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Jacques Fromental HALÉVY (1799-1862)
La Reine de Chypre (1841)
Caterina Cornaro - Véronique Gens
Gérard de Coucy - Cyrille Dubois
Jacques de Lusignan - Étienne Dupuy
Mocénigo - Eric Huchet
Andrea Cornaro - Christophorus Stamboglis
Strozzi - Artavazd Sargsyan
Officier/Héraud - Tomislav Lavoie
Flemish Radio Choir
Orchestre de Chambre de Paris/Hervé Niquet
rec. Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 2017
EDICIONES SINGULARES ES1032 [75:37 + 79:09]

Here is the latest in Palazzetto Bru Zane’s series of forgotten French operas. In a previous review of an opera in this series, I made the distinction between forgotten operas by composers who are still well known (for example Gounod’s Cinq-Mars) and forgotten operas by forgotten composers (such as Joncières’s Dimitri), but here we have an example which falls rather between the two stools. Although Halévy is certainly not a composer who would feature in any Top 100 Composers' list, he is at least remembered by those with an interest in opera for La Juive, but La Reine de Chypre disappeared well before 1900 with the exception of the tenor/baritone duet “Triste exilé” which was still performed in concert and was recorded several times before the first world war. Halévy wrote about 40 operas, of which only a handful had any real success. La Juive survived particularly well in German-speaking countries and was greatly admired by Wagner and Mahler, who was “absolutely overwhelmed by this wonderful, majestic work. I regard it as one of the greatest operas ever created". It is still played in major houses, having been staged at the Vienna State Opera, the New York Met, Paris Opéra and Bavarian State Opera since 1999. The Royal Opera gave a concert performance of it in the Barbican in September 2006.

Musically, La Reine de Chypre is a fine piece, and of much higher quality than a number of the Bru Zane resurrections (I think particularly of David’s feeble Herculanum). Act 1 ends with a very exciting and dramatic ensemble, and Act 2 begins with a lovely aria for the soprano (though Gens seems oblivious to its melancholy). The later duet for the soprano and tenor contains some very interesting harmonic progressions. The “big duet” in Act 3, “Triste exilé”, mirrors the duet in Verdi’s Forza del Destino, being a friendship duet for two characters one of whom is actually seeking out the other in order to kill him, but does not realise that he has found his prey, and it does not disappoint. Act 4 contains a very appealing chorus, “Divine providence”, and another tremendous ensemble at the end. The Act 5 duet “Malgré la foi suprême” and the quartet “En ce moment suprême” are also delights. The plot of the opera is loosely based on the same historical event as Donizetti’s equally loosely-based Caterina Cornaro, but has an entirely different libretto.

The performance is also excellent, something helped greatly by a cast where all but three comparatively minor parts are sung by French, or at least Francophone, singers (Étienne Dupuy was born in Montréal). The opera is really pretty well a two-hander, with the soprano and tenor getting all the meat and leaving the other characters with comparatively little to do; none of these gets a proper aria. Christophorus Stamboglis, who sings Caterina’s uncle Andrea, appears only in Acts 1 and 4, but makes the best of his limited opportunities. He makes a good solid sound and puts the text over well. One would expect the “baddy”, Mocénigo, to be a baritone role, but the opera’s baritone is the King of Cyprus, Lusignan, so the role goes to character tenor Eric Huchet. Again, there is not a great deal of sustained singing to be done here, so Huchet’s less mellifluous sound works well, and he makes an effective villain. I particularly liked his putting across the cynical drinking song in Act 3; he uses the text very well. Lusignan, despite being the one who takes the hero’s beloved, is a “goody”, not having any idea of the machinations which have brought him the soprano’s hand in marriage. He also has the good manners to die at the end, though rather pointlessly, as the tenor Gérard has joined the Knights of Rhodes in the interim, and sails off with them at the end leaving the Catarina without a partner. I would ideally have liked a rather richer, deeper baritone than Étienne Dupuy provides to make a more pointed contrast of timbre in the duets with Gérard, but otherwise he is a fine singer and does all he can with this rather limited role.

Bru Zane’s resident prima donna Véronique Gens is to be found in the role of Caterina, and displays her usual solid merit without ever making the pulse run faster. Her enunciation seems better than on some earlier releases, though she still does not colour the text with real point or imagination or respond fully to the emotional character of the music. Where they have really struck gold is with the tenor, Cyrille Dubois. He is excellent, having a very high tenor voice with a bright timbre which has considerable heroic heft and not a hint of strain or spread. There are a considerable number of stratospheric notes which Dubois flings out without turning a hair. Nor is this to say that he can only belt out high notes; he uses voix mixte to lovely effect in the more romantic aspects of the score and shades dynamics and line with real style and musicality, just listen to his entrance aria in Act 1 “Le ciel est radieux” which includes an exquisite dolce top C sharp. His delivery of the text is also of admirable clarity. If they have not already done so, Bru Zane need to sign up Dubois as soon as possible and make him their resident primo uomo; I certainly do not know of any other contemporary tenor who could make a better job of the sort of repertoire in which they specialise.

The orchestra and chorus are excellent, and Niquet conducts with a real feel for the idiom of the music. The recording is very fine and the CDs come in the usual hardback book with several interesting essays and a complete libretto with English translation. This is one of the finest issues in the series and I can heartily recommend it for the quality of both the work and performance. The rather unconvincing plot is, as usual, something of a handicap, but musically here is a piece which deserves to have a place in the repertoire.

Paul Steinson

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe (Recording of the Month)



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