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Gaspare SPONTINI (1774-1851)
Olimpie (1819, revised 1826) [134.32]
French libretto by Armand-Michel Dieulafoy and Charles Brifaut, based on Voltaire’s tragédie nouvelle Olympie (1761)
Olimpie – Karina Gauvin
Statira – Kate Aldrich
Cassandre – Mathias Vidal
Antigone – Josef Wagner
L'Hiérophante / Un Prêtre – Patrick Bolleire
Hermas – Philippe Souvagie
Flemish Radio Choir, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie/Jérémie Rhorer
rec. 31 May to 2 June 2016, Philharmonie de Paris
Full French libretto with English translation provided in book
‘Opéra français’ series of Palazzetto Bru Zane, Volume 20
BRU ZANE BZ1035 [58:24 + 76:08]

While over the years the serious operas of Rossini have been gradually re-asserting their right to a place in the repertoire, those of his contemporary Gaspare Spontini, equally highly esteemed in their day, have continued to languish in obscurity. This is of course partially a tribute to Rossini’s irrepressible melodic fecundity, but there are other reasons as well. Spontini’s works persistently aim higher than Rossini’s, dealing with major historical events with a sense of their significance which sometimes exceeds their actual importance, but his notion of atmosphere is often highly charged in a manner that attracted the approbation of Berlioz for example, the latter frequently programming excerpts from Spontini operas in his concerts. Spontini also demonstrated an ability to build up highly complex ensemble structures in a manner that anticipated later grandes opéras such as Verdi’s Don Carlos, Berlioz’s Troyens or even Wagner’s Rienzi; but like those successors Spontini’s scores suffered from the unwelcome attentions of later performers who inflicted wholesale cutting on the music, either to render them into suitable vehicles for particular stars or simply to mistakenly adapt them to modern ideas of “dramatic relevance” without realising the damage that resulted to the architecture of the whole. Spontini has been particularly unfortunate in this regard since many of his operas are only represented on disc in pirated performances, heavily hacked about for stars such as Tebaldi and Corelli with unimpressive supporting casts, barely adequate choral and orchestral forces, and abysmal live recording quality. Such travesties hardly begin to convey the quality of operas such as Fernando Cortez or Agnes von Hohenstaufen; only Riccardo Muti’s later efforts on the composer’s behalf present the scores in anything like their original form, and his recordings of both Agnes and La Vestale have succumbed to the deletions axe (although second-hand copies continue to be available at surprisingly reasonable prices).

In the past I have welcomed the ongoing issue by the Bru Zane Foundation of obscure operas from the French repertory, many of which indeed have been given their first recordings or performances since their original appearance a century or more ago. Spontini’s Olympie is of course the work of an Italian composer, and the text as we have it nowadays is the result of a later German revision; but it was originally a French opera, one of a series of grands opéras which Spontini inaugurated in Paris with Fernand Cortez during the Napoleonic era; and although it was performed after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, it clearly was written in the same style. Or perhaps one should say might have been written in a similar style. For although the opera was based on a tragedy by Voltaire, it was not generally regarded with much enthusiasm by contemporary Parisian audiences; and it was not until the work was taken in hand by E T A Hoffman at the Berlin opera a couple of years later that it achieved any sort of success, when it was given in German translation and with some substantial alterations particularly to the last act which considerably changed the action of Voltaire’s original drama. This version was then in its turn translated back into French and given again in Paris under the slightly revised title of Olimpie in 1826; and although it then achieved little more success than it had done earlier, it continued to feature in repertory performances for some years until Spontini’s star began to wane in its own turn during the middle of the nineteenth century. For the purposes of this recording the Bru Zane Foundation commissioned a new edition of the music, but were confounded by the fact that Spontini himself in the course of his revisions had effectively destroyed the original 1818 score and pasted over or scrawled across most of the existing material. What we therefore have here is Spontini’s revised 1826 version and not the original setting of Voltaire that might perhaps have been more interesting, especially since we already have a recording of the later ‘German’ version in the catalogues – although that Orfeo studio production is sung in the French translation with a cast of heavyweight stars, including Julia Varady, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Stefania Toczyska, many of whom sound ill at ease with the language.

In general one would welcome the idea that the composer’s later revisions would be honoured in the recording of a work as rarely heard as Olimpie, but the presence of the existing Orfeo recording might perhaps lead one to lament the fact that Voltaire’s drama has been effectively expelled into the darkest outer reaches of musical history (if indeed it could ever have been retrieved from there). The plot itself, far too complex to be summarised meaningfully here, is based on the labyrinthine political machinations which followed the death of Alexander the Great and features some of the most horrendously unpleasant characters in all of history until one reaches the era of Game of Thrones (oh no, that is not historical is it?). The best modern treatment of these thoroughgoing monsters is to be found in Mary Renault’s masterful book Funeral Games which constitutes the third of her ‘Alexander trilogy’; but Voltaire seems to have treated the plot with a slightly more cynical air, and even attempts to make one or two of the characters moderately sympathetic. Hoffman’s further revisions move the personalities even more firmly in the direction of conventional melodrama, and this clearly gelled with Spontini’s more generalised approach to his characters and his desire to furnish them with singable melodies. That same approach of course helped to establish the reputation of other works of his such as La vestale – which has continued to maintain a place in the outer reaches of the repertory, in no small measure thanks to the espousal of Maria Callas. If Olimpie is no Vestale, it is still a thoroughgoingly good piece of workmanlike writing with some of Spontini’s best tunes and plenty of dramatic punch in the lengthy and elaborate confrontations between the characters. We are informed in the booklet note (and as invariably the case in these Bru Zane releases, the booklet is a handsomely bound hardback volume of 163 pages with the CDs inserted in pockets of the endpapers, a real work of scholarship in its own right) that in order to fit the recording onto two discs it was necessary to make some cuts in the ballet music. This is regrettable – the Orfeo rival recording similarly came with the same cuts – since in the context of a scholarly production it is surely undesirable, and I note that David Johnson (when reviewing the Orfeo set in its LP version for Fanfare over thiry years ago) commented that the ballet music was “one of the best parts of the score.” And there would have been room for the dramatically necessary Act One wedding divertissement on the first of these discs.

We did however stand in need of a new recording of Olimpie to replace the Berlin Radio set, and this new one is a very handsome replacement indeed. This cast are not as stellar as their predecessors, but their sense of style is streets ahead; and their young voices are far more dramatically convincing than their elderly, and frequently unsteady, German counterparts and a chorus often singing in decidedly cloudy French. Especially welcome is Mathias Vidal, clear and steady if hardly villainous and singing spots off the superannuated Franco Tagliavini on Orfeo; and the heroic-sounding Josef Wagner is also much more convincing than the similarly ageing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. (It should be noted that the feminine-sounding Cassandre and Antigone are both males, and the English translation correctly gives their names as Cassander and Antigonus.) The honours on the female side are more even, but neither Karina Gauvin nor Kate Aldrich are eclipsed by Julia Varady or Stefania Toczyska; and Patrick Bolleire in the quite substantial role of the priest is also preferable to his Orfeo rival George Fortune. The voices are well balanced in the aural picture, and the Flemish Radio choristers make an incisive impression in the massed choral sections.

Where this set does fall below the standards of the Orfeo recording is in the orchestral performance. Where Orfeo used the full orchestra of Berlin Radio, here we are given a ‘historically informed’ group who sound as though they are performing on period instruments, and certainly have a considerably smaller group of strings. Now I have contended in the past that music of this period, written when the French Revolution had actively promoted the idea of larger orchestral forces, often benefits from performances on the scale that is often dubbed as ‘big band’ Mozart or Haydn; in particular, music of the classical era demands sufficient emphasis on the violin lines to ensure that these are not drowned out by the sounds of over-prominent wind and brass. This is all the more true in the case of composers like Spontini, who can be described not in classical terms but as a pioneer of early romanticism; and we have the testimony of no less a witness than Wagner that when Spontini was invited to conduct his Vestale in Dresden (during Wagner’s period there as director) the composer insisted that the number of strings in the orchestra should be augmented to an extent that even outnumbered Wagner’s demands for The Ring. It cannot possibly be considered that Spontini in Paris, where players presumably were more plentifully to be recruited than in Dresden, would have been content with the chamber-like string forces that we have here, less than half the number that he clearly regarded as desirable. Not that the balances are seriously disturbed – the violins in particular have plenty of attack – but the sound itself is decidedly undernourished, bordering on the scrawny in places. The vigorous conducting of Jérémie Rhorer does not manage to overcome this unfortunate impression, although the ‘big moments’ have plenty of impact.

It is a pity then that comparisons between the two sets of Olimpie now in the catalogues should be so much a matter of swings and roundabouts. Given a choice between them – and I would presume that few collectors would wish to duplicate such an obscure work on their shelves – I would recommend the new Bru Zane set for its more involved casting and its luxurious and informative presentation with complete texts, translations and essays in French and English, while at the same time lamenting the (presumably permanent) loss of the original 1819 version. What might have been even more interesting would have been a new scholarly and uncut recording of Fernand Cortez – but presumably that too might emerge in due course. In the meantime let us be properly grateful for this example of the art of a composer whose greatest works attracted the admiration of Berlioz and Wagner. We can hear why.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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