard in a BBC broadcast last year (2013), gives a pretty good impression of the work. Since I imagine we are unlikely to hear it again any time soon, it will have to suffice. The solo singing is generally good, and in the case of the strong-voiced and athletic Marc Laho rather more than that although Isabelle Kabatu sounds over-taxed by the coloratura in her aria; CD 2, track 7, 1.55 is particularly distressing. The orchestral playing under Paolo Arrivabeni is responsive and nicely sprung, although the chorus – in particularly the children’s chorus during the Venetian carnival and elsewhere – sounds undersized and seriously lacks weight. I have been unable to locate a score of the opera, which presumably remains unpublished — it was only rediscovered in 1984 — and some stage noise seems to be unmotivated; listen for the sound of what appears to be rushing water at the start of CD1, track 6. For some totally unfathomable reason the Second Act is split between discs. There would have been plenty of room for the complete Act on CD1. Although the opera is conveniently split into tracks, these are not cued in the synopsis which manages to dispose of the whole convoluted plot in just over one page. The booklet notes are given only in English and Italian – odd for a French opera – but the libretto is commendably listed as being available (in French with English translation) on the company’s website. At the time of writing this review, however, I was unable to access this since the relevant page was blank. The booklet fails to furnish the ranges of the individual voices; those given in the header to this review derive from those supplied by the BBC for their broadcast of this recording. The stage production is also available on DVD, which would at least assist the viewer with the ability to follow the plot – although the pictures in the booklet suggest that the action was far from realistic. The audience sound only moderately impressed, with lukewarm applause which interrupts the flow of the music rather too often.
 
Nonetheless this issue deserves a welcome, allowing us as it does the opportunity to hear what Franck was up to in his teenage years. May we hope for a complete recording of Hulda at some stage in the future – and possibly of the incomplete Ghisèle too? Now those would be really interesting.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

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