and colour. QED: on every level, a glorious achievement. Richard Bratby
Messager Passionément Véronique Gens sop �Ketty Stevenson Étienne Dupuis bar �Robert Perceval Nicole Car sop �Julia Éric Huchet ten �William Stevenson Chantal Santon Jeffery sop �Hélène Le Barrois Armando Noguera bar �Harris Munich Radio Orchestra / Stefan Blunier Bru Zane F BZ1044 (76’ • DDD) Recorded live at the Prinzregententheater, Munich, December 11-13, 2020 Includes synopsis, libretto and translation
We owe this performance of Passionément to Covid‑19, as it happens. Bru Zane’s original intention was to give us the first recording of Saint-Saëns’s Déjanire (1911), to be made live in concert in Munich last December. Pandemic restrictions, however, prevented the performance of what is ultimately a large-scale tragédie lyrique, so Messager’s 1926 comédie musicale, with a short running time (under the stipulated hour and a half without dialogue) and needing only a small orchestra and six singers (there’s no chorus), was performed and recorded in its place. Of the original Déjanire cast, only Véronique Gens and Chantal Santon Jeffery found their way into the musical, though orchestra and conductor remained the same.
Passionément deals with Prohibition-era Americans losing their inhibitions on a trip to France, and its plot centres on the unscrupulous magnate Stevenson, who arrives in Deauville with his wife Ketty in an attempt to swindle the dashing Robert Perceval out of an oil-rich estate the latter has inherited. Thinking every Frenchman will automatically have designs on his wife, Stevenson demands that Ketty disguise herself as an older, less attractive woman, but when Robert encounters her without her wig and glasses she poses as her own niece and the two begin an affair, aided and abetted by the Stevensons’ servants Julia and Harris, but to the alarm of Robert’s married aristocratic mistress Hélène Le Barrois. While his wife discovers passion, meanwhile, Stevenson discovers alcohol, which sets him on the road to moral recovery.
It’s a less abrasive work than you might think from a brief summary of the plot,
thanks to the vein of bittersweet sadness Messager brings to his depiction of the relationship between Robert and Ketty, who fall in love with each other on the understanding that their liaison must of necessity be brief. Until we reach the twist that signals a happy ending, Messager charts its course with swaying waltzes and reflective songs that suggest their growing awareness that its pleasures can only fade. It’s beguiling music thrown into relief by Stevenson’s sardonic couplets, the knowing, at times risqué wit of Julia and Harris, worldly wise ex-lovers themselves, and Hélène’s darker expressions of jealousy.
Unlike some musicals, it sits comfortably for operatic voices, largely because Messager saw the musical itself as a development or extension of opéra comique. There’s some fine singing here. Gens and Étienne Dupuis sound lovely in their scenes together, and his restrained ardour in the ‘Passionément’ waltz that gives the work its title is wonderfully seductive. Following early performance tradition, Éric Huchet adopts an American accent as Stevenson, and preens and swaggers arrogantly until the consumption of three bottles of champagne changes his opinions and his ways. Santon Jeffery sings with suitable hauteur as Hélène, while Nicole Car has fun with Julia’s bawdy couplets, all the better for being done straight rather than overtly suggestively. Armando Noguera has too little to do but sounds svelte as Harris. There’s stylish playing from the Munich Radio Orchestra, while conductor Stefan Blunier teases out all the subtleties of Messager’s beautiful instrumentation. The omitted dialogue is included in the accompanying book, and what you hear makes infinitely greater sense if you read it through before you listen. Tim Ashley
Rameau Acante et Céphise Sabine Devieilhe sop �Céphise Cyrille Dubois ten �Acante David Witczak bar �Oroès Judith van Wanroij sop �Zirphile Jehanne Amzal sop �Grand Priestess Artavazd Sargsyan ten �Coryphée/Shepherd Arnaud Richard bass-bar �Coryphée/Huntsman Marine Lafdal-Franc sop �Fairy/Shepherdess Anne-Sophie Petit sop �Second Priestess Floriane Hasler mez �Third Priestess Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles; Les Ambassadeurs – La Grande Écurie / Alexis Kossenko Erato F b 9029 66939-4 (130’ • DDD) Includes synopsis, libretto and translation
The pastoralehéroïque Acante et Céphise – the first name misprinted
‘Achante’ in the composer’s uncorrected first proof of the printed score – was originally produced at the Académie Royale de Musique (the original Paris Opéra) in 1751 during celebrations of the birth of the Duke of Burgundy (grandson of Louis XV), but after a run of 14 performances it was never revived. Based on Middle Eastern myths that convey more than a whiff of Freemasonry akin to The Magic Flute, the librettist Jean François Marmontel added the alternative title La sympathie (‘Empathy’). This refers to the telepathic powers of talismanic bracelets given by the benign fairy Zirphile to the lovers Acante and Céphise, so that they can sense each other’s emotions even when separated, and it helps them to endure trials and torture by the malevolent genie Oroès (who lusts after Céphise). The journey of initiation and overcoming trials ends with Zirphile announcing the birth of a Bourbon hero – the splendid celebrations of the extended finale already evident from the outset of the opera’s astonishing Overture, its sections labelled ‘The Wishes of the Nation’ (a solemn invocation), ‘Tocsin’ (an alarm bell), ‘Fireworks’ (featuring thumping cannon fire for extra realism and blaring horns), and ‘Fanfare’ (quoting the acclamation ‘Long live the king’). On the subtler end of musical notability, the score contains the earliest surviving clarinet parts in French opera. Ballets are integrated more than usual into the plot, a pair of piquant musettes play in a pastoral divertissement (Act 2 scene 4), and an ebullient hunting divertissement (Act 2 scene 6) has beguiling wind band dances that exploit four horns and the clarinets in ways that foreshadow later Viennese Harmoniemusik.
The critical Rameau Opera omnia edition by Sylvie Bouissou and Robert Fajon was published in 1998 but has waited until now to be performed. Alexis Kossenko and Les Ambassadeurs ambitiously replicate the constitution, layout and low pitch (approximately A=400) of the Paris Opéra orchestra in the 1750s: among the 53 players are four flutes, four oboes, four bassoons and nine cellos; two specialist holeless trumpeters double up on horns; six players across the
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