Yes, the first-ever recording of an opera that is as wonderful as Berlioz and Wagner said it is.
Fromental Halévy’s La reine de Chypre, Ediciones Singulares 1032 [2 CDs] 155 minutes.
(Véronique Gens (Catarina Cornaro), Cyrille Dubois (Gérard de Coucy), Étienne Dupuis (Jacques de Lusignan), Eric Huchet (Mocénigo), Christophoros Stamboglis (Andréa Cornaro), Artavazd Sargsyan (Strozzi), Tomislav Lavoie (officer, herald) Paris Chamber Orchestra, Flemish Radio Choir, conducted by Hervé Niquet.)
By Ralph P. Locke
Halévy’s La reine de Chypre (The Queen of Cyprus) is the 17th opera to be released in the impressively prolific “French Opera” series of recordings produced by the Center for French Romantic Music, a scholarly organization located at the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice. (Other recent offerings have included Saint-Saëns’s richly characterized Proserpine, Benjamin Godard’s fascinating Dante — which contains scenes set in Heaven and Hell — and Hérold’s Le pré aux clercs, an opéra-comique that had a particularly long life in the international operatic repertoire.)
La reine de Chypre, in its day, was one of the most successful examples of French grand opera, a genre that produced, among other masterpieces, Meyerbeer’s Le prophète and Verdi’s Don Carlos. Ever since the work’s premiere at the Paris Opéra in 1841, noted musicians and commentators, including Berlioz and Wagner, have heaped praise on the work. (Wagner’s piano arrangement of the overture can be heard here.) Yet the work has, I believe, never been recorded before. At most a few excerpts are familiar from recordings, notably the tenor-baritone duet “Triste exilé,” which ends Act 3 to splendid effect, and which Berlioz described as being “penetrating in expression” and particularly “original” and “distinguished” — high praise from a composer whose own works are original almost to excess.
Wagner, in his late 20s, got to know La reine de Chypre well during a stay of more than two years in Paris, during which he earned much-needed cash by making a piano-vocal score of the work for its publisher. In two separate reviews of the work (one for a Paris journal, the other for a Dresden newspaper), the German composer drew attention to the work’s admirable (from his own point of view) avoidance of “all those intolerable prima donna ornaments” and predictable “fixed structures” that he felt were overused by “contemporary composers who aim for popularity come what may.” Berlioz, discussing the Act 5 duet between Catarina and Gérard, wrote: “The abiding ardent love and secret sorrow of these two wounded hearts are exceptionally well portrayed. Gérard’s solo in the minor, accompanied pianissimo by syncopated figures in the violins over a pizzicato in the basses . . . [amounts to a] desolate song, over an orchestra in the grip of a suffering barely able to contain its cry.” In our own day, Hugh J. Macdonald (in OxfordMusicOnline) admires Halévy’s “craft in building big scenes and in engineering harmonic surprises” in the work.
Can any opera live up to such a reputation? Those who know and love Halévy’s even bigger hit, La juive, will probably answer: “Absolutely, yes!” They would be right. Moment after moment, this recording reveals a major opera composer capable of finding a fresh musical equivalent for each specific dramatic situation. And using means that are not at all as bombastic as one might expect from the generalized negative characterizations to which the genre of French Grand Opera has been subjected for a century and a half (most famously by Wagner himself at mid-career). Indeed, I am almost tempted to think, now that I have lived with this recording, that Halévy was very much the equal of Meyerbeer in technique, and, in his best works, more consistently inventive and inspired.
The recording does not offer every possible passage of music that belongs to any version of the score; indeed, the work was constantly cut and altered by the composer himself in successive performances and revivals. (Details are given in the superb essays by Diana Hallman and others published in French and English in the elegant small book that comes with the recording.) But all the most striking and crucial scenes are present, some of them in versions fuller than were heard at times. Volker Tosta prepared the version used here, drawing upon his complete critical edition, which is scheduled to be published by Nordstern Musikverlag (Stuttgart).
The plot contains elements that will sound familiar, not least from operas that came later. Cornaro, a young Venetian noblewoman, is entirely surrounded in the work by male characters, except for various mixed choruses of courtiers, peasants, and such. (Verdi’s Ernani, three years later, would feature a heroine similarly isolated.) The most important of these numerous men are the Frenchman Gérard de Coucy (whom she loves and who loves her), the intriguer Mocénigo (a member of Venice’s ruling Council of Ten), and the King of Cyprus (Jacques de Lusignan), to whom Mocénigo attempts to marry Catarina off. Indeed, Mocénigo, through threats, persuades Catarina to tell Gérard that she no longer loves him (much as will happen in La traviata, which was first performed in 1853).
Lusignan (in disguise) ends up saving Gérard’s life, and the two, after sharing parts of their stories (but not revealing their identities), join in the aforementioned “same-boat” duet that closes Act 3 — a duet (and, indeed, scene) that will resonate 21 years later in a famous tenor/baritone duet in Verdi’s La forza del destino. At the opera’s end, Lusignan (poisoned by the Venetians) dies, but not before making it possible for the two lovers to unite and for Catarina to succeed him as ruler of Cyprus.
The performance, recorded primarily during a concert performance (and two previous days of read-throughs) in June 2017 in Paris’s famous Champs-Elysées Theater, is of consistently high quality. It helps that the singers are all, or nearly all, native French-speakers, as seems to be a (welcome) principle for the whole “French Opera” series. The participation of the ever-radiant, ever-soulful Véronique Gens, in the lone female role, ensures special interest on the part of lovers of French opera. The role lies a little low for her. Other singers will find ways to bear down with dark intent on certain phrases through which Gens moves somewhat briskly and lightly. But I hope they can also launch the many high-lying phrases with as much dignity and confidence as we hear here from Gens.
Cyrille Dubois is eloquent in timbre as Gérard de Coucy, taking some high notes softly, others full-voice yet without a hint of blare. As reported in the French press, Dubois stepped into the role on short notice. Future tenors who take on this role may bring yet more heft to it. Eric Huchet is witty and alert in the very word-oriented role of the nasty Mocénigo. Etienne Dupuis displays a velvety baritone in the role of Jacques de Lusignan. (I was reminded at times of Robert Merrill or Sherrill Milnes!) The smaller roles are all well taken (this is the fourth recent recording in which I have reveled in the sound of Artavazd Sargsyan’s sweet tenor), and the chorus is marvelous.
The orchestra is recorded with more presence and warmth than has been the case on some other recordings from the Center for French Romantic Music, allowing us to admire many details in the writing, such as brief, dramatic interjections from individual woodwind or brass instruments during tense discussions between characters. (The colorfully orchestrated ten-minute finale to Act 4 can be heard here.) I sometimes felt that conductor Niquet kept things moving a bit too metronomically: other conductors will surely want to enliven such spots with more (unwritten) accents and tempo modifications, as they normally do in many standard-repertory operas. (I recently heard a new recording of Verdi’s Otello, conducted by Lawrence Foster, and found myself admiring it precisely for the way it avoided all kinds of traditional interpretive accretions.) But perhaps it is better that a first recording be relatively “straight” rather than colored by, say, a strongly individual viewpoint bordering on the eccentric.
I urgently recommend this recording to anybody who enjoys such works as Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, or that culminating work of French Grand Opera, Verdi’s aforementioned Don Carlos. The “French Opera” series publishes only 4000 copies of each recording-plus-book. (My copy bears the number 0068.) Will individual offerings go out of print after that?
You can hear the Act 5 quartet and view a short video with further excerpts at the Palazzetto Bru Zane’s website. Or read Robert Hugill’s fine review for yet other details about this first-rate work and recording. The entire recording is available on YouTube, but of course you don’t get the libretto and the scholarly essays, which bring out unsuspected aspects of one of the most impressive operas to have been rediscovered in recent decades.
The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book.