Louis-Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791-1833) Le Pré Aux Clercs- opéra-comique in three acts (1832)
Marie-Ève Munger - Isabelle de Montal
Marie Lenormand - Marguerite de Valois
Jeanne Crousaud - Nicette
Michael Spyres - Mergy
Éric Huchet - Cantarelli
Christian Helmer - Girot
Emiliano González Toro - Comminge
Leandro César - Le Brigadier
Coro e Orquestra Gulbenkian/Paul McCreesh
rec. Grande Auditório de la Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal, 7-8 April 2015 EDICIONES SINGULARES ES1025 [71:52 + 49:59]
How are the operatically mighty fallen! The piece under review was performed in Paris alone over 1600 times between its premiere in December 1832 and 1949, but was then unseen for almost 65 years until the series of six performances at the Opéra-Comique in March and April 2015 preparatory to this recording. The recording was made immediately afterwards in Lisbon – a fact that is nowhere made clear in the book; I had to Google “Grande Auditorio de la Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian” to find this out.
After a variable start, Hérold had had considerable success with several operas and ballets, especially La fille mal gardé in 1828 and Zampa in 1831, but with Le Pré Aux Clercs he achieved his greatest triumph. Unfortunately the tuberculosis which had dogged him for a decade (and killed his father) was in its final stages, and he died aged 42, five weeks after the premiere. He left an opera, Ludovic, half finished at his death, which was completed by Halévy and performed in 1833. Zampa, a dramatic piece about the revenge taken by a statue on a seducer, with obvious plot parallels to Don Giovanni, was much stronger stuff than many thought appropriate for the Opéra-Comique; it would not have a dramatic parallel there until Carmen 44 years later. Le Pré Aux Clercs was much more in the vein of standard Opéra-Comique fare. Despite its plot belonging to the era of the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre (the date is 1582, 10 years after the Massacre), and the Catholic/Protestant divisions being the Macguffin that sets the plot in motion – the king, Henry III, will not allow the Protestant Mergy to marry Catholic Isabelle – the plot is fairly light-hearted, even the death of Isabelle’s Catholic suitor Comminge in a duel with Mergy is treated in a very jolly way. The extremely interesting essays in the accompanying book explain the political situation in France after the fall of Napoleon. Authors such as Prosper Mérimée, on whose Chronique du regne de Charles IX the opera is very loosely based, made use of the new genre of the historical novel to parallel the events of the day, but it is a little difficult to take any sort of political subtext very seriously in as light and almost frothy a piece as this.
The performance is of high quality. The cast has the unusual disposition of three sopranos, three tenors and a bass, so is heavily weighted towards higher voices. Marie-Ève Munger as Isabelle has excellent fioritura, an acceptable trill, and a pleasing tone in the middle of the voice, but she is rather shrill at the top, especially in alt, such as the top E which she interpolates at the end of her aria with violin obbligato “Jours de mon enfance”. She sings with considerable sensitivity and in the romance “Souvenirs du jeune age” ornaments the line tastefully. Jeanne Crousaud’s Nicette is also well taken, though all three sopranos have rather too similar timbres and without following the score it is difficult in ensembles to tell who is singing what. She sings her Petit Air “Ah! monsieur de grâce” in the Act 2 Mascarade with sparkle and ornaments the stanzas of her Act 3 Ronde “A la fleur du bel âge” very prettily. Marie Lenormand’s Marguerite de Valois has less to do, having no solo pieces to sing. Her voice is a little less steady than the others, but she plays her part in the various ensembles well enough.
The principal tenor role of Mergy is taken by Michael Spyres, who is to my ears the finest of the singers. He only has one short aria, “O ma tender amie”, early in Act 1, but he sings it extremely well with very fluent fioriture and use of voix mixte for the top B flats and Cs, as tenors of the period would have done. The other two tenor roles, Cantarelli (the comic relief) and Comminge (the rival suitor for Isabelle and the “baddy”) have no extended solos to sing, but both Éric Huchet (Cantarelli) and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Comminge) put their parts across convincingly.
The Coro e Orquestra Gulbenkian are first rate, and Paul McCreesh, who was their principal conductor from 2013 to 2016, conducts with lightness and a real sense of style.
As always with this series, the presentation is absolutely first rate. I have already mentioned the five excellent essays about both the music and its context which are contained in the book, but I must also mention that it contains full text and English translation of the libretto. One aspect which may divide opinion is the extensive dialogue that is included on the CDs. Obviously, this is what would have happened during any staged performance, but there is a lot of it here; several section last around five minutes and one lasts over eight minutes, and I cannot imagine even French speakers wanting to listen to it more than a couple of times, well though it is delivered. However, unlike in the old days of the LP, it is simple enough to skip it, so it should not seriously inconvenience anyone. An enjoyable introduction to a piece which would have been well-known to any French music-lover for the 100 years up to the second world war.