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Franck Hulda 8660480
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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Hulda, Opera in Five Acts (Original Version 1879-85)
Libretto by Charles Jean Grandmougin
Meagan Miller: Hulda (soprano)
Joshua Kohl: Eiolf (tenor)
Irina Jae Eun Park: Swannhilde (soprano).
Anja Jung: Hulda's mother (contralto)
Katerina Hebelková: Gudrun (mezzo-soprano)
Jin Seok Lee: Aslak (bass)
Jongsoo Yang: Arne (bass)
Roberto Gionfriddo: Eyric (tenor)
Junbum Lee: Eynar (tenor)
Seonghwan Koo: Thrond (baritone)
John Carpenter: Gunnard (baritone)
Inga Schäfer: Halgerde (mezzo-soprano)
Mateo Peñaloza Cecconi: Herald (baritone)
Juan Orozco: Gudleik (baritone)
Katharina Ruckgaber: Thordis (soprano)
Opernchor des Theater Freiburg; Extrachor des Theater Freiburg
Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg/Fabrice Bolton
rec. July and October 2019, Rolf-Böhme-Saal, Konzerthaus Freiburg, Germany
Sung in French
Text and translation not included
NAXOS 8.660480-82 [3 CDs: 162:25]

César Franck was not a prolific composer but, even so, his reputation rests on a handful of works from his later years. The Symphony, the Symphonic Variations and the Violin Sonata are probably the best known, and enthusiasts will also know the Piano Quintet, the String Quartet, the symphonic poems and the choral and orchestral work Psyché. However, even the keenest Franckian may not be aware that he wrote no fewer than four operas. Two are early works, Stradella (review) and Le valet de ferme (so far unrecorded), but the other two date from his full maturity. Here we have the first of them, Hulda. The other is Ghiselle, of which he did not live to complete the orchestration; this was done after his death by his pupils.

Hulda turns out to be a contribution to that estimable genre, Wagnerian opera in France. The best known of these are Chabrier’s Gwendoline (1886), Chausson’s Le roi Arthus (1895) and D’Indy’s Fervaal (1893) and L’étranger (1901), to name only those the reader might have come across. Hulda is based on a play by the Norwegian Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, now little known but who won the Nobel prize in 1903. This is a bloodthirsty story, a revenge tragedy set in the fourteenth century. The title character begins as a sympathetic figure, in that her family is slaughtered by warriors led by Aslak, and she is to be married to Aslak’s eldest son Gudleik. This sounds like Wagner’s Sieglinde, but in fact Hulda turns out more like Wagner’s original in the Völsunga Saga, the ferocious, vengeful and ultimately suicidal Signy. I shall not rehearse the plot in detail as this has already been done by my colleague Robert Cummings. Franck did not have much luck with his operas. None were produced in his lifetime, and Hulda was produced after his death only in truncated form. Since then, its rare revivals have been heavily cut or only excerpts given, until the production which lies behind this recording, which seems to be the first in which the score was played complete.

And yet it turns out to be a perfectly viable opera, albeit not a great one. The score is not what you might think from my calling it Wagnerian. That it certainly is, but the orchestra is of moderate size, the orchestral writing frequently transparent, the pace frequently rapid and there are no leitmotifs. The harmonic idiom is close to that of the earlier parts of the Ring, apart from the love music, which not surprisingly owes a debt to Tristan, but Franck, despite his chromaticism, does not approach the idiom of Gotterdämmerung or Parsifal. Berlioz as well as Wagner seems to be in the background. There is particularly attractive writing for the chorus and there is also an extended set of ballet numbers at the end of the third act. The solo writing is more derivative but is very acceptable and there are opportunities for the title character and her rival Swanhilde and also for her lover Eiolf and numerous other men – the cast is a large one.

All credit to the Freiburg Theatre for mounting this work. Fabrice Bolton conducts with vigour and commitment. The orchestra plays well and the chorus is good. The soloists are more variable, with the men being better than the women. Meagan Miller in the title role has a voice which is attractive in quiet moments but which spreads uncomfortably when the volume goes above mezzoforte. And Irina Jae Eun Park is rather colourless as Swanhilde. Still, we are lucky to have a good performance of such a rarity and we owe thanks to the Freiburg team and to Südwestrundfunk who made the recording. The sound is excellent, and, though taken from a composite of stage performances, is not troubled with unwanted stage noises.

However, before Franckians rush to acquire this, I need to put in two notes of caution. The first is that there is no libretto or translation supplied with this set. We are, instead directed to a website where we can apparently find the text in German! I tried to look this up and was informed it was unavailable. The other is that Palazzetto Bru Zane is mounting concert performances of Hulda in summer 2022 leading to a new recording. Their cast looks stronger too. In contrast to Naxos, their documentation is always excellent, so Franckians may want to stay their hand until that is available. However, this is, nevertheless, an estimable version of a worthwhile rarity. Please can we now have Ghiselle?

Stephen Barber
Previous review: Robert Cummings

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