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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Le Marquis de Cinq-Mars - Mathias Vidal
La Princesse Marie de Gonzague - Véronique Gens
Le Conseiller de Thou - Tassis Christoyannis
Le Père Joseph - Andrew Foster-Williams
Le Vicomte de Fontrailles - André Heyboer
Marion Delorme - Norma Nahoun
Ninon de L’Enclos, Un Berger - Marie Lenormand
Le Roi, Le Chancelier - Jacques-Greg Belobo
De Montmort, L’Ambassadeur - Andrew Lepri Meyer
De Montrésor, Eustache - Matthias Ettmayr
De Brienne -Wolfgang Klose
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Ulf Schirmer
rec. Prinzregententheater, Munich, 25 January 2015
EDICIONES SINGULARES ES1024 [76:49 + 61:28]

The extent to which individual operas from the 12 that Gounod composed between 1851 and 1881 have survived varies hugely. Faust, though certainly not now enjoying the ubiquity that it had during the 60 years from 1855 until the first world war, has regained a solid place in the repertoire, whilst no-one but a true opera maven is likely to have even heard of his last opera, Le Tribut de Zamora. The opera for review here falls decidedly in the “forgotten” half of Gounod’s output, with only the soprano aria Nuit resplendissante having kept even a toe-hold in the repertoire, though Vesselina Kasarova not only recorded it but used it as the album title of her 2001 recital of French opera arias (RCA RED SEAL 74321 67667 2).

The plot is based loosely on an 1826 novel by Alfred de Vigny, which was itself based even more loosely on historical fact. Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, Marquis de Cinq Mars, had become maître de la garde robe to Louis XIII of France in 1639. He wished to marry Marie de Gonzague but was refused permission by Cardinal Richelieu, the man who had introduced him to Louis in the expectation of being able to use him to control the king. This refusal made Cinq Mars turn against Richelieu, and he led a plot against the Cardinal which involved a treaty with Spain, with whom France was at war at that time. The plot was discovered and Cinq Mars was beheaded in September 1642. He had certainly wished to marry Marie de Gonzague, but his motive was entirely to gain control of her huge fortune rather than the pure love which is the motive for his rebellion in the opera.

There was huge anticipation when the premiere of the new opera was announced for the Opéra Comique in April 1877; 10,000 applications were receive for the 1800 seats available. Cinq Mars received generally good reviews and achieved a very respectable 60 performances over the next nine months, but within a handful of years it had sunk virtually without trace. Musically, though it cannot for a moment bear comparison with Faust or Roméo et Juliette, it is a charming piece with Gounod’s typical melodiousness and delightful orchestration. The finest number is certainly the most famous one, Nuit resplendissante, but the scene between Marie and Richelieu’s henchman, Père Joseph, in Act 3 Scene 7 is dramatically extremely effective. None of the cavatines for the various characters is less than enjoyable, and Cinq Mar’s Act 4 aria Ô chère et vivante image is a gem.

The present performance is part of the ongoing series of revivals of rare French operas being issued by Palazzetta Bru Zane on their Ediciones Singulares label and is highly enjoyable. There are no great voices to be heard here, but the performance does have the advantage that the two principal singers are French. The hero (in the opera, if not in real life) is sung by Mathias Vidal. He is a rather light-voiced tenor who does not really have the size of voice needed for Act 2, but fortunately the great majority of Cinq Mars’ music is of a more lyrical nature. His timbre reminded me greatly of David Rendall, with its rather dry, throaty quality and somewhat too intrusive vibrato, but the basic tone is attractive and his enunciation of the text is excellent. His legato could be a little smoother, but he makes a fine job of the Act 4 aria.

His beloved, Marie, is sung by the best known of the singers in this cast, Véronique Gens. Hers is a pleasant enough voice, but doesn’t seem to me to have any real centre. As with Vidal, her enunciation is excellent, but she does not always make the most of the opportunities that the music offers. A good example of this is the already mentioned Nuit resplendissante where Gens is bland in her expression. There is no sense of Marie’s troubled heart in the middle section, or expansion in the return of the opening phrases which follow. You need only listen to Kasarova, or, even better, the 1930 recording of Charlotte Tirard to hear what can be done with this superb aria. In the duet that follows, she makes little of the phrases where she admits to Cinq Mars that she loves him.

The baritone part of Cinq Mars’ devoted friend de Thous is a bit of a disappointment musically. He has a short arioso at the end of Act 2, but really almost nothing to do until Act 3. The Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis make the best of it. His is not an especially rich timbre, but he is an expressive singer and he too has excellent diction. He sings his Act 3 aria very musically. The only other part with any meat to it is the odious Père Joseph, sung British bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams. His is perhaps the least impressive of the voices here, but his characterisation of the part is very effective, and also in excellent French. Smaller parts, chorus and orchestra are all first rate and Ulf Schirmer conducts with a real understanding of the style.

The recording is very fine. The presentation is as we have come to expect from this series; the two CDs come in a substantial A5 size hardback book with several interesting articles in English and French and a full libretto, also in those two languages. I would have liked to have had at least short biographies of the performers, though. The only disadvantage to this luxurious format is that it is too tall to go on the shelf with the rest of the CDs. I cannot really think it likely that this opera will ever become part of the repertoire in any real way, but it is certainly musically head and shoulders above the last of these Bru Zane operas I reviewed, David’s Herculanum. I am a something of a Gounod aficionado so am perhaps a little biased, but I was delighted to have this issue.

Paul Steinson



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