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Félicien DAVID (1810-1876) Herculanum - opera in four acts (1859)
Véronique Gens (soprano) - Lilia
Karine Deshayes (mezzo) - Olympia
Edgaras Montvidas (tenor) - Hélios
Nicolas Courjal (bass) - Nicanor / Satan
Julien Véronèse (baritone) - Magnus
Flemish Radio Choir
Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra/Hervé Niquet
rec. Brussels?, February-March 2014 EDICIONES SINGULARES ES1020 [72.58 + 49.06]
Any serious collector of early vocal records will know the name Félicien David on the strength of a single aria: "Charmant oiseau", the "Air de mysoli", from La Perle du Brésil (1851). This was a standard repertoire piece for most lyric sopranos into the 1920s, but, outside France, it was the only piece of David's which survived into the 20th century. On the strength of the contents of the Pathé company catalogue, in France itself a few bits of David's oriental opera Lalla Rookh (1862) were also remembered, but, as far as my knowledge goes, not a note of Herculanum has ever been recorded until the present issue.
David has had a bit of a renaissance recently; Lalla Rookh was issued by Naxos last year (8.660338-39 - not yet reviewed here), there are now two recordings of the piece which brought him fame Le Désert (Guida on Capriccio and Equilbey on Naive), some songs and even some of his chamber music has made it onto CD.
Herculanum, the second of David's five operas (also including Le Saphir (1865) and La Captive (1883)), was composed in 1859 and performed with considerable success at the Opéra that year. It received a very favourable review from no less a person than Hector Berlioz, who described it as having "many beauties". The plot is utterly conventional when it is not being ridiculous, which is one of the main reasons why many operas of the period are so difficult to revive in the theatre today. It is set in the Roman city of the opera's title in 79 A.D. Two betrothed Christians, Lilia and Hélios, are brought by the mob to Queen Olympia and her brother Nicanor with the demand that they be executed for their beliefs. Olympia, however, falls for Hélios and pardons them. She then sends Lilia away and seduces Hélios with a magic potion. Nicanor, meanwhile, lusts after Lilia and follows her into the desert. She rejects his advances and in his fury he tells her that her god does not exist. There is a flash of lightning and Nicanor is struck dead. For some utterly incomprehensible reason, this frees Satan from a century-long incarceration in Hell, whereupon he vows to make life difficult for humanity. He starts by showing Lilia a vision of Hélios's betrayal with Olympia and takes up Nicanor's cloak to disguise himself. Lilia makes her way back to the palace and confronts Hélios. Olympia condemns Lilia to death but Satan (still disguised as her brother Nicanor) persuades her that Lilia will suffer more if she is made to live and witness Hélios's marriage to Olympia. Torn between the two, his mental turmoil makes Hélios recover from the magic, but in order to save Lilia's life determines still to marry Olympia, much to Satan's delight. In the last act Satan foments rebellion among the slaves while Vesuvius rumbles in the distance. From the terrace of the palace, Hélios calls out to Lilia. She enters and he begs her forgiveness, which she gives him. Vesuvius erupts and Satan reveals his true identity to Olympia. All are killed in the eruption, though Hélios and Lilia die happy in the knowledge that they will be together in heaven.
The music is charming and tuneful without being in any way memorable. Lilia's Act one air "Noble Hélios", which flows seamlessly into a duet is lovely in its delicate melancholy, but the cabaletta continuation is distinctly less impressive. Olympia's Drinking Song "Bois ce vin" is effective, if lacking the swagger of the best examples. I thought the best number in the score was the duet between Lilia and Hélios in the last act, "Ah! malgré moi", which edges towards real distinction. It is significant that Herculanum was the only one of David's five stage works which was a full-blown opera, the others were all opéra comiques. Herculanum was an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Meyerbeer and Verdi and produce a full scale grand opéra, but David's musical style was simply not up to the task; he did not have the breadth and ability to write music to fit the grand passion and spectacle that was necessary for grand opéra. His recitative is dull and without the capacity to convey character. The music is essentially still that of an opéra comique, as is shown in the pitifully feeble music for the eruption of Vesuvius.
The performance - issued in a limited edition of 3000 sets - is more than adequate and it is good to see that all the singers except Montvidas are French - a real rarity in a recording of a French opera nowadays. The vocal palms go to the two sopranos, Véronique Gens and Karine Deshayes, who have sweet, clear, technically proficient voices entirely appropriate to the music and who sing with style. Montvidas' Hélios is rather strained at the top and the quality declines noticeably when it is under pressure. There is not much juice in his tone. Nicolas Courjal sings both Nicanor and Satan, as was done at the 1859 premiere. This must be tricky to stage, as Nicanor is struck dead by the lightning bolt and within seconds Satan enters. He makes a good job of the two baddies vocally, but does not do much in the way of characterisation. The orchestra and chorus are excellent and Hervé Niquet conducts with real understanding and commitment, making the most of the music. The recording is clear and with a good dynamic range.
This issue is part of the continuing Palazzetto Bru Zane series of rare French operas, and, as always, the presentation is absolutely first rate. The two CDs come in an A5 sized, properly case-bound hardback book of 160 pages. This contains an excellent series of five articles, each printed in French and English, covering the composer, the history of the piece, a reprint of Berlioz' review of the premiere, the place of Herculanum in the history of grand opera and an overview of all the major reviews of the premiere along with a full libretto in French with an English translation - it is like being back in the golden age of LP opera sets from the 1960s to 1980s. The only disadvantage to the format is that it will not fit on most CD shelves, being almost twice the height of an ordinary CD set. Herculanum is certainly not an undiscovered masterpiece, and I cannot imagine that it will ever gain even a toehold in the repertoire — though I believe that it is being staged at Wexford next year — but if, like me, you have an interest in the byways of 19th century opera, then this set is well worth investigating.