A Delightful Gala in Paris Celebrating Gounod’s 200th Anniversary

FranceFrance Gounod Gala: Elsa Dreisig, Jodie Devos (sopranos), Kate Aldrich (mezzo-soprano), Yosep Kang (tenor), Patrick Bolleire (bass), Olivier Latry (organ), Orchestre National de France / Jesko Sirvend (conductor). Auditorium of the Maison de la Radio France, Paris, France, 16.6.2018. (CC)

Jodie Devos (soprano) & Kate Aldrich (mezzo) (c) Palezzetto Bru Zane/Gaelle Astier-Perret.

Gounod – Roméo et Juliette –- Act IV entr’acte and Drinking Scene: ‘Amour, ranime mon courage’; Sapho – ‘O ma lyre immortelle’; Faust – Ballet (Les Nubiennes, Les Troyennes, Danse de Phryné); La Reine de Saba – ‘Sous les pieds d’une femme’; Tobie – ‘Par la main de ce fils’; InvocationPhilémon et Baucis – ‘Ô riante nature’

Improvisation for organ on themes by Gounod: Cinq-Mars – Entr’acte symphonique; ‘Ô chère et vivante image’; Mireille – ‘Heureux petit berger’; ‘Ah! Parle encore’; Mors et Vita – ‘Oro supplex’; Epilogue

Part of the Palazzetto Bru Zane’s celebrations, which focus this year on Gounod and Reicha, this concert was performed on the eve of the 200th anniversary of Gounod’s birth. The concert was held at the Auditorium de Radio France, just near the Pont de Grenelle, a beautiful hall that supports the orchestra’s sound strongly and naturally. The Orchestre National de France, which boasts Emmanuel Krivine as its Principal Conductor since September 2017, was conducted by Jesko Sirvend, the winner of the 2015 Nikolai Malko competition. In 2017, Sirvend was appointed Assistant Conductor of the ONF. He is clearly a musician’s conductor: his gestures, if not the most eloquent, were always for a point and there was no trace of showmanship. That seemed to inspire respect in the orchestra, for the subdivided cellos in the Roméo Act IV entr’acte were simply sublime. The set-up included antiphonal violins, effective here; the later climax of the entr’acte was impassioned from all. The drinking song, ‘Amour, ranime mon courage’ was beautifully taken by the up-and-coming French-Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig. Her voice is dark and warm, and she imbues it with maximal drama. Importantly, she can not only soar with the orchestra in Gounod’s heavenly melodies, but she also has the low register. Her intelligence shone through in the details, notably a perfectly layered diminuendo over several phrases and some perfectly placed trills.

It was wonderful to hear the American mezzo Kate Aldrich in the Act III aria ‘O ma lyre immortelle’ from Sapho. Aldrich’s voice is beautifully burnished in its lower register; the harp contribution, courtesy of Émilie Gostaud, perfectly complemented Aldrich’s subtle shading of line. Dark trombones underlined the mood here, a perfect contrast to the outgoing Roméo et Juliette excerpt. It was interesting to hear the Faust ballet music thereafter (the first performance in modern times of the original version of that opera was just days before, on June 14 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées with Les Talens Lyriques under Rousset and a cast that included Véronique Gens as Marguerite). The well-known ‘Dance of the Nubian Slaves’ has a main theme that is internally imprinted with suavité, the orchestra’s violins here excellent. If the ONF does not quite have a fully burnished sound (think the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a good day), it has the perfect sense of style for this music, as they were to prove again in the second half in an ‘entr’acte symphonique’ from Cinq-Mars. The long-breathed melodies worked well in the ‘Dance of the Trojan Women’ (Les Troyennes), while ‘Phryne’s Dance’ had real power; perhaps some of those punched out rhythms could have had a touch more definition, though.

What a pleasure to hear the bass aria ‘Sous les pieds d’une femme,’ Soliman’s air from La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba). Patrick Bolleire has a commanding, huge voice – roles he has essayed previously are unsurprisingly the Commendatore, Sarastro and the Old Hebrew from Samson et Dalila. Bolleire’s clarity and his superb legato marked this out as a true highlight of the evening.

I was delighted that we heard the Quartet from the ‘petit oratorio’ Tobie, followed by the orchestral ‘Invocation’ (interesting, too, that one of the soloists opted not to use music – the tenor – while the others did.) Devos, Aldrich and Josep Kang joined Bolleire for the outpouring of the quartet before that three-minute, tender ‘Invocation’. Ending the first part with a captivating ‘O riante nature’ from Philémon et Baucis, Devos, in duet with the ONF’s agile first flute, proved what a perfect soubrette she is. (Incidentally, there is a lovely Victor recording, from around 1930, by Amelita Galli-Curci of this excerpt). Fresh, and with a delight that came from the rhythmic excellence of performance, this was an ideal end to a long first half.

A simply stunning organ improvisation, in contemporary organ style, by Olivier Latry was a fascinating beginning to the second half, a real tour-de-force, completely and utterly virtuoso and with some remarkable sounds, particularly an extended bass passage. The excerpts from Cinq-Mars speak of a dream of the Marquis de Cinq-Mars about Marie Ganzogue. The Korean tenor Yosep Kang was a bright, ardent protagonist in the cavatina ‘À vous, ma mère, à vous’, joined towards the end of the aria by a florid obbligato clarinet (the excellent Patrick Messina), and with piquant low reeds underlining the line ‘Voilà tes grands yeux noirs’. The piece is a masterpiece of French Romantic expression and was triumphantly given.

From Mireille we heard possibly its most famous excerpt, ‘Heureux petit berger’ given by Jodie Davos, who engaged perfectly with her audience. Her colleague in the brief Mireille/Vincenette duet (‘Ah! Parle encore!’) was Kate Aldrich, who entered before the close of Mireille’s song, a touch of opera in the concert hall. The chemistry between Davos and Aldrich was superb, as was the solo oboist.

It was an interesting idea to finish such an opera-dominated night with a piece of liturgical music, the Quartet (with Elsa Drreisig, soprano) from Mors et Vita, ‘Oro supplex,’ an outpouring of string-based emotion alternating with severe brass declamations.

A pity the lights were so low there was no chance of following the French text that was provided in the programme booklet. The music itself was revelation enough, one might argue, the entire concert a testimony to the jewels that comprise Gounod’s contribution to the French operatic legacy.

If one were to suggest recordings of operas heard this particular evening, the list would necessarily be highly subjective, and many recordings are hard to find, but for what it is worth here are some starting points: Roméo et Juliette, Björling, Sayão, Moscona, New York Met on Sony; Faust (the most subjective of all, perhaps) Plasson, EMI with Richard Leech, Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson; Mireille Warner Classics conducted by Plasson with the Toulouse Orchestra, Mirella Freni and José van Dam. Plasson and his Toulouse forces have also recorded the complete Mors et Vita, which spreads over two discs. Far harder to find may be the Cambreling recording of Sapho (on Rodolphe) or La Reine de Saba on Gala. (There is, however, a recording of Reine on Dynamic that claimed to be the first recording, conducted by Manlio Benzi). The oratorio Tobie was released by Marco Polo (with the Paris Sorbonne Orchetsra) while Malibran Music brought out a 1951 Geneva performance of Philémon et Baucis with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Isidore Karr. Look no further than Palazetto Bru Zane for a full, modern release of Cinq-Mars with the Munich Radio Orchestra under Ulf Schirmer (cast includes Véronique Gens).

The Palazzetto Bru Zane also offers a 24-hour web radio station, click here (‘La webradio de la musique romatique française’) and an astonishingly rich reference resource, click here. They have also published (with Actes sud) a new and complete edition of Gounod’s Mémoires d’un artiste. To experience such high-level music making in rare Gounod repertoire is life-enhancing indeed; how laudable to have, in addition, such supplemental material available to all.

Colin Clarke

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