Subject: I have found a CD that I think you would enjoy
|Etienne Nicolas Mehul, William Christie, Patricia Petibon|
Méhul - Stratonice / Petibon · Beuron · Lescoart · Daymond · Corona Coloniensis · Cappella Coloniensis · Christie
Fascinating rarity from a sadly neglected composer
Kicek&Brys | USA/UK | 01/14/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In 1816, the great German writer and music critic E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote of Mehul's operas: "Serious, dignified, harmonically rich and thoughtfully fashioned, they should not be allowed to disappear from the stage". Sadly however, Hoffmann's advice was not followed in the twentieth century and nowadays they have vanished almost completely, despite being admired by (and influencing) Beethoven, Wagner, Berlioz and Weber. French opera in general has been rather neglected on disc compared to its German and Italian counterparts, and whole areas have been left to gather dust on the shelves. The era between the retirement of Gluck and the emergence of Berlioz (roughly 1780 - 1825) has been particularly badly ignored, really only represented in the mainstream repertoire by Cherubini's "Medee" in a mangled Italian version which attempts to turn it into a bel canto opera. Now, with the appearance of "Stratonice", Francophiles at last have the chance to hear a real rarity.
Etienne Nicolas Mehul, along with his friend Luigi Cherubini, was the most important French composer of the Revolutionary era. "Stratonice", a one-act work from 1792, is a short example of the most popular genre of the time, 'opera comique' (though this work is not in the least bit comic - the phrase simply means it has spoken dialogue, and rather a lot of it, between the arias). The story, set in ancient Syria, concerns Prince Antiochus, who is secretly in love with his father the king's, fiancee, Stratonice. The king can't understand why his son is pining away but the canny doctor, Erasistratus, finds out the truth and everything is resolved happily. Mehul was a pupil of Gluck and the older composer's influence clearly shows in the cool, classical chorus which opens the work. But he was also the first composer to be described as a Romantic and his music is often a lot less balanced and more wayward and stormy than Gluck's, as can be heard in the next piece, Antiochus's tortured monologue, where the music follows the prince's changing moods from resignation to suicidal despair. The most impressive movement is a big ensemble (praised by Berlioz), some 15 minutes long, which starts as a duet, then builds to a trio, ending up as a quartet between all four soloists. Mehul's orchestration was famous for its originality and examples of his imaginative scoring are not hard to find- the orchestra is cut down to just the cellos for the trio in the ensemble; the dark, brooding woodwind in the middle section of Antiochus's monologue sounds almost like Rameau but the rushing strings which precede it look forward almost thirty years to "Der Freischuetz". In fact, Mehul had a big influence on Weber and the early Berlioz and it's intriguing to come across those influences here.
So all in all, a fascinating discovery by a sadly neglected composer who deserves to be heard more (his symphonies, which have been recorded by several conductors, are also well worth seeking out). Christie conducts a punchy period ensemble and the cast is young and fresh (though the two tenors, father and son, sound confusingly alike). Patricia Petibon and Yann Beuron are now rising stars (Beuron was particularly good in Minkowski's "Iphigenie en Tauride" last year). Finally, the packaging, with its cover by Ingres apparently inspired by this very opera, is some of the most beautiful I have ever come across. Recommended to adventurous lovers of French or early Romantic opera."
Mehul's greatest opera on record - a great opera by any stan
Dexter Tay | 01/31/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Is it not difficult to imagine Mehul's slightly older colleague Cherubini's ardent admiration for this very fine opera, as evident from the overt influence that it held for the latter's Medee, written half a decade later and Les Deux Journees in 1800 (which was to provide seminal influence to Beethoven's Fidelio). The colour of orchestration, employed at the service of dramatic impact over smooth melodic lines, albeit never turning ugly at any point and maintaining the graceful poise of classical antiquity (which provided in the first place, the subject of the opera) must have been groundbreakingly felt at its premiere in 1792.
French opera thus took a very different approach from say, its Italianate contemporary personified by Paisiello and Cimarosa and even Mozart (who was said to have turned completely Italian by the time of writing Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutti). Italian classical opera was predominantly "buffa" in character, testified by Napoleon's own predilection of the genre over Mehul's "opera comique", which he deemed too profound and "German" for his taste.
It's not difficult to imagine Stratonice as the supreme masterpiece of Mehul, even though it was written fairly early in his operatic career. The music itself is not extensive, considering the relatively longer sequences of spoken dialogue in the opera (thereby accentuating the brilliant quality of the music). The title heroine does not even relish a solo aria of her own, perhaps partially a deliberate attempt of Mehul to mock the compulsion of his Italian counterparts to craft mellifluous arias to the effect of showcasing the virtuosic capabilities of reigning prima donnas, to prosaic excessiveness often seen in the works of say Salieri.
Mehul had in all respects, restored the dignity of classical drama to the opera ideal in Stratonice. In line with this ideal was Ariodant composed some years later, which remains incomprehensibly unrecorded over the years.
While liner notes mention the popularity of "Quelle funeste envie!", it is through the powerful Recitative & Aria "Insensé, je forme des souhatis" that one gains a sustained appreciation of Mehul's dramatic genius. His signature use of trombones and cello for dark dramatic impact and the ingenuity of the writing for winds manifest itself here. The building and regulation of dramatic tension through carefully measured pauses and the undulating orchestration that depicts the unfathomable despair of Antiochus is portrayed like second to none, with the ebb and tides of emotion leading so seamlessly from one to another. A calm and pastoral middle section offers respite, reflection and yearning while flanked by the turbulent outer sections. This dramatic richness of the penetration into the psyche of Antiochus is perhaps only matched by the portrayal of Medee by Cherubini.
"Insensé, je forme des souhatis", the longest and most impressive aria in the opera that in its approximately eight and a half minutes run time, is never a second too long. The fascinating vacillations in harmonic colour wonderfully maintains a taut cohesiveness that binds the listener to Antiochus' theme of despair, partly through the use of rhythmic motifs. Perhaps a fervent response to and reflection of the brooding and uncertain times of the contemporaneous Revolution, the dark sublimity of its late classical language, with its autumnal hues and wintery inflections, is in most likelihood, an unheard sui generis in any of Mehul's contemporaries. It is also likely to be an achievement that is not replicated or scaled in equal heights by any of his compositions thereafter, highly regarded by Mehul himself and by his esteemed colleague Cherubini.
Another aria deserving much admiration is "Je ne puis résister à mon impatience", showcasing Mehul's genius for blending lyrical cello writing with the voice.
The singing voices of the father (the king, sung by a tenor) and son (Antiochus, sung by a tenor-baritone) may seem curiously swapped, but perhaps Mehul (or Christie) had other considerations in mind (other than age alone) when matching the roles to their respective voice timbres (sprightly and optimistic for the king and sombre and deep for Antiochus).
Stratonice is definitely an opera of rare genius that unquestionably deserves a reissue and more performances."