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Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de MONDONVILLE (1711-1772)
Isbé (Paris 1742)
Katherine Watson – Isbé
Reinoud Van Mechelen – Coridon
Thomas Dolié – Adamas
Chantal Santon-Jeffery – La Volupté, Charite
Alain Buet – Iphis, 3rd Hamadryade
Blandine Folio Peres – La Mode, Céphise
Rachel Redmond – L’Amour, Clymène, une Bergère, une Nymphe
Artavazd Sargsyan – Tircis, 1st Hamadryade, un Dieus des bois
Márton Komáromi – 2nd Hamadryade
Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, György Vashegyi
rec. Müpa Budapest, Bartók Béla National Concert Hall, Hungary, March 2016
GLOSSA GCD924001 [3 CDs: 61:25 + 48:55 + 63:04]

Of all the composers of the French baroque, Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville seems to have suffered most from the vagaries of time. Born in Narbonne in southwest France, he was a gifted violinist and composer, who made his way through the ranks to become, on the death of Pancrace Royer, the musical director of the Concert Spirituel, enjoying the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, the official chief mistress of Louis XV. Mondonville was an important figure in the development of the instrumental sonata and one of the first to pair the violin with the keyboard alone. Yet these days he is largely forgotten, with only his Grande Motets, sonatas and a couple of operas represented in the catalogues, examples of all I am happy to have in my collection. He also warrants just a cursory mention in the books I own on the music of the period. All this neglect, despite him being regarded in his day, as second only to the great Rameau, has always baffled me, as there is some very fine music of his out there, especially Christophe Rousset’s excellent recording of his opera, Les Fêtes de Pathos, on L'Oiseau-Lyre (455 084-2).

Mondonville composed at least nine operas. Isbé was his first, premiered in Paris on the 10th April 1742, and was, to all intensive circumstances, a flop. When one listens to this recording, the idea of this work being a flop seems hard to believe. In reality it is a Pastorale Héroïque in five acts and a prologue. It deals with the story of Adamas, The Chief Druid, and his love for the title character Isbé, and Isbé’s other suitor Coridon: a classic love triangle. It has all the characteristics of French opera of the time. A Prologue, whilst dealing with the subject of love, does not really relate to the action of the opera. The rest of the work is stuffed with great tunes and dance music with arias of great merit, some of which tug at your heartstrings. The booklet points to the failure of the premiere possibly down to the inept performers on the day leading to bad reviews, something that would not have happened if the performance was as good as this recording. Another possibility is the political nature of opera in France; often rival theatres would hire hecklers to disrupt performances at a different venue. This was especially so during the so called “Querelle des Bouffons”, when people argued about the way music should develop in France: the primacy of French or Italian musical ideas. Mondonville was a supporter of the French side. The premiere of his opera Titon et l’Aurore is said to have had the audience swelled be a number of army officers in the pay of those who sought to proffer French ideals.

The Prologue to Isbé and opera proper offer the listener great enjoyment. There is everything you want from an opera: drama, excitement, pathos and musical excellence. In the Prologue, both Chantal Santon-Jeffery as La Volupté and Rachel Redmond as L’Amour stand out. In the opera, the main protagonists are all in fine form: Katherine Watson as Isbé, Reinoud Van Mechelen as Coridon and Thomas Dolié as Adamas. If truth be told, there is no weak link in the singing of this production. All the soloists and chorus are in excellent voice. The period orchestral playing of the Orfeo Orchestra under the direction of György Vashegyi is wonderful, producing some really dramatic effects. Indeed, it is hard to believe that this is not a French band. It is as if they have uprooted Paris and placed it next to the Danube. This is a first-rate performance, one which would have secured Mondonville’s Isbé’s place in history as one of the finest French operas of the 1740s. A recording highly recommendable to anyone who enjoys eighteenth century opera, but especially to those who, like me, love the splendour of the French baroque and its music, one that would fit well in anyone’s collection of this diverse genre.

Stuart Sillitoe



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