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Jean-Baptiste LEMOYNE (1751-1796) Phèdre, tragédie lyrique in three acts (1786)
Libretto by François-Benoît Hoffmann
Judith van Wanroij (soprano) – Phèdre (queen)
Julien Behr (tenor) – Hippolyte (prince, son of Thésée: stepson of Phèdre)
Tassis Christoyannis (bass) – Thésée (king)
Melody Louledjian (soprano) – Œnone (attendant to Phèdre)
Jérôme Boutillier (baritone) – Un grand de l'État (a leading statesman) / Un Chasseur (a huntsman)
Ludivine Gombert (soprano) – La Grande Prêtresse de Vénus (The high priestess of Venus)
Orfeo Orchestra/György Vashegyi
rec. live, 10-13 September 2019, Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Müpa Budapest, Hungary Opéra français CD-Book series of Bru Zane, Volume 24 BRU ZANE BZ1040 [60:15 + 76:15]
Palazzetto Bru Zane continues its Opéra français CD-Book series, an invaluable exploration of French musical heritage which rediscovers high-quality works worthy of revival. A co-production with Orfeo Music Foundation Budapest, this release of Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne’s Phèdre on period instruments was recorded at a series of live concert performances held in September 2019 at Müpa Budapest. This is the first ever revival of the complete version of Phèdre, premiered in 1786 at the Fontainebleau court of Bourbon King Louis XVI. The work, with its libretto based in mythology, fits the bill splendidly: it is typical of the undervalued and often neglected works that Bru Zane champions.
Lemoyne hails from the Dordogne region. Although forgotten today, for a time he became one of the leading figures on the Parisian music scene. The Paris Opéra (sometimes known as simply L'Opera) was the foremost opera and ballet company in France. It successfully welcomed a number of major foreign composers such as Salieri, Gluck, Sacchini, Cherubini, Piccinni and Spontini. As a Frenchman, Lemoyne was seen as a homegrown talent of whom Parisians could be rightly proud.
After the failure of his first attempt at tragédie lyrique with the opera Électre (1782), Lemoyne approached fledgling French playwright François-Benoît Hoffman, who agreed to write what was his first-ever libretto, based on Jean Racine’s tragedy Phèdre (1677, Paris). For his subject matter, Racine had selected from ancient Greek mythology the play Hippolytus, a beloved and much adapted text by Athenian playwright Euripides. Racine’s complex and yet refined psychological characterisation certainly contributes to the dramatic effect of this great Classical tragedy. For his libretto, Hoffman made major transformations such as deleting the role of princess Aricie. He reduced the five acts to three and altered both text and plot, all fairly routine practices of the time.
Lemoyne’s setting of Hoffman’s libretto is a remodeled version of Phèdre with of six characters. This dramatic score contains serious ingredients of forbidden and obsessive love, dangerous consequences, a monarch thought dead now alive, family divisions, foiled love, suggestions of incest, treachery and evil lies, self-loathing, banishment, and it concludes with Phèdre’s suicide. Completed in 1786, it is an example of an opera originating from the transitional phase towards the end of the Classical era, with the quickly growing shoots of Romanticism showing through strongly.
Gluck moved to Paris in 1773 and became a revered figure in Paris. Alexandre Dratwicki in his essay remarks how this period had been described as ‘Gluck and his imitators’. It comes as no surprise that with Phèdre Lemoyne was greatly influenced by Gluck’s innovative approach. Compared to his major disappointment over the reception Électre met at its premiere, Lemoyne’s second tragedy Phèdre was a huge success when first introduced in 1786 at the French royal court in Fontainebleau.
The triumphal reception of Phèdre was greatly helped by the participation of French opera singer Mme Antoinette Saint-Huberty. With her extraordinary gift for interpretation and artistic acumen, she established herself at Paris Opéra and was for a time the company’s foremost female singer. She created the role of Phèdre, the eponymous heroine. After the Fontainebleau premiere, owing to the way it was claimed to dawdle at the start, Lemoyne had been pressured into removing the opening thirty minutes. In this shortened form, it was soon staged at Paris Opéra, and gained general acclaim. It was given in this cut version until 1813 when after almost thirty years it left the repertoire. Two hundred and thirty two years passed from the premiere of the complete version in 1786 to this recording of the original form.
Judith van Wanroij is a stand-out in the title role. A predominantly French-based, Dutch-born soprano, she is in outstanding voice and sounds highly suited to the role, expressively passionate and capable of deep emotion. One senses a substantial stage presence, making me regret not being able to actually see her characterisation. Phèdre is in the full glare of the spotlight in act two, scene three, entirely conflicted between her obsessive desire for stepson Hippolyte and her allegiance and fear of retribution from husband Thésée. From this emotional tense scene, particularly gratifying are the airs Je ne sais quelle erreur, fatale à mon repos and Sur le trône allez vous asseoir. Although not without occasional unevenness, her compelling voice responds intelligently to the demands of the airs. She is notably assured in the lyrical sections including messa di voce control, and unfazed by the high notes.
Julien Behr does a splendid job as Hippolyte, son of king Thésée. Caught between two stools, Hippolyte is tormented by his perilous situation of Phèdre’s obsessive love for him and the fact that his father will believe he is in a relationship with Phèdre. The Frenchman’s conspicuous tenor is sweetly bright and polished, yet warm, with pleasing reliability. Act three, scene four is where Behr’s qualities are heard to optimum effect. In Si votre amitié m’est ravie, Grands Dieux! quelle est ma destinée! and Restez pour détromper mon père Hippolyte proclaims his innocence, is being banished by Thésée to exile and bids farewell to his chorus of hunters. Undoubtedly this is a fresh and engaging tenorial voice that would blossom with additional colour.
French soprano Melody Louledjian makes a strong impression as Œnone, Phèdre’s devious lady in waiting. Notable is the act one air Si vous résistez à mes pleurs where she encourages her lady Phèdre to give in to her natural urges. With a honeyed tone, Louledjian conveys an engaging level of expression and is able to slide effortlessly to her high register. Should she progress very soon to a more substantial role, it would be no surprise.
Singing the role of king Thésée is experienced baritone Tassis Christoyannis. Although French is not his first language, the Greek baritone is a seasoned singer of French repertoire, markedly recording several recital albums of melodies, opera and operetta. Steady line and mellow tone characterise Christoyannis’s singing. He displays credible authority as king Thésée. Really well executed, with a degree of zeal that feels ideal, is the king’s Invocation from act three Neptune, seconde ma rage where the tormented king Thésée in rage implores Father Neptune to punish his incestuous son. Completing the cast with their smaller roles are French-born baritone Jérôme Boutillier and soprano Ludivine Gombert who do all asked of them.
The expressive and unified Purcell Choir is clearly well drilled. They give a blue-ribbon performance. To single out a particular chorus number is difficult, but it may be hard to beat the uplifting chorus Ah! quel bonheur! from act two, scene six with the people of Troezen overjoyed at the return from the Underworld of king Thésée, thought dead. Conductor György Vashegyi, who founded both the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra, brings everything together with convincing rapport. Playing period instruments, the Orfeo Orchestra, normally directed by concertmaster Làszló Paulik, makes an impressive sound of broad colours that is really to my taste. Satisfying sound has been achieved at Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Müpa Budapest: a top-quality achievement by the engineering team. As we have come to expect of this premium release, the Bru Zane presentation is of the highest quality. The hardback book, a bilingual edition in French and English, contains libretto, full sung texts and includes five helpful essays.
Now over two centuries since the premiere of Lemoyne’s Phèdre, this exceptional new recording must surely gain its rightful place in the opera repertory.