Opera Album Review: An Opéra-Comique from 1832 Shines Again in a Superb Recording
By Ralph P Locke
Performed 1600 times in Paris, then forgotten, Hérold’s brilliantly witty Le pré aux clercs shines again in a splendid recording.
Louis-Ferdinand Hérold, Le pré aux clercs
Marie-Ève Munger (Countess Isabelle de Montal), Marie Lenormand (Queen Marguerite de Navarre), Jeanne Crousaud (Nicette), Michael Spyres (Baron de Mergy), Éric Huchet (Cantarelli, “an Italian”), Christian Helmer (Girot), Emiliano González Toro (Marquis de Comminge), Leandro César (officer), Manuel Rebelo (a royal guard), Tiago Batista and Nuno Fonseca (archers of the guard)
Gulbenkian Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Paul McCreesh
Ediciones singulares ES125 (2 CDs) 122 minutes
Good rule of thumb: if one or two arias from a forgotten opera have continued to be performed and recorded, and the overture as well, then the whole work is probably worth reviving. That is the case with numerous operas that are finally seeing the light of day again, thanks to enterprising groups such as Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass Opera (in upstate New York), and Gil Rose’s Odyssey Opera (in Boston). (See the Arts Fuse interview with Odyssey Opera’s energetic and extremely well-informed artistic director Gil Rose.) It is also the case with numerous works that have finally received a first or (first remotely adequate recording) in recent years, such as the 27 works that have been released on CD since 2012 in the ongoing French Opera series sponsored by the Center for French Romantic Music (whose headquarters are in the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice). The series has included forgotten works by such major composers as Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Massenet and — yes, he composed an important opera in French! — Johann Christian Bach (Johann Sebastian’s enormously talented and influential youngest son).
One recent release in the French Opera series proves to be at once enlightening and delightful, yet it has not received sufficient attention — perhaps because its composer’s name is no longer as familiar as those I just named. The work is Le pré aux clercs (The Clerks’ Meadow), by Louis-Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833). Its title refers to a field on the south bank of the Seine, in the seventh arrondissement, upon which duels were traditionally fought — something that indeed occurs in the opera’s dramatically intense final act.
Le pré aux clercs racked up 1600 performances at the Opéra-Comique in Paris between 1832 and 1949, and it was widely performed elsewhere in France and also abroad (the German title was Der Zweikampf, i.e., The Duel). By the mid twentieth century, though, it had largely disappeared from the world’s stages. One short aria was recorded by the renowned Emma Albani in the early days of the phonograph. A much lengthier aria is familiar from a marvelous aria-CD by Sumi Jo (1993). Richard Strauss specifically urged his librettist Hofmannsthal, in a letter, to get to know that same big coloratura aria in order to understand the vocal fireworks that he intended to write for Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. In addition, the opera’s contrast-filled overture lasted for many decades in the orchestral and band repertory.
Le pré aux Clercs was first performed in Paris in 1832 by some of the most accomplished performers of the day. The libretto, by Eugène de Planard, was freely based on an historical novel (published three years earlier) by Prosper Mérimée. The story is set in late sixteenth-century France, at a time of much tension between Catholics and Protestants. Mérimée’s writings would go on to inspire at least four other notable operas: Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (which makes use of earlier portions of the same novel), Offenbach’s La Périchole, Bizet’s Carmen, and La Jacquerie, an opera begun by Lalo and completed by Coquard. (On La Jacquerie, which is more wondrous than one might expect from an opera with acts composed by different composers, see my review here.)
As was required by the Opéra-Comique, the numbers are connected by spoken-dialogue scenes, in prose, that sometimes go on for several minutes. The result is a bit like what we know from later musical-theater works, such as Gilbert and Sullivan or Broadway musicals.
The extensive spoken dialogue in many operas (whether in French, Spanish, German, or other languages) has long prevented even the strongest such works from being produced by opera houses elsewhere. French, in particular, is hard to speak convincingly and clearly — and, crucially, with speed and with varying shades of irony. Yet translating a spoken-dialogue work risks losing a lot of its flavor. A first-rate audio recording thus seems an effective way for a spoken-dialogue opera to find sympathetic listeners today. We can listen with libretto and translation in hand and, if we are not in the mood for hearing much spoken dialogue, can easily skip those tracks.
In this, its first complete and fully satisfactory modern recording, Le pré aux Clercs proves to be continuously fascinating. There were two previous recordings, from 1959 and 1962, less complete and apparently without the crucial spoken scenes. They can be heard in a two-CD re-release on the Malibran label and sampled on YouTube. Several of the tracks are well worth hearing, notably Renée Doria’s brilliant rendering of the second of the two arias mentioned above. But, for most purposes, the new recording is now the best way to get to know this long-loved opera. Numerous CDs have been released in recent years of Hérold’s string quartets, symphonies, piano concertos, and ballets, but his ca. twenty operas have been neglected, no doubt because they are longer and because they require numerous first-rate singers, who must master the intricacies of roles that they may never have the chance to sing again.
Put simply, the complete recording — made with a Portuguese chorus and orchestra — is as close to perfect as one can expect in this life. The singers of the seven main roles are mostly native French speakers, and they are superb performers. (Toro was born in Geneva, Switzerland, to parents from Chile.) The orchestra and chorus are alert. Conductor McCreesh — better known for his recordings of early music with the Gabrieli Consort & Players — nicely tempers forward momentum with graceful phrasing and appropriate moments of repose. The extensive spoken scenes have been rehearsed and polished till they brim with energy and apparent spontaneity.
Choosing the singers for a recording of Le pré aux Clercs must have posed an interesting challenge. The three main female roles are all for soprano, and three of the four main male roles are for tenor. The only low solo voices we ever hear are those of the Parisian tavern-owner Girot and, briefly, some nameless soldiers providing plot information (in Portuguese-accented French, a momentary distraction). Yet the vocal qualities of the three sopranos and three tenors are relatively distinct, and each singer characterizes his or her role actively while singing and, of course, while speaking. As a result, I rarely had trouble telling the characters apart, even when listening without libretto. For example, the vocal lines for Comminge lie lower than those of the other two tenors. (The role has sometimes been described as being for baritone. On one of the previous recordings it was sung by Camille Maurane, a renowned Pelléas — itself a role that has been taken successfully by tenors and by baritones.)
All seven main singers are highly capable. Inevitably, though, some are a bit better at singing than acting, or the reverse. Huchet, as the wily Italian intriguer Cantarelli, and Lenormand, as the equally strategic Marguerite de Valois (history’s Queen Margot, and wife of the future Henri IV), are superb in spoken dialogue. Each at times adopts a hilarious Italian accent — and imperious tone — in order to quote Marguerite’s Italian-born mother, Catherine de’ Medici (the queen mother of France).
The strongest singers, for my taste, are Munger, as the young Protestant countess Isabelle; Spyres, as Isabelle’s devoted lover Mergy (a Protestant nobleman from Isabelle’s native region of Béarn; Spyres sings with even greater beauty and control here than in Giovanni Simone Mayr’s Medea in Corinto); and Toro, as the aforementioned Comminge, a smug courtier who is the opera’s villain.
I knew Toro’s wonderful tenor voice from the recent recording of Félicien David’s opera Lalla-Roukh, in which he had the leading male role. Alas, that Naxos recording omitted all the spoken dialogue. In Hérold’s opera, Toro reveals himself to be a splendid, at times terrifying actor. I hope that future recordings of French comic operas will continue to let him speak: or, rather, insinuate, snarl, and thunder.
Countess Isabelle gets the two numbers whose separate recordings I mentioned above: “Souvenirs du jeune âge” and “Jours de mon enfance.” The first of these consists of two somewhat folk-like strophes in the middle of an extended ensemble scene. The second is the most elaborate and florid aria in the whole work and boasts a virtuosic solo-violin part as well.
Further coloratura pleasure: at the beginning of Act 3, Nicette (who runs an inn in the countryside, is Marguerite’s goddaughter, and is looking forward to marrying Girot) is given a zesty three-strophe number, which the singer (Jeanne Crousaud) embellishes spiffily as it goes along.
Hérold’s musical style throughout this work is heavily indebted to Rossini and other currently successful opera composers. There are several ensemble scenes in which the characters interact in engaging ways over propulsive or evocative orchestral tunes or rhythmical phrases. In the Act 2 finale (disc 2, track 4, at 1:20) — when Countess Isabelle is given bad news during a masquerade and nearly faints, to the consternation of onlookers — a tune and a variation on it are played simultaneously, resulting in delightful sweet-sad dissonances. (This is one of several moments in the work when the music is apparently meant to indicate that the plot is taking place in “olden times.”) The scene with the two archers ferrying a dead body across the Seine (disc 2, track 12) is made wonderfully mysterious by an active bassoon line. And, throughout the work, the able librettist worked out effective moments at which speech would move into singing: perhaps most dramatically, the spoken argument between Mergy and Comminge creates a kind of verbal crescendo that culminates in a sung cabaletta in which they agree to fight a duel.
I particularly loved the headlong Act 3 trio — which uses a gallop rhythm — for the two noblewomen and Mergy and the duet in Act 1 for the two lower-class fiancés, Girot and Nicette. I am not the first to have been enchanted by the Act 3 trio: on opening night it was immediately repeated at the audience’s demand.
As for the lively folk-like tune that ends the Nicette/Girot duet, I suspect that Dvořák remembered it (perhaps unconsciously), for it is nearly identical to a tune in one of his Slavonic Dances, which strongly suggests that those dances may not be as purely Czech in inspiration as writers have implied.
An equally striking but possibly fortuitous resemblance: the first measures of the overture are closely similar to those that open the last movement of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony (which was completed the year before Hérold’s opera but not performed until the year after). And I suspect that Sir Arthur Sullivan was paying homage to the quick, dancelike tune that ends Hérold’s Act 1 when composing the equivalent tune that occurs one minute before the end of the overture to The Mikado.
As in some other French and German comic operas of the era (e.g., Auber’s Fra Diavolo) and of course Italian “semiseria” operas (e.g., Rossini’s La gazza ladra), death sometimes casts its shadow. The Clerks’ Meadow is at once a place where lovers come to flirt and tryst (at Girot’s tavern) but also where miffed noblemen come to fight duels. I will not try to summarize the lively but complicated plot here. Let me just say that, shortly before the opera comes to an end, a duel is fought off-stage. Fortunately, it is the opera’s villain, Comminge, who expires, and the rest of the characters rejoice. So the work ends somewhat like Don Giovanni, except at a riverbank inn.
Performances in Paris and at Wexford (Ireland) during the year 2015, with some of the singers from this recording, were rapturously applauded. If you love, as I do, Rossini’s Le comte Ory and Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, you will surely enjoy this smart and sensitive performance of Le pré aux clercs.
The small book that comes with the two CDs contains the libretto and excellent background reading, and everything is in French and English. The translations are mostly idiomatic, but occasionally a bit opaque when they settle for a word that looks the same as the French one (e.g., “to importune”). Also, one line is mistranslated (p. 121: “depuis l’enfance” means, in context, “since her childhood,” not “since my childhood”).
One mild annoyance: in the book’s essays and documents there are numerous brief allusions to figures and events in French history. Fortunately, a few minutes spent with an encyclopedia (or Wikipedia) will help dispel the mists.
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. The present review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and is used here by kind permission. Ralph Locke contributes to the online arts-magazines NewYorkArts.net, OperaToday.com, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer, and Musicology Now, the blog of the American Musicological Society.