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Mondonville Titon NBD0131V
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Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de MONDONVILLE (1711-1772)
Titon et L’Aurore, Pastorale héroïque in a prologue and three acts (1753)
Titon, Reinoud van Mechelen (tenor); L’Aurore, Gwendoline Blondeel (soprano); Palès, Emmanuelle de Negri (soprano); Éole, Marc Mauillon (bass-baritone); Amour, Julie Roset (soprano); Prométhéé, Renato Dolcini (bass-baritone)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Stage director, puppet, set and costume designer, Basil Twist
rec. 18–19 January 2021, Opéra Comique, Paris, France
Sung in French: Subtitles: French, English, German, Japanese, Korean
Picture: HD 16:9, Sound PCM Stereo / DTS 5.1. Region code: 0 (worldwide)
reviewed in PCM Stereo
NAXOS NBD0131V Blu-ray [127 mins]

The Querelle des Bouffons or battle of the comedians was one of numerous wars that were waged in public about music during the pre-revolutionary period in France. This one exploded on the scene in 1752 as between the proponents of the established style of French opera repertoire against those of the Italian style of opera buffa. The first production of this pastoral opera in 1753 represented a firm stance from the camp of the supporters of the French comedic style. Indeed, one of their chief advocates was the Marquise de Pompadour herself, who exerted her influence on the preparations for that first production at the Académie Royale.

Today’s listeners may not be able to discern much difference between this and any any other number of works for the French stage of that period. I happened to audition this Blu-ray in tandem with receiving a recent recording of Rameau’s Achante et Céphise for Erato , review. That work is another pastoral opera which dates from 1751. In hearing the two works so closely together, I noted that Mondonville’s opera has a more freely expressed melodic line than the Rameau work. There is no shortage of gorgeous melodies that descend from the deities and shepherds who populate this opera. Any work in which one of the protagonists is the Goddess of the Dawn is going to require some spectacular lighting effects. Basil Twist has provided a production in which inventive lighting and ingenious use of puppetry techniques combine with a stage direction that is sensitive to the fragile nature of this type of work. He wisely eschews trying to make any sort of contemporary social commentary on a work that would not be able to support the weight of such a concept. There are several scenes in which Twist’s inspired direction steal the show. Moments such as the first appearance of the dawn and the witty sheep ballet leave an indelible impression. Therefore, I have no hesitation in stating that this is one of the most successful stagings of French baroque opera that I have ever viewed. It is sad then that the ongoing pandemic precautions decreed that no audiences saw this marvelous staging in person. We are exceedingly lucky to have this work filmed for broader release to the general public. The stage bows with the cast and orchestra applauding one another work better than on a few other recent videos I have reviewed where some odd choices were made to represent simulated curtain calls.

The cast that was selected for this first production in modern times is a knockout one in every respect. Renato Dolcini’s Prometheus dominates the Prologue where the beautiful soft-grained quality of his upper voice contributes an added tint of emotion to all of his music. He displays a fascinating stage presence and even shows an impressive facility in coloratura passages for a bass. Julie Roset makes an uncommonly convincing Cupid with her delightfully elf-like appearance and creamy-voiced soprano. She trips around the stage in complete command of all she surveys. Reinoud van Mechelen improves on his wonderful performance as Hippolyte in another recent release on Blu-ray review. Mechelen is one of today’s premier tenors who specialize in the high tenor music of the French Baroque school. As Titon his elegant voice caresses the music while phrasing the lines with an endless variety of inflections. His Aurora is no less accomplished as sung by the strikingly beautiful Gwendoline Blondel. Her tone is filled with a pearly lustre and her expression is varied. On this occasion she could not seem to express anger and distress without resorting to vocal hoarseness but these moments are brief and rare. Emmanuelle de Negri’s Palès is a force of nature with an appropriately goddess-like stage presence. She has a marvelous costume which seems to combine all the excesses of the Paris fashion house runways with lambs fleece and a glorious pair of ram’s horns as the crowning touch. It is a tribute to her assurance as a performer that she does not allow this scene-stealing costume to dominate her performance. Marc Mauillon has a similarly outsized costume as Aeolus, God of the Winds. He is obviously having a whale of a time moving around the stage in his breezy accoutrements. His strong incisive bass rides the crest of all of his dramatic and blustery sounding music, which guarantees him the award for the most enthusiastic member of the cast, though the competition is fierce. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are in crisp energetic form. Whenever the camera focuses on Christie it is obvious that he is enjoying himself every bit as much as his singers. Perfect picture and sound engineering guarantee that every fleecy moment is preserved with distinction.

Mike Parr

Previous review: Dave Billinge

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