An excellent new recording of a key French opera
Kicek&Brys | USA/UK | 10/27/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"At last! A modern recording of a key opera in musical history. Wagner described Cherubini's "Les Deux Journees" (1800) as "one of the standard works in any well-organized opera repertoire". It was greatly admired by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Goethe. Its blend of domestic comedy and heroic sacrifice had an enormous influence on Beethoven's "Fidelio", and Weber and Wagner were inspired by its powerful orchestration and early use of 'leitmotivs'. But for some reason this work fared badly in the twentieth century. There was a very good BBC radio recording under Sir Thomas Beecham with Janine Micheau from the 1940s, and a live German version with Fritz Wunderlich in the 1960s, but nothing since. In spite of the obvious quality of its music, the opera has sunk into the neglect from which almost all Cherubini's stage works, except the ubiquitous "Medee", seem to have suffered. So this fine new recording is very welcome news indeed for Francophile opera fans.Cherubini arrived in Paris just before the outbreak of the French Revolution and his operas of the 1790s might be seen to trace the history of that turbulent decade. "Lodoiska" (1791) is full of the early hopes of revolutionary liberation; "Eliza" (1794), with its Swiss local colour, reflects the growing sense of national identity in Europe; "Medee" (1797) is a horrific depiction of the bloodbath the Revolution had become. "Les Deux Journees" (1800) might be seen as a sigh of relief and a plea for reconciliation between the classes. Based on a real life contemporary incident, but diplomatically relocated to the seventeenth century to avoid the censor, it tells the tale of a noble Parisian parliamentarian, Armand, escaping the clutches of the tyrannical Cardinal Mazarin with the help of a Savoyard water carrier, Mikeli, who manages to smuggle him past Mazarin's guards in one of the barrels on his cart. The opera was an immediate popular and critical success. The water carriers of Paris were certainly pleased with it - so much so that they rewarded the composer with a year's free water supply!Those used to "Medea" or the Requiem and expecting Cherubini's music to be monumental, imposing and austere will be surprised at how catchy and charming much of this score is. For this work, the composer deliberately made his style more popular and direct. As well as its impact on the German Romantics, it also had a big influence on later - and lighter - French operas comiques by Boieldieu and Auber. There is great variety in the 80 minutes of music on offer here - the driving, Beethovenian overture; strophic, ballad-like arias; heroic, Gluckian duets; a wedding chorus and dance; menacing soldiers' choruses and marches. My favourite number though is the wonderful 12-minute long ensemble at the end of Act One, with its skilful changes in pace and mood. The orchestration is very rich, as you would expect from a composer in the French tradition - the woodwind writing in particular is highly imaginative.The old Beecham recording had all the spoken dialogue, which is completely cut here. This is a shame as the libretto, though not a masterpiece, is solidly constructed and compact, and Cherubini skilfully integrated his music with the dialogue. Some of the melodramas (i.e. passages of speech over music) are also cut, further destroying the dramatic unity and making one element of Cherubini's influence on Beethoven harder to hear. In compensation, it all fits on one CD and we get the bonus of an alternative version of the famous overture plus a rediscovered number in Act 3 which sounds rather like an aria from one of Berlioz's early cantatas.The performance (on period instruments) is ably conducted and very well sung. Mireille Delusch, in the Leonore-like role of Armand's faithful wife Constance, is outstanding. Anyone who admired her in the title role of Marc Minkowski's recording of Gluck's "Iphigenie en Tauride" last year should explore this - she exhibits the same heroic ardour. My only complaint would be that the Act 3 bridal choruses and dances and the final joyful chorus of the opera don't sparkle as much as they do on the Beecham version. On the other hand the clean, transparent sound of the modern recording allows you to hear many details lost in the distortion on the old tapes. I hope Spering gets the chance to record more works by Cherubini - for instance, his opera-ballet "Anacreon" has a wonderful reputation but no recording is available.To my mind, this opera is more than just a date in the history books or a dusty old score of limited musical value. I really love this work. I hope this excellent new version will encourage others to appreciate this minor masterpiece too.(Brys)"
A New Lease on Life for a Once-Favorite Opera
Kicek&Brys | 10/24/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Here is an opera that was esteemed for a hundred years, applauded as a lynchpin of the repertory by no less than Wagner and paid the ultimate complement by Cherubini's greatest contemporary, Beethoven himself. When Beethoven decided to write a "rescue" opera, a genre that was all the rage during the Napoleonic Age, he looked to Cherubini's "Lodoiska" and especially "Les deux journees" for models. To a large extent, this explains the split personality of Beethoven's "Fidelio": why it starts as singspiel but ends in high drama. Cherubini's "Les deux journees" is itself a hybrid. As an example of opera comique, it incorporates spoken dialogue and melodrama--spoken word with musical accompaniment. This is a form of music that has not translated well into the modern era, some survivors that are still heard today being Beethoven's wonderful "Egmont" and Schumann's not-quite-so-wonderful "Manfred." Besides this, "Les deux journees," the perfect "republican" opera, makes a hero of a common man, a water-carrier of Savoy named Mikeli, who saves a French count and countess from death. Just as it mixes the social classes, the opera melds the simple strophic song of opera comique (singspiel is the German equivalent) with more high-flown "operatic" music in the recitatives and arias.With all of this going for it, or rather against it, no wonder we never hear "Les deux journees" today, right? Then why did so many good musicians, and an adoring public, think so highly of it for so many years? For one thing, the music. There may be no arias the equal of "Abscheulischer!" or "Ach! welch dunkel hier!" but there is a passionate duo for the count and countess (shades of "Namenlose Freude") followed by a commanding Act I finale. And Act II starts with a highly atmospheric entr'acte, leading to a chorus of soldiers that is pure opera. It ends with a finale whose march tune was snappy enough to be appropriated by Hummel a few years later for the rondo of his popular Trumpet Concerto. (I don't know how Cherubini felt about this.) Act III begins with a an equally beguiling chorus of young townswomen. Toss in an air or two memorable enough to be included in the repertory of singers within recent memory (such as Fritz Wunderlich), plus an overture of Beethovenian grandeur and nobility, and you have some reasons for the opera's staying power--at least until the beginning of the twentieth century. Add to this the fact that at one time the storyline--sappy to us jaded folk in the 21st century, but then what opera libretto isn't?--must have had great currency. Wolfgang von Goethe, who had a pretty good handle on dramaturgy, said the libretto by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly was one of the only ones he knew that could stand alone, without the music.That's probably ultimately the trouble with "Les deux journees" for modern audiences. People who go to the opera go for the music. They don't want to hear folks shouting at each other across the stage for ten minutes at a stretch without musical accompaniment. Less do they want to hear folks jabbering away while the orchestra plays in the background like an overly prominent movie soundtrack. Then, too, Cherubini made a serious error in musical judgment. The high point of the drama, Mikeli's cliff-hanger rescue of the couple, is delivered purely in dialogue (left out of this recording). In the best republican fashion, the opera ends with a short, simple, and utterly forgettable ensemble piece. But even that shouldn't doom a work with so many musical virtues.All of this is by way of saying thanks, then, to Christoph Spering and Opus 111 for giving us a chance to hear this opera in a fresh, enthusiastic performance that seems to do it full justice. Of the singers assembled for the recording, Yann Beuron and Mireille Delunsch make a noble count and countess, Andreas Schmidt an immediately likeable Mikeli, and the other roles are well handled, too (though the youthful Antonio needs a fresher voice and steadier intonation than Etienne Lescroart brings to the role). The chorus and the excellent period-instrument orchestra give their all to the performance as well. The recorded sound is first-rate.Spering does away with the spoken dialogue for this performance. One critic I've read opines that this makes the drama hard to follow, which it probably does. But then I've come for the music and am fully satisfied with the result."