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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 and 31 January 2016
EDICIONES SINGULARES ES1029 [65.52 + 75.20]

There are quite a few composers, whose own works have been irretrievably overshadowed by their ministrations to the output of others; Franco Alfano and Friedrich Cerha, for example, are likely to find for the remainder of time that their ‘completions’ of Puccini’s Turandot and Berg’s Lulu will eclipse their own substantial output of operas and other compositions. Benjamin Godard is clearly likely to be another such. His contribution of the trio O lumière sainte to the final scene of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, made for the opera’s posthumous revival, maintained its place in most performances of that opera for nigh on a hundred years; and such was its dramatic appropriateness that it is only in recent and more fastidious times that Bizet’s original score was restored. The fact that Godard’s music was deemed fit to stand alongside that of Bizet bears testimony to the high regard, with which his writing was regarded by his contemporaries and successors, but his own operas rapidly fell into comprehensive neglect and it is only with this splendid presentation that Dante has found revival.

And splendid the presentation certainly is: a substantial and handsomely bound hardback book (in both French and English) containing a number of illuminating essays as well as the complete text and translation of the opera, copious illustrations, with the two CDs tucked into the endpapers. This set provides a model of the manner in which rare repertory needs to presented to the public, if it is to make its proper impact, and the fact that it is here presented in a limited edition makes it none the less valuable for that. The essays in the book analyse the music itself at length, provide us with a contemporary review of the first performance, discuss alternative musical treatments of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and extend the range of this final discourse into the realms of paintings and illustrations, which do not shirk the sadistic nature of some of Dante’s images and descriptions. Indeed the book itself would be of value, even were it not linked to this recording. When one compares this sort of treatment with the niggardly and cheese-paring manner, in which rare repertory is not infrequently presented to the purchasing public (Melodiya and Warner, please take note!), one cannot but be grateful for such bounty.

The plot of the opera does not confine itself to the illustration of the Divine Comedy itself, although scenes from the poem are portrayed in a substantial dream sequence during Act Four. The remainder of the action revolves around Dante’s liaison with his beloved Béatrice, in a fairly standard scenario of jealousy and thwarted passion, which has little obvious historical basis but conforms to the expectations of French grand opera of the nineteenth century (although it does not aspire to Meyerbeerian lengths). We are told in the essay by Gérard Condé that, although Godard was writing in an era when Wagnerianism was becoming rampant in France, he prided himself on never having opened a score by the German master and instead modelled his operatic style on earlier works of the century; although the second-hand influence of Wagner is clearly reflected through the medium of Liszt’s Dante Symphony (which in its turn was dedicated to Wagner).

In general sound however the music of Godard does indeed sound like a close cousin to Bizet, most noticeably in Dante’s opening aria Le ciel est si bleu with its harmonic progressions showing a close family resemblance to the Flower Song. The principal role, too, has its parallels in Bizet’s Don José, a basically heroic tenor, who is required frequently to fine his voice down to a lyrically floated whisper. It appears that the opera may have failed to find favour at its initial presentation, indeed, purely on account of the inability of the original singer to rise to the challenges of the part; one critic complained of his tendency to “shout rather than to articulate.” But then we are also told that the opera was substantially cut following the dress rehearsal, and that for example the opening scene of the final Act was omitted in its entirety – which would have left a gaping hole in the dramatic continuity, and left essential plot elements without any explanation. That scene is fully restored in this recording, as is a lengthy section, in which shepherds and scholars pay tribute to Virgil in a deliberately antique idiom, which harks back perhaps to Berlioz’s L’enfante du Christ.

The book contains the complete text of one contemporary review, which only serves to make the matter of the score’s neglect more obscure. Pierre Véron comments on Godard’s attitude to Wagner that “he has not allowed a single number to make a clean break before the next one.” But it seems to me that this is precisely the opposite of the truth; it is Godard’s insistence on bringing many numbers to a full close (presumably for applause) which fatally breaks the back of such dramatic continuity as the opera possesses. The manner, in which the conspirators wait politely to interrupt the love duet between Dante and Béatrice in Act Two until the orchestra have brought matters to a proper conclusion is risible; the slightest encounter between Godard and the score of Tristan would have shown the French composer the error of his ways at this point. We are told that the deathbed duet between the lovers in the final Act was encored at the first performance; if the situation at this point had engaged the audience’s sympathies to the desired degree this should surely have been impossible. But then dramatic incoherence has always been a failing of opera; and Godard’s librettist Édoaurd Blau was certainly capable of creating musical situations in the right circumstances, as he demonstrated in his text for Massenet’s Werther a couple of years later.

The composer Ernest Reyer, one of the more sympathetic of the critics at the first performance, drew attention to certain parallels between Godard’s opera and the score of Berlioz’s Les Troyens (which was to receive its first near-complete performance later the same year, although Reyer himself had conducted the première of the first two Acts in 1879). He compared the Tarantella ballet movement, which opens the third Act of Dante, to the opening of Les Troyens, although to my mind the closer resemblance is to be found to the ballet music from Massenet’s Le Cid, written some five years before. But there are indeed reminiscences of other works by Berlioz, in particular Le damnation de Faust; it is hard to imagine the setting of Dante’s dream of the inferno without reference to the Ride to the Abyss and Pandemonium of the earlier score, or indeed the heavenly vision of Béatrice with its solo violin without the ascension of Marguerite into Paradise, which concludes the Berlioz cantata. Parallels there are to be found, too, with the closing scene of Gounod’s Faust and the French grand operas of Verdi such as Don Carlos (even with a brief excursion towards Egypt in one passage of Godard, which closely imitates Aida). But there is plenty of original material as well: Béatrice’s aria in the final Act De l’eternel sommeil is particularly striking, and the writing for chorus has plenty of bite and character. No hint of religiosity either in the closing scene (despite the use of the Dies irae plainchant), for which much thanks. In general one gets the strong impression that Godard’s Dante only narrowly missed acceptance into the repertory (the composer’s early death five years later cannot have helped matters); Dante is certainly the equal of French pseudo-Wagnerian scores such as Chabrier’s Gwendoline, Massenet’s Le Cid or even Debussy’s Rodrigue et Chimène, all of which date from much the same era. We owe our thanks to Palazetto Bru Zane for their act of restoration and resurrection.

And all the more should we be grateful for the quality of the performance here. In the title role Edgaras Montvidas rings the changes from honeyed head voice to forthright heroic declamation with consummate ease in a manner that recalls the young Domingo; Véronique Gens also brings plenty of body to the role of Béatrice, which could so easily sound insipidly innocent in the wrong pair of hands. Jean-François Lapointe, saddled with a role, whose rapid changes of motivation would test the most schizophrenic of actors, sings with assurance, which is all that anyone could reasonably ask; and Rachel Frenkel is equally firm in the role of the confidante, who has more than usual to preoccupy her (she too is in love with Dante, but honourably declines to tell him so). Andrew Foster-Williams doubles the role of the old man who leads the hymn of praise to Virgil, and that of Virgil himself; it is not his fault that he is lumbered with a slow waltz, which singularly fails to sound either poetic or other-worldly at the moment, when such a sensation is most needed. Andrew Lepri Meyer is fine as the Herald, although it is dramatically clumsy to confine him to an off-stage voice for his announcement of Dante’s banishment; Diana Axentii is a firm-toned student; and the chorus of Bavarian Radio is a tower of strength (over sixty singers are listed in the book). Ulf Schirmer leads a performance with plenty of spirit, and the playing of the Munich Radio Orchestra, hero of so many recordings of rare and unknown operas, is everything that one could wish. The recording too is clear and well-balanced.

The recording is sensibly split between discs, with two complete Acts on each; and the French text and English translation are well cued. The French accents of the singers sound somewhat variable, but none except Francophones will probably be in the slightest concerned. One curiosity: the name of the title character is given throughout with a short final ‘e’ in the French manner, as if the word rhymed with ‘tante’. This may be authentically French (and certainly Godard doesn’t indicate the contrary by spelling the name ‘Danté), but leaves me wondering, whether nineteenth century French opera singers might have nonetheless expected to give the final ‘e’ of the name its full measure in the Italian style?

Paul Corfield Godfrey

 

 




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