Jacques-François-Fromental Halévy: La Reine de Chypre
Véronique Gens (Catarina Cornaro), Cyrille Dubois (Gérard de Coucy), Etienne Dupuis (Jacques de Lusignan), Eric Huchet (Mocénigo), Christophoros Stamboglis (Andréa Cornaro), Artavazd Sargsyan (Strozzi), Tomislav Lavoie (an officier/a herald of arms), Flemish Radio Choir, Charlotte Bonneu (choirmaster), Chamber Orchestra of Paris, Hervé Niquet (conductor)
Live recording: Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris (June 5-7, 2017) – 154’46
2 CDs Ediciones Singulares #ES 1032 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Book in French and English
A full-scale orchestra, a deeply pocketed cast of “who’s who”, lavish sets and costumes and special effects, woven around a historical event of profound proportions were requisites [for an opera] to be hallmarked as grand opéra. Such immense productions (officially) began with Auber’s La Muette de Portici in 1828, currying favor with wealthy opera patrons for the next, roughly, 30 years. During the heyday, numerous composers were fêted for their brilliance in scope and vision, and Fromental Halévy was no exception. Though his name is most strongly aligned with his 1835 La Juive, other grands opéras soon followed, in particular the spectacular La Reine de Chypre in 1841.
The opera’s plot centers around 15th century Venetian figure, Catherine Cornaro, a subject which was similarly penned by Franz Lachner (1841) and Donizetti (1843.) Halévy’s own take on the Cypriot queen, not only adhered to opéra’s sine qua non, but it also incorporated novelties in music and structure for the Paris Opéra stage. One of the Parisian’s ardent admirers was [ironically] Richard Wagner, and he remarked, “It is in La Reine de Chypre that Halévy’s new style has appeared with the most brilliance and success. So several voices – and those by no means insignificant – have declared this work, written six years after La Juive, to be its composer’s masterpiece.” Perhaps Wagner’s right though La Juive has a pretty potent quotient as well.
The curtain rises to an atypical format: failing to flood the stage with an expectant grand chorus, rather, Halévy focuses on two protagonists and tackles the conflict head on. Véronique Gens and Cyrille Dubois are superb in their depiction of convoluted plights, carrying the forward torch of Halévy’s musical transcriptions with dignity and utmost grace. From this reviewer’s point-of-view, it is some of their finest vocal craftsmanship heard, to date.
Catarina Cornaro’s and Gérard de Coucy’s aphrodisiac blending is phenomenal as we first witness French amiability early on in Act I (ref: “Gérard! Mon Gérard!”) Later in the duet, however, we hear Italianate influences (4:24) that infuse the score with decidedly Donizettian effusion and inclusion of one of several cabalettas. This is one of many treasured moments.
The Flemish Radio Choir’s choral fanfares are decisively resplendent. And if Wagner’s influences are considered, ebullient horns [the French incorporated natural trumpets and cornet as opposed to the Germans who used valve horns and trumpets] are introduced for greater colouring. Halévy ingeniously utilizes pizzicati as a moving foundation throughout the opera, citing Act II’s “Entr’acte” lead-in to Catarina’s lovely “Gondolier Song” and also flouncy touches helping bracket the mellow and rich tones of Etienne Dupuis’ Jacques de Lusignan with Dubois’ Gérard inside “Triste exil” at the end of Act III; Ambroise Thomas can be heard in several pockets as well.
Eric Huchet’s baritone timbre exudes more benevolence, a counter draw to the finagling of evildoing as Mocénigo though the gambling scene opening Act III brings with it a certain sense of swagger harkening back to Meyerbeer’s “Sicilienne” from Robert le diable (1831) or the anticipatory rusticity of Verdi’s I masnadieri (1847.)
Motifs are very subtle but certainly present. Hervé Niquet delivers consistent precision and manages orchestral dynamics which elevate the magnitude of the opera to the max. Ballet, an essential ingredient in grand opéra, has decidedly been omitted in this Ediciones Singulares recording.
The listen of La Reine de Chypre is an education into the world of Jacques Halévy with its intelligent sophistication and sublime pinnacled moments. We marvel in engineering-of-good-taste...predictable, yet unpredictable at the same time.
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