Benjamin Godard: Dante, opus 111
Edgaras Montvidas (Dante Alighieri), Véronique Gens (Béatrice Portinari), Jean-Françoise Lapointe (Simeone Bardi), Rachel Frenkel (Gemma), Andrew Foster-Williams (Virgil’s shadow, old man), Diana Axentii (student), Andrew Lepri Meyer (voice of a herald), Bavarian Radio Choir, Stellario Fagone (choir master), Munich Rundfunkorchester, Ulf Schirmer (conductor)
Recording: Prinzregententheater, Munich, Germany (January 29 and 31, 2016) – 141’12
2 CDs Ediciones Singulares ES 1029 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Book in French and English
Poets and poetry were the foundation Benjamin Godard built upon in his fourth and fifth operas. Following his Alphonse de Lamartine-based opera, Jocelyn in 1888, the Parisian turned back to The Middle Ages to source his drame lyrique, Dante. Considered to be the greatest literary work in the lingua Italiana, the Divine Comedy works as Godard’s backdrop in romantic, operatic form. Dante’s minimization as un homme immortel is usurped by secularism and staking him inside a gauzy sojourn to Hell with vindication to Paradise.
Set to a libretto by Edouard Blau (i.e. Massenet’s Werther ), Dante relishes its own characteristic, stylistic verve. Furthermore, there’s a weighty Werther-like charge, ignited in strength and dignified in detail.
M. Godard loosely follows the life of Dante Alighieri where we initially experience a war-torn city (Florence) that pits the Guelfs (Dante’s a member) against the Ghibellines in a marvelously testy diatribe...the Bavarian Radio Choir tussles like a bracketed patrician/plebiscite precursor to Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (1881.) Sizzling near the surface we’re exposed to Dante’s early love, Béatrice, and the festering anger emanating inside Simeone Bardi, the protagonist’s foe, here sung by Jean-François Lapointe. Fusillades of momentum and hatred engulf.
After a fulfilling Marcomir inside Saint-Saëns’ Les Barbares, Edgaras Montvidas continues to deliver a superior performance in the eponymous role: Dante is encapsulated by insurmountable energy and invigorating passion. No matter where the tension builds, M. Montvidas unceasingly pleases in forthright declamation, exemplary tenor vibrancy and an effective use of a flipped “r.”
Many a composer turned to Dante for symphonic inspiration. Citing such successes were William Wallace’s The Passing of Beatrice (1892), a work heavily influenced by Franz Liszt. This subject parallels that of Godard’s own femme fatale, here elicited through accomplished finesse by Véronique Gens. Confidante to Béatrice, Rachel Frenkel’s Gemma has a mellifluous and stable sense of earthy grounding which persuades the listener through her mezzo voice.
Such lyrical graces touch every aspect of Dante. After Ulf Schirmer’s sparkling “Tarantella”, the musical envoy to Act III, we experience Diana Axentii’s soulful Virgil preamble harkening back to Gounod’s La Colombe (1860) “Overture” with its use of lofty roulades and Mireille’s (1864) Provence charm.
Yet the gravity of Godard’s music dwells inside the journey to Mount Posilippo. After a lackluster Squarocca from Proserpine, Andrew Foster-Williams gains the upper hand of poetic justice by declaiming his words of wisdom and envisaged hellish journey as the la justice suprême, Virgil. M. Godard paints a celestially powerful argument through voice with particular use of harp and organ to further add to the severity of the score. Just like the mountainous apex, this passage points to Dante’s potential consequences, but it acts as a pressure relief valve as one enters Act IV.
In an article culled from Le Charivari, Pierre Véron is quoted as saying, “...he (Godard) has always seemed to be more gifted as a symphonist than as a dramatic composer...” This belief is partially true, for the immensity in orchestral might directs us to contemporaries such as Saint-Saëns’ and his Les Barbares; however, Benjamin Godard could also write powerfully convincing dialogue which (on this CD) holds the listener spellbound from beginning to end. If one has experienced amiability inside M. Godard’s salon music, he/she will certainly want to discover the inventions M. Godard brought to the stage with memorable conclusions.
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