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Gaspare SPONTINI (1774–1851)
Olimpie, Tragédie lyrique in three acts (1819-26)
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]

Formed to promote French Romantic repertoire, Palazzetto Bru Zane continues its outstanding work with its book+CD series. There is a treasure trove of high-quality recordings to explore. With this revival of Spontini’s neglected opera Olimpie, Bru Zanes’ Opéra français series has reached volume 20, a limited edition of 3,500. Incidentally, Palazzetto Bru Zane no longer uses Ediciones Singulares as the title of its label; it is now Bru Zane.

Spontini is certainly known more by reputation than by actual performances of his works. An Italian by birth (from Maiolati, then a Papal State, now in the Marche region), he was one of many composers drawn to Paris. He settled there in his late 20s, and debuted with his opera La Finta Filosofa (1804). The composer, who gained the approbation of the Emperor Napoleon and Empress Joséphine, Berlioz and Wagner, had his apogee with the opera La Vestale (The Vestal Virgin), sometimes regarded as initiating the birth of French Grand Opéra. Produced at the Paris Opéra in 1807, La Vestale was one of the greatest opera successes in the city between the periods of Gluck’s tragédie lyrique and Meyerbeer’s grand opéra. Two years later Spontini followed up with Fernand Cortez, an opera with its historical theme intended as propaganda in support of Napoleon’s Spanish invasion.

Spontini’s opera Olympie is a tragédie lyrique, based on Voltaire’s tragic five act play Olympie (1761). The plot concerns the fate of Alexander the Great’s family after his death. Spontini’s original version of Olympie was premiered in Paris in December 1819. Despite a fine cast, it only received seven performances before being pulled. Spontini revised the opera for Berlin by rewriting the whole of act three to culminate in a happy ending. A German translation of the libretto was provided by E.T.A. Hoffmann. The work was premièred in May 1821 as Olimpia. Retranslated into French, this revised version now named Olimpie was premièred at the Paris Opera in February 1826. After two performances it was cut and combined with a ballet, receiving only three performances. There is great detail in the booklet essays about the opera and the reasons for its failure.

Bru Zane has certainly assembled an outstanding cast that comes across as assured and well prepared. Canadian soprano and baroque specialist Karina Gauvin excels in the title role of Olimpie, daughter of Alexander the Great and Statira. One admires her attractive tone in the heroine’s act 1 air Ô vous, que ma reconnaissance, and her well realised coloratura. Gauvin’s voice has a smooth and fluid tone, also demonstrated by the act 3 air Ô saintes lois de la nature! She slides effectively to her high register, where she is extremely comfortable. French tenor Mathias Vidal, another baroque specialist, sings the gallant role of Cassandre, son of King Antipater of Macedon. Bright and clear, the tenor has a satisfying top range although his projection could be smoother at times. One notes Cassandre’s act 1 air Ô souvenir épouvantable! where Vidal generates splendid drama as he displays his anguish. American mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich takes the part of Statira, Alexander’s widow. She is in excellent voice throughout. Statira’s big scene in act 2, Ô déplorable mère!... Implacables tyrans… Dieux! pardonnez à mes injustes plaintes!, is outstandingly performed. In extremely clear and focused voice, with her flair for expression, Aldrich gives a convincingly impassioned portrayal of Statira’s torment.

The role of King Antigone, one of Alexander’s commanders, is performed by Josef Wagner. The Austrian bass-baritone creates a formidable character with real aplomb. He has a rich-toned voice with excellent diction, and is most expressive for such low voice. This is demonstrated most successfully in act 1, scene 6, where À la voix de ses dieux que l’univers réponde produces a menacing tone. Belgian bass Patrick Bolleire sings the role of the high priest Hiérophante. His deep, resonant tone has a most authoritative quality as displayed marvellously in Diane a désigné celle de nos prêtresses from act 1 and C'est I'ordre de la reine from act 3. My dramatic high point of the opera is Olimpie and Cassandre’s act 1 duet Ô doux accents, bonheur supreme, sung with verve by Gauvin and Vidal, who generate tremendous passion. Conducted by Jérémie Rhorer, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie plays on instruments of the period. Its string section use gut strings and period bows; they sound especially effective, and produce a lovely, vibrato-less sheen. The impressive unity and the commitment of the players come across as completely at one with Spontini’s soundworld. The performance of the Flemish Radio Choir, prepared by Hervé Niquet and led by Nathalie Steinberg, is first-class too.

The presentation is sumptuous, as usual. The two CDs fit inside a 168-page hard-back book. It includes highly readable and informative essays, an overview of the work, a synopsis, a track listing and French texts together with an English translation placed alongside. Ideally the track listing really needs to be positioned at the front of the book with each track given its relevant page number in the libretto. Produced at Philharmonie de Paris, the recording has a most satisfying sound quality, clear, with presence, and well balanced.

With Spontini’s opera Olimpie, Bru Zane’s Opéra français series maintains its elevated standards of performance, sound and presentation. This quite outstanding release must surely win Spontini many new admirers.

Michael Cookson


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