Louis-Ferdinand Hérold: Le Pré aux clercs
Marie-Eve Munger (Isabelle de Montal), Marie Lenormand (Marguerite de Navarre), Jeanne Crousaud (Nicette), Michael Spyres (Mergy), Eric Huchet (Cantarelli), Christian Helmer (Girot), Emiliano González Toro (Comminge), Leandro César (Le brigadier), Manuel Rebelo (Officer of the Watch), Tiago Batista, Nuno Fonseca (Archers), Gulbenkian Chorus and Orchestra, Jorge Matta (Chorus Master), Paul McCreesh (Conductor)
Recording: The Grande Auditorium of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal (April 7-8, 2015) – 121’ 56
2CDs Ediciones Singulares ES 1025 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Book in French and English
Le Pré aux clercs, Louis-Ferdinand Hérold’s most popular opéra-comique, was a pivotal bridge in expanding the genre which moved well into the end of the nineteenth century. Heavily influenced by Italy’s operatic stirrings after winning the Prix de Rome, Hérold’s music, though undeniably encased within a predominance of Rossini, nonetheless, unfetters itself by incorporating a French predilection: uncomplicated melodies and harmonies, though Le Pré aux clercs is far from facile.
Two companies took the Wars of Religion into theatre houses with divergent productions: first was the creation by the opéra-comique, housing stock characters and royal subjects, folded into what was then called the “Historical” vaudeville; second, was the grand opéra, delving into the contentious storyline in stern fashion that was found within Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots in 1836.
Despite Eugène de Planard’s relatively pensive libretto, ironically, Hérold’s musical interpretation is generally light with plenty of spoken dialogue that’s connected by airs, ensembles and choral numbers. Adding to the clandestine complexity, Hérold weaves together three love stories, cutting through all social classes.
The rôles of Mergy and Isabelle, undeniably, are the main focal point. Michael Spyres’ buttery, affected and clarion delivery closely resembles that of Juan Diego Flórez while Marie-Eve Munger expresses her character with thoughtful eloquence…her crowning moment comes inside Act II’s air (“Jours de mon enfance”) with her soft-spoken warmth, well-controlled register, laced with a minimally steely outline in the top notes. This dialogue-cum-violin brings about wistful reminders of Meyerbeer’s “Dolci alberghi di pace” from Margherita d’Anjou (1820)... a pinnacle number within Hérold’s music.
Eric Huchet tempers the serious equation as a type-casted Commedia dell’arte Arlecchino which he brilliantly meddles as a “go-between” as Cantarelli. The same can be said about the Columbina Italianate personality when it comes to dissecting Marguerite’s goddaughter, Nicette. Hérold’s sassy soubrette is satisfyingly tendered by Jeanne Crousaud, particularly when she sings her showcase rondo, “A la fleur du bel âge.” The ambiguous fioratura is unblemished and becoming for her character. Similarly, her betrothed, Girot, here sung by Christian Helmer, shines with appropriated degree of confidence and condescension. Vocal-wise, Emiliano González Toro’s Comminge (by royal decree as, unquestionably, the man to lead Isabelle de Montal to the altar) is a bit pallid, thereby diluting the tension amongst the love pairs.
Hérold’s music is pithy and quixotic, well suited to fit within de Planard’s writings. Le Pré aux clercs hints at Donizetti, Auber and even anticipates Charles Gounod. Merely looking at this in historical context, Hérold’s influences have been unremarkably publicized into today's world even though the opera scored over 1,600 performances during a span of 117 years since its opening in 1832...more credit should be due to this man in furthering the overall development of opéra-comique.
The Gulbenkian Orchestra, led by Paul McCreesh continually pumps through the score with magnified nuances and careful diction. Le Pré aux clerc’s “Ouverture” is sparkly paced, the flutes particularly piquant and atop the world. Standard recipe in opéra-comique the Choir, under Jorge Matta’s direction, is energetic with the opening anticipating works by Charles Lecocq, particularly that of La Fille de Madame Angot (1872.)
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