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Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys - A survey of the few recordings available
By Ralph Moore

Édouard Lalo’s Le roi d' Ys is an opera in three acts and five tableaux set to a libretto by Édouard Blau. It is a retelling of the old Breton legend of the drowned city of Ys, the capital of the kingdom of Cornouaille, a tale which also inspired Debussy’s prelude for piano, La cathédrale engloutie.

Although it was not premiered until more than a decade after its first drafting, once it was staged in 1888 at the Opéra-Comique in the Salle du Châtelet, Paris, Le roi d’Ys was an immediate success, running to a hundred performances in just one year. It continued to be well received – in Europe, at least, if not so much in the United States – in the first half of the 20C but thereafter gradually fell into desuetude, and has only been very sporadically revived since. It will probably never again re-establish itself as a staple of the big houses but I think it is certainly worth a revival.

It is thus something of a niche taste among opera aficionados, and in general, awareness of the opera’s existence is perpetuated only by the inclusion in recitals and anthologies of the charming, tripping Aubade from Act 3, “"Vainement, ma bien-aimée" which is a real showpiece for a lyric French tenor. Famous versions include those by Gigli in 1922, Joseph Rogatchewsky in 1927 and César Vezzani in 1932; the Gala issue below generously includes vintage recordings by the latter two and three more celebrated tenors among the dozen bonus tracks of excerpts from the opera. The epic, seascape overture, too, is still quite frequently played and recorded as a concert piece, and there is also a great duet for the two leading ladies, sisters battling over the same man.

The work is tuneful and stageable, although it initially drew complaints that it was short on melodies - most of which are announced in the overture. The musical styles essayed and embraced by Lalo are charmingly eclectic; its indebtedness to Wagner has been much exaggerated, but at times we do indeed seem to be in the world of Lohengrin and occasionally it aspires to Wagnerian grandeur. As a self-confessed Wagner devotee, I cannot regret the Master's influence over Lalo, but it still has its own identifiable voice. It is rhythmically much jauntier, more inventive and harder driven than Wagner generally is and also frequently inhabits the environs of Breton song, incorporating into the choruses many catchy, dotted rhythm Breton folk tunes which Lalo learned from his contralto wife. (He in fact wrote the lead role for her although she never got to perform it.) There are some good crowd scenes for the chorus and a suitably catastrophic dénouement.

I have many times in reviews remarked that complaining about absurdities in opera plots is futile and the story of this one is certainly no sillier than many other a successful opera; it is a reasonably straightforward tale of unrequited love, warfare, broken alliances and betrayal with a strong, underlying religious and supernatural element - themes which suit the "fable/mystery play" atmosphere, although a lot of the plot tropes are almost operatic clichés, recognisable from other, more celebrated works, especially Wagner’s. Nonetheless, it also contains considerable genuine human interest. Oddly, the eponymous king actually plays only a minor part in the proceedings, so the choice of title is puzzling.

I would call this a “mini-survey” in that there are in fact only half a dozen options open to the collector. There is also a live recording (OP1016) on the Malibran label from 1954 with Pierre Dervaux conducting the Radio Lyrique Ensemble and an eminent cast of Geori Boué, Geneviève Moizan, Georges Noré, René Bianco, André Philippe and Charles Cambon, but I have not been able to hear it. Fortunately, we may hear Dervaux conduct this work almost two decades later in 1973 (see below).
 
The Recordings
 
Désiré-Émile Ighelbrecht 1943 Malibran (live; mono - abridged)
Orchestre et Chœurs Marseille
The King of Ys: Lucien Lovano, bass
Margared, the King's daughter: Germaine Cernay, mezzo-soprano
Rozenn, the King's daughter: Ginette Guillamat, soprano
Prince Karnac: Georges Ravoux, baritone
Mylio, a knight: Gaston Micheletti, tenor
Jahel, the King's herald and master of the palace: Paul Gaudin, baritone

I reproduce the note appended to the YouTube upload where you may hear all of the performance which has survived (see below for the omissions), as it most helpful, informative and interesting; my thanks and acknowledgement are due to its contributor:

“Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht conducts this performance from Marseilles recorded in 1943. Soprano Ginette Guillamat, who sang the role of Rozenn, recalls that the day before the recording Marseilles' French Resistance fighters had killed a German officer. In reprisal, the German occupation authorities ordered a civilian curfew. Since soloists and orchestra wouldn't be able to return to their homes after a night performance, it was decided to record the opera in the afternoon on acetate disks, to be played at night. Because of that, this performance has survived. Incidentally, the recording is said to have come from the personal copy of Mme. Guillamat…The Overture and scene 2 of Act II were performed but the recording has not survived.”

Principal among its virtues are the drive and precision of Inghelbrecht’s conducting; he seizes upon the variety of Lalo’s rhythms and styles with alacrity. Secondly, is the brilliance of the solo singing, displaying a clarity of French diction and an accuracy of intonation which are mightily impressive. The stars and best-known names here are the strong, firm, vibrant mezzo Germaine Cernay and Gaston Micheletti, one of the trio of famous Corsican tenors (the others being José Luccioni and César Vezzani, the greatest of the them), but their co-singers, too, are all superb. Their voices are generally light and bright with a real “cutting edge” which derives from a proper, if slightly nasal and typically French resonance. Georges Ravoux’s firm, agile baritone is similar in timbre to Micheletti’s virile sound, which is in the Georges Thill school of lyric-dramatic tenor. (When I think of the pinched, mixed-falsetto little bleaters who pass for French lyric tenors these days, I begin to seethe…) He makes a wonderful job of his showpiece aria and Inghelbrecht wisely lends him plenty of slack in order to shape the phrases and milk his protracted B flats – and there are more ringing B flats, a top B and a top C at the end. The ensembles are so sharp and dramatic, the drama enhanced by the fact that these singers live their parts; no “stand and sing” here. The energy of the concluding disaster scene is palpable – thrilling stuff.

The disadvantages, of course, reside in the loss of twenty minutes of music and the boxy, crumbly, vintage sound which sometimes leaves the orchestra sounding muddy in the background. Nonetheless, at times it is quite audible and the voices are always well forward.

This recording has an especially authentic, Gallic atmosphere and buffs will want to hear it.

André Cluytens 1957 Erato; Malibran (studio; mono)
Chœurs et Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion française
The King of Ys: Pierre Savignol, bass
Margared, the King's daughter: Rita Gorr, mezzo-soprano
Rozenn, the King's daughter: Janine Micheau, soprano
Prince Karnac: Jean Borthayre, baritone
Mylio, a knight: Henri Legay, tenor
Jahel, the King's herald and master of the palace: Serge Rallier, baritone
St. Corentin: Jacques Mars, bass
 
The main attraction here is an all-French cast of famous names headed by the versatile and invariably excellent Cluytens. Rita Gorr was a vocal phenomenon - sometimes a rather tiring one but still always a force to be reckoned with. She is aptly paired with the smoky, sweet-voiced Janine Micheau. The tenor is the elegant Henri Legay, whom many will know for his recording pairing him with Victoria de los Angeles in Manon under Monteux. He sings his hit aria with great charm and refinement. The baritone is Jean Borthayre, who sounds remarkably like my favourite French baritone Robert Massard, who takes the same role sixteen years later under Dervaux's version (see next below). The other three lower-voiced singers are excellent, too.

So much about this recording is admirable, not least the energy with which Cluytens attacks the score, bringing to it the same energy which energised his set of complete Beethoven symphonies, but having said all that, there is no escaping that good as it is, it is not the best available. It is in boxy mono and lacks the breadth to do the music justice; the stereo radio-broadcast concert performance from 1973 on the Gala label sounds much better. Secondly, that 1973 cast is just as starry, despite the slightly matronly female leads and Alain Vanzo and Robert Massard are even better than their 1957 counterparts - although I think Micheau and Gorr are marginally preferable to Guiot and Rhodes. Swings and roundabouts.

I suggest that for devotees of this neglected opera this serves as a secondary, supplementary recording but not as a first recommendation.

It was long unavailable on CD but has now been re-issued by Erato; my own copy is a private transcription from arsvocalis on eBay which comes complete with a bonus recital from Gorr.

Pierre Dervaux 1973 Gala (live; stereo)
Orchestre et Chœurs Radio-Lyrique
The King of Ys: Jules Bastin, bass
Margared, the King's daughter: Jane Rhodes, mezzo-soprano
Rozenn, the King's daughter: Andréa Guiot, soprano
Prince Karnac: Robert Massard, baritone
Mylio, a knight: Alain Vanzo, tenor
Jahel, the King's herald and master of the palace: Michel Llado, baritone
St. Corentin: Pierre Thau, bass
 
This Gala issue provides excellent advocacy for Lalo’s opera, as despite being live and nearly fifty years old as I write, it is in first class, stereo sound – albeit with at first some bias towards the left channel, especially noticeable on headphones - and features some of the best French singers of the 70's. If there is an audience, there is barely a cough from them – perhaps it was a studio radio broadcast without public admission - and the sound quality is barely distinguishable from a good studio recording.

It is conducted in a relaxed, unobtrusive style by Pierre Dervaux and both the animated chorus and his orchestra are certainly up to the demands of the score. The overture, still heard as a concert item, is beautifully played and features an elegant cello solo. The men's voices are headed by the clear, lyrical, slightly grainy and very attractive lirico-spinto tenor of the Monégasque Alain Vanzo, who died in 2002 - and with him was interred that particularly elegant style of French singing. He is well suited to the role of Mylio, having strong high notes but a sweet mezza voce and falsetto. I have long admired Robert Massard's virile and sensitive baritone and the hard edge in his voice lends itself to conveying malice, which is why he made such a fine Rigoletto, too. The Belgian bass Jules Bastin, while not being especially refulgent of voice, was also an excellent stylist and I always enjoy his excellent diction. On first hearing, I found the two main women's voices somewhat less pleasing: both are, to my ears, powerful but a bit blowsy and cloudy of tone, with some scratchy top notes and they are perhaps too mature sounding for their parts, but they certainly do not let the side down and their steadiness is admirable. Rhodes has a secure lower register to her mezzo which is suggestive of her vengeful, even baleful nature – shades of Ortrud. Pierre Thau is a sonorous Saint Corentin. (As I write, the Rozenn, Andrea Guiot, has just this year died aged 93 but the great Massard is still with us at 95.)

You get some interesting historical bonus tracks, too, including five versions of the famous tenor aria; each has its merits and you can then compare them with Vanzo's beautiful performance.

Armin Jordan 1990 Erato (digital)
Orchestre Philharmonique et Chœurs de la Radio France
The King of Ys: Jean-Philippe Courtis, bass
Margared, the King's daughter: Dolorès Ziegler, mezzo-soprano
Rozenn, the King's daughter: Barbara Hendricks, soprano
Prince Karnac: Marcel Vanaud, baritone
Mylio, a knight: Eduardo Villa, tenor
Jahel, the King's herald and master of the palace: Philippe Bohee, baritone
St. Corentin: Michel Piquemal, bass

The prime attractions here are the lovely digital sound, Jordan’s authoritative conducting, a fine chorus and orchestra and the vibrant, shimmering soprano of Barbara Hendricks. Her voice is highly distinctive and thus easily differentiated from the darker, vibrant, robust mezzo of Dolorès Ziegler; too often the sisters’ timbres are virtually indistinguishable from each other, which is problematic, especially if you are listening without a libretto, and compromises the dramatic contrast. Despite the fragile elegance of her sound, Hendricks executes some impressively full top notes and also makes striking excursions into her lower register, making her a credible foil to Ziegler’s formidable Margared. Their first duet is an absolute delight, bringing out Lalo’s sensuous melodic gift which some critics deny and Ziegler makes a wonderful job of her extended aria which opens Act 2.

Unfortunately, none of the three principal male singers is on the same level as either their female co-singers or their predecessors in their roles. All are pleasingly idiomatic from a linguistic and stylistic point of a view but, starting with the male comprimarios, neither the herald nor, especially, the weak St. Corentin in that brief but crucial role, is satisfactory. Marcel Vanaud’s emphatic but sometimes rather strained, and bleaty baritone and Jean-Philippe Courtis tremulous, soft-grained bass both lack resonance and amplitude. Nonetheless, they are perfectly tolerable; it is tenor Eduardo Villa who is the central liability here. Although he produces a few, nice falsetto notes, he is often hoarse, constricted and small-voiced, lacking the requisite ease and charm in his famous aria and in the final duet with Hendricks, and while I do not think a singer should be judged on one note alone, his omission of the top C right at the very end is disappointingly anticlimactic; it’s in the score, other tenors manage it and it should be there for dramatic effect. In comparison with some of the great tenors who have preceded him, he is simply inadequate.

As is immediately evident from the overture, Armin Jordan goes for Wagnerian weight and impact over Gallic lightness and has a substantial orchestra and an excellent chorus at his disposal, but is by no means without drive and vigour in the most dramatic episodes. I am reminded that he successfully recorded a number of late Romantic French operas – Chausson’s Le roi Arthus, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue - and a very fine Parsifal, so it is hardly surprising that he shows such command here. Apart from the general excellence of the sound, there are some specific effective touches, such as the distancing of the brass fanfares.

A full libretto and translation are included. This is now hard to obtain; even second-hand copies are rare and often very expensive – but, in truth, you can do better despite the good sound and the fine singers on the distaff side.
 
Patrick Davin 2008 Dynamic (live; digital)
Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
The King of Ys: Eric Martin-Bonnet, bass-baritone
Margared, the King's daughter: Giuseppina Piunti, mezzo-soprano
Rozenn, the King's daughter: Guylaine Girard, soprano
Prince Karnac: Werner Van Mechelen, baritone
Mylio, a knight: Sébastien Guèze, tenor
Jahel, the King's herald and master of the palace: Marc Tissons, baritone
St. Corentin: Léonard Graus, bass

The sound here isn’t ideal, insofar as the voices are well forward but the orchestra sounds recessed and muddy - a little disappointing for a digital recording, but this is a live stage performance and is thus sonically still perfectly acceptable. The chorus is mediocre; it becomes immediately apparent that there are a good few lady wobblers (if you will excuse the expression), that the male section is under-powered and that ensemble can be hit and miss. The Herald is husky and strained; however, when the sisters begin to sing, we hear two hefty, if rather too similar, voices – both sound like mezzos and are rather heavy on the vibrato but they have good diction and sing with power and conviction. Their duets are highlights; they bring out the best in the music and remind us how much Lalo can sound like Berlioz, working up quite a head of steam in their furious confrontation ending Act 2.

Giuseppina Piunti has a nice, resonant lower register, good for conveying anger and malicious intent and in her impassioned Act 1 aria she lets rip with a really whopping top B just before Mylio’s entrance, and although she might occasionally sound a little wild in her Act 2 vengeance aria, better that than being mousy and pusillanimous – she really goes for it. As her lover, Sébastien Guèze makes a rough, nasal start and that roughness and nasality persist throughout; he improves as he goes along and in Act 2 and his tenor acquires more body; he also occasionally employs a secure mezza voce. His plum aria is quite attractively delivered and he achieves some delicacy in his final top A but the incipient bleat in his tone means that he is hardly a model of French style. He just about manages his concluding top C. Unfortunately, the lumpy, toneless singing of Werner Van Mechelen as Karnac and Eric Martin-Bonnet as the king means that neither provides much pleasure; the latter is shouty and unsteady and the former slides and strains in music too high for what cloudy voice he has’. He is just awful in his recitative opening Act 3 and his slow, pulsing quasi-vibrato blights the potentially powerful duets with Piunti. The bass who sings St Corentin is equally unimpressive: woofy and lacking penetration.

Davin conducts well with plenty of drive and even if his orchestra isn’t first-rate, they make a creditable job of the music and the woodwind is especially reliable.

Despite the excellence of the two leading ladies, the inadequacies in the rest of the male cast, especially in comparison with predecessors such as Micheletti, Vanzo, Massard, Ravoux, Borthayre, Bastin and Mars – I could go on - disqualify this from being recommendable.

(The booklet provides a text only in English and Italian, which is odd; the French libretto with an English translation is supposedly available online.)

The CD issue of this performance was previously reviewed by Paul Corfield Godfrey; it is also available as a DVD, reviewed by Göran Forsling. Finally, you may also watch it on . YouTube

Recommendations
With the exception of Jordan’s recording, one advantage of all the casts above is that they exclusively feature francophone companies and soloists, so we don’t have to endure downright bad French accents or even the “international Berlitz” style which is the usual mode of international, jet-setting singers who never quite sound idiomatic. Having said that, even Jordan’s three American principal singers sound very much at home in French, so credit to them and that is not much of an issue. However, there is a still a clear hierarchy here if I apply quality of recorded sound and singing as my two main criteria. I regret the deficiencies in the male casting of both the Davin and Jordan recordings, which reflect the dearth of good male, French singers in recent years. Both recordings are otherwise appealing and I really wanted to like them; if you are less irked by their failings than I, they present additional options. Having said that, if you are tolerant of the limited mono sound, there is always the Cluytens recording, which offers finer singing all-round. Nonetheless, the prime recommendation is Dervaux in 1973, which is without doubt the best sung and whose stereo sound, despite being live analogue, is remarkably satisfying.

Ralph Moore

 



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