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Nuits Blanches - Opera Arias at the Court of Russia in the 18th Century
Karina Gauvin (soprano)
Pacific Baroque Orchestra/Alexander Weimann (fortepiano)
rec. 2019, Église Saint-Augustin, Mirabel, Canada
Sung texts in Italian and French with French and English translations enclosed

It is widely believed that Mikhail Glinka was the father of Russian music and the first Russian to write operas. Truth is that he was the first to find a Russian ‘tone’ in his music and stimulated a younger generation to be nationalistic. But he had predecessors in the 18th century, even in the field of opera. At the court in St. Petersburg there was a blossoming music life, in particular during the long reign of Catherine the Great, who was Empress between 1762 and 1796. Musicians for the court had long been imported from Central Europe, many from Germany – even J. S. Bach as early as 1726 applied for a job there but was rejected – many from Italy. During Catherine’s reign opera became popular in Russia and the Empress invited prominent Italian composers: Manfredini (1762 – 1769), Galuppi (1765 – 1768), Paisiello (1776 – 1784) – his Il barbiere di Siviglia was premiered in the Winter Palace in 1782 – and Cimarosa (1787 – 1791). The latter disliked the Russian winters and quit after four years. But among other composers at the court were also some Russians, three of which are represented on the present disc, together with a couple of imports, including Gluck who was never employed but his Armide was a great hit at the time. The Russians, Bortnianski, Fomine and Berezovski, were all trained in Italy, so there is little Russian influences in their music. Fomine (or Fomin) was born in St. Petersburg while both Bortnianski and Berezovski were Ukrainians. The latter died young but Bortnianski was granted a fairly long life and might well have met Glinka. He is best remembered today for his liturgical works – he has been seen as a Russian Palestrina – but in the 1770s and -80s he composed a number of operas to Italian and French texts, including one Don Carlos, produced in St. Petersburg in 1786. I doubt, however, that it is based on Schiller’s drama, which was first performed in Hamburg in 1787.

The title of this compilation, Nuits Blanches (White Nights), is not explained in the booklet but presumably refers to the long light Northern summer nights. If there also is a reference to a 1985 movie with the legendary Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, which takes place in the Soviet Union as it was then, I don’t know. Be that as it may. The music on this disc is of great interest, as it gives a view of what was played at the Russian Court Opera during its days of glory circa 250 years ago.

As a starter we are served a delicious little aria from Bortnianski’s Le Faucon (The Falcon). It is an ópera comique in three acts, and it was premiered at the Gatchina Palace on 11 November 1786, half a year after Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro was first played at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The libretto is based on an episode in Boccaccio’s Decamerone. It has indeed been revived in fairly modern times but is of course a rarity. Elvire’s aria is attractively melodious and the orchestration has some nice touches. The next piece was written not for an opera but for one of the weekly court concerts. Domenico Dell’Oglio was a virtuoso violinist who also composed, and here he has employed themes from Slavic music for his Sinfonia Cossaca, of which we are offered the allegro first movement. It is fresh and lively and rhythmically inviting, but though the theme may be Russian it still sounds very Italian but, possibly inspired by this work Empress Elizaveta in 1755 commissioned Francesco Araja to compose the first opera setting a Russian libretto, Tsefal i Prokris (Cephalus and Prokris). So as early as that the first Russian opera was created – even though musically it was still Italian.

With some arias and recitatives from Gluck’s Armide as main course we can savour more familiar fragrancies. Today it has been superseded by Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste and Iphigénie en Tauride but Gluck himself regarded Armide as his best opera and obviously in the 19th century his music was an important source of inspiration for Russian composers. The two recitatives and three arias effectively demonstrate that he was a true dramatist and especially the last aria, Le perfide Renaud me fuit (tr. 7) is masterly in illustrating the turmoil in Armide’s heart.

We return to Bortnianski for the overture to Le Faucon, a well-written piece, followed by two arias and a recitative from his Alcide, composed when he was in Italy and premiered in Venice in 1778. He was both technically advanced and dramatically fully-fledged by then and soon returned to St. Petersburg. It is worth noting that Alcide was recorded complete in 1998 with the excellent Polish-Ukrainian soprano Olha Pasichnyk in the title role.

Fomine’s lively and charming overture to Le Cochers au relais, written the year after Bortnianski’s Le Faucon is a suitable interlude before the dessert: Berezovski’s Demofoonte, or rather two of the four arias from this opera that survives. Like Bortnianski he composed it in Italy where it premiered in 1773 in Livorno. It is a pity most of the opera was lost, but the Livorno Gazette wrote after the premiere: ‘a musical opera of remarkable quality, combining liveliness and good taste with a mastery of musical science’. We can be happy that the two arias recorded here have been preserved, for they confirm the positive report from the Livorno Gazette. The first aria, which Demofoonte sings, is an up-tempo virtuoso piece with some stunning coloratura. The second, sung by Timante, is a slow immensely beautiful song with a couple of short dramatic outbreaks. A lovely finale to this highly interesting musical meal. Poor Berezovski died penniless at age 32 only four years after his return to Russia, and was never able to fulfil what many people had hoped: a glorious career as composer.

The playing of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra is worthy of the occasion and Karina Gauvin’s singing is exactly what I had expected: simply superb! She has a marvellous voice, but more than that: she digs deep in the texts and catches the drama to perfection. Completely at home in baroque repertoire she amply demonstrated a couple of years ago that she also has a wider scope, when she sang a great Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito (review), which of course is closer to the repertoire on this disc.

Göran Forsling

Dimitri Stepanovitch BORTNIANSKI (1751 – 1825)
Le Faucon (1786):
1. Air d’Elvire: Ne me parlez point [3:07]
Domenico Dall’OGLIO (C. 1700 – 1764)
Sinfonia Cossaca:
2. I. Allegro [3:43]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714 – 1787)
Armide (1777):
3. Récitatif et air: Enfin, il est en ma puissance [6:51]
4. Air: Ah! Si la liberté [4:28]
5. Récitatif: Oh ciel, quelle horrible menace [1:31]
6. Gratioso (menuet) [1:14]
7. Air: Le perfide Renaud me fuit [7:45]
Dimitri Stepanovitch BORTNIANSKI
Le Faucon (1786):
8. Ouverture [4:53]
Alcide (1778):
9. Aria: Mi sorprende [2:27]
10. Récitatif: In qual mar [3:44]
11. Aria: Dei clementi [3:06]
Evstignei Ipatievitch FOMINE (1761 – 1800)
Les Cochers au relais (1787):
12. Ouverture [3:24]
Maxime Sozontovitch BEREZOVSKI (1745 – 1777)
Demofoonte (1773):
13. Aria de Demofoonte: Mentre il cor [4:51]
14. Aria de Timante: Misero pargoletto [5:49]

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