Félicien David: Herculanum
Véronique Gens (Lilia) Karine Deshayes (Olympia), Edgaras Montvidas (Hélios), Nicolas Courjal (Nicanor/Satan), Julien Véronèse (Magnus), Flemish Radio Choir, Brussels Philharmonic, Hans van der Zanden (Chorus Master), Hérve Niquet (Conductor)
Recording: La Salle Fiocco de La Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium (February 24 to March 4, 2014) – 122’06
Ediciones Singulares # ES1020 – Book in French and English (Distributed by Naxos of America)
Though Félicien David had an ilk to join the Saint-Simon movement back in 1833 by fleeing to the Middle East in search of “Free Women”, the results turned up nothing. These egalitarian thinkers (including Berlioz) eventually dissipated, pointing David back to Paris to write musically about his journeys. His experiences opened doors, firstly his odes-symphoniques with the successful Le Déseret that would reveal additional acumen in the realm of opera. Thus, mystique permeated David’s works in varying degrees such as the heavy Persian flair housed within his opéra-comique Lalla Roukh of 1862, but it was Herculanum which placed weightier alignment towards French grand opéra replete with Italianate stylization (specifically Verdi) and lyrically fluent French lines.
Due to the immensity of the work, Herculanum was broadly well-received, a story of good and evil: Christians and Romans intertwined with power, greed, chastity, lust and vengeance. The emotional entanglement is energized top to bottom by a supreme cast and their relentless pursuit of par excellence. Hervé Niquet’s reflections offer exquisite shadings with grand perfection.
Possessed with a creamy, powerful voice Véronique Gens anchors the work as a stabilizer of goodness in her attempt to dissuade fellow Christian (unspoken lover), Hélios (Edgaras Montvidas), from falling into the hands of a debauched and seductive Herculanum queen, Olympia. Ms. Gens’ musical stature never overwhelms, yet it yields compelling forces of living a persona with fervor, conviction and stature inébranable. Her voice carries angelic endeavors (ref: Faust’s “Anges pures” from Act V), particularly in the incisive “Credo” (Act III.) Most convincing a dialogue commences (ahead of the coup de théâtre) in “Viens! La mort, qui nous purife” that pairs her in arresting display of forgiving remarks by Montvidas: the immeasurable duet is moving and poignant…drama at its best.
Karin Deshayes’ Olympia nicely exposes the machinations of temptation and provocative suggestions especially when it comes to her richly brocaded mezzo voice. Her tessitura falls into a comfortable range suitable to tackle some tricky passages with segments of French coloratura. The most ravishing example of Ms. Deshaye’s pliable vocalization comes within Act I, “Bois ce vin, que l’amour donne”, demonstrating flouncy cadences and remarkable octave jumps. Her love duet with Hélios in Act I (“Je veux aimer toujours”) delicately depicts the amorous enshrinement that later repeats itself in fragments to create continuing tension and argument.
Down the street at the Théâtre-Lyrique, Charles Gound was readying to premiere his most memorable opéra, Faust, a mere 15 days after Herculanum’s opening. One can’t help but connect the two in melodic structure and loose storyline. Julien Véronèse portends an authoritative Magnus (through David’s rather uneventful notes) in order to express power of a prophet. In contrast, his nemesis, Satan, is reincarnated through Olympia’s brother, Nicanor, sung magnetically by bass Nicolas Courjal. David wrote this audacious voice that carries with it much more Verdi force than French refinement. Mr. Courjal, with his virile, masculine timbre, draws us deeper into any abyss of doom, particularly sweeping in the choral interplay (now Satan) with the slaves from Act IV (“Amis, marchons!”) and its sense of rallying freedom and momentum similarly found within Verdi’s “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore.
Within the opera’s celestial core, a quaking earth lays foundation of imminent doom via geologic Mount Vesuvius rumblings through booming percussion from the Brussels Philharmonic. This lands eventual demise to a troubled, lustful contingent by a crumbling temple. This footprint glances at Auber’s La Muette di Portici (1828) with anticipations of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila (1877.)
Incorporation of the Flemish Radio Choir serves as a conduit to entrée, bathe and condition the principals onstage. David incisively uses choral remarks in between discourses. The Brussels Philharmonic’s clarion brass introduction folds into a brilliant “Marche” bearing uncanny resemblance to Aida’s “Triumphal March.” Closing Act I Olympia and her entourage mock the Christian prophet during the “Brindisi” with Hérve’s attentive stretta detailing: the framework and chord selection parallels to Faust’s “La Brise légère.” Additionally, the Flemish Radio Choir mollifies the listener inside a lovely a cappella apportionment of “Roi du ciel.”
Those who cherish mid-19th century French opera will quickly discern Herculanum is a “must have” in their collection. Fabulous from start to finish.
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Ediciones Singulares’ ”Portraits” Volume 2: Works by Théodore Dubois
Palazzetto Bru Zane Website