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Benjamin GODARD (1849-1895)
Dante (1890) [141.12]
Edgaras Montvidas (tenor) – Dante, Véronique Gens (soprano) – Béatrice, Jean-François Lapointe (baritone) – Bardi, Rachel Frankel (mezzo-soprano) – Gemma, Andrew Foster-Williams (bass) – Shade of Virgil, Old man, Diana Axentii (mezzo-soprano) – Student, Andrew Lepri Meyer (tenor) – Herald
Bavarian Radio Chorus
Munich Radio Orchestra/Ulf Schirmer
rec. Prinzregententheater, Munich, 29/31 January 2016
Includes book in French and English with articles, synopses and libretto
EDICIONES SINGULARES ES1029 [65.52 + 75.20]

Mention the name Benjamin Godard and more often than not a single composition comes to mind – the Berceuse from his best known opera Jocelyn and little else, which is a great pity because there is much to appreciate amongst his many works which include: his admired dramatic symphony Le Tasso, and eight operas plus three other symphonies and concertos for violin and piano (recordings are also available on the Dutton label) plus numerous chamber works, songs and piano pieces.

This comparative neglect is quite astonishing considering the accessibility and melodic quality characteristic of Godard’s Dante opera. At a time when Wagner and his followers - or the divergent paths of the ‘Impressionists’ - were all the rage, the musical pundits thought Godard’s music was really too old fashioned, stuck in furrows already ploughed by Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Or so we are led to believe from the remarks made by Condé in his essay in the book. Frankly, I am not so sure as I listen to Ulf Schirmer’s vivid recording with the enthusiastic Münchner Rundfunkorchester. The music is remarkably reminiscent of Bizet and often sounds quite Late Romantic to my ears; some of the more quiet and reflective material is uncannily like the style of Elgar. What we do have from Condé is a pen portrait of Godard who appears to have been a lonely, lanky, melancholic figure. His father’s failings obliged him to earn a living from his music. “…his output accelerated at an increasingly frantic rate, giving his contemporaries the image of a talented musician who dilapidated his resources, swept along by a prolixity he had no compunction about indulging…” He goes on to cover Tasso (“generally considered the finest work he wrote”) and then to consider not only the “generally favourable” public reaction to Dante but also the wrath of the critics carping at singers and orchestra – and the staging. The rest of the article is devoted to Condé’s own detailed ‘appreciation’ of the opera. The rest of the book’s articles can be appreciated from the contents listed in the heading above

The opera, Dante, is set in Florence in the late 13th century torn by the rivalry of the Guelfs and Ghibellines. Bardi tells his friend Dante that he is soon to marry Béatrice. But Dante also loves her. Béatrice confides to her friend Gemma, that she loves Dante. Then it is announced that the College of the People has named Dante as their chosen leader. He is on the point of refusing when Béatrice supports him saying, “To be loved, do your duty”. Bardi is puzzled and alarmed; the people are overjoyed.

Act II opens with Bardi raging against Dante to Gemma. Gemma, who is also in love with Dante, implores Bardi to relinquish his love for Béatrice. Béatrice has overheard this exchange and feels she must give up Dante but he enters and avows his passion to Béatrice, who is won over by his ardour. Then Bardi, along with a group of Ghibellines and Guelfs, enters to declare that Charles of Valois has entered Florence. They proclaim Dante’s banishment and Bardi condemns Béatrice to ending her days in a convent.

Act III opens on Mount Posilippo at Virgil’s tomb. Country-folk dance nearby and students gather to adorn Virgil’s tomb. As dusk falls Dante enters. He implores Virgil to grant him the inspiration to regain his glory by dictating the ideal poem to him, so that he may recover Béatrice’s esteem. Dante falls asleep. Virgil’s tomb opens. In a vision Virgil shows and its inhabitants including Francesca da Rimini and then Paradise. Finally Béatrice is seen surrounded by angels. If Dante writes his vision, he is promised reunion with his beloved.

Act IV begins on Mount Posilippo again. Dante awakens and resolves to undertake his task. Bardi appears and is remorseful. He offers to lead Dante to Béatrice’s convent. They leave together. At the convent in Naples, Béatrice is sorely ill. She and Dante meet ecstatically but her travails have proved too much and she dies repeating the same words Dante had heard in his dream. Through his despair he hears Gemma’s consoling words and rises declaring, “I must live on, I must sing for her! God made her mortal; I will make her immortal!”

The main point to make about this Godard opera is how very tuneful and accessible it is. This young ensemble, under the inspired direction of Ulf Schirmer, snatches every opportunity to deliver a thoroughly enthusiastic and arresting performance. Yes, there are occasional moments of languor and bathos (especially in moments of over-egged melodrama) but with so many riches served up, one would have to be really stone-hearted to carp too much. The Munich orchestra is first class and relishes the chance to play up to all the civic pomp and strife plus the ecstasy of the Dante and Béatrice romance and its surrounding jealousies, as well as some ravishingly evocative pastoral material and the mystical elements of Dante’s dream at Virgil’s tomb. The chorus shines consistently too.

Edgaras Montvidas in the title role is by turns, stoically restrained, nobly patriotic (when pushed), dashing and ardent, and gloomily melancholic, then inspired - by his vision at Virgil’s tomb, colouring his voice convincingly at every turn. Véronique Gens is an appealing and sympathetic Béatrice emotionally torn and ultimately sacrificed to the vengeance of the scorned Bardi. The Act II duet between her and Montvidas is a highlight of the production, ecstatic and passionate as they rediscover their love. Baritone Jean-François Lapointe’s Bardi is a tour-de-force, his dark, threatening presence is always compellingly felt until his Act IV remorse. Béatrice’s confidante, Gemma, as portrayed by Rachel Frenkel, is persuasive if rather matronly.

This very appealing production must surely whet the appetite for more recordings of Godard’s neglected music– of Jocelyn and of Le Tasso perhaps?

Ian Lace

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey



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