Tuesday 16 April 2013

Cherubini - Lodoiska - CD review

Cherubini Lodoiska - Naive AM 209
By one of those curious workings of fate Lodoiska, a French opera by an Italian composer, is best known today for the influence it had on a German composer, Beethoven. Luigi Cherubini's Lodoiska was premiered in Paris in 1791. It proved popular and was premiered in other cities, with performances in Berlin in 1797 and Vienna in 1802. Such was its success in Vienna, that three other operas by Cherubini were performed. We know that Beethoven had scores of other operas by Cherubini, and it is clear that the composer must have seen Lodoiska, such is the influence of both plot and style on Beethoven's opera Fidelio. Despite its influence, Lodoiska has not featured much in the record catalogues, Cherubini's preference for using spoken dialogue perhaps putting performers off. This new recording, (naive ambroisie AM 209) the first on period instruments, is complete (with a small amount of spoken dialogue) recorded live in 2010 by the French ensemble, Le Cercle de l'Harmonie with Les Elements and a cast consisting of Nathalie Manfrino, Hjordis Thebault, Sebastian Gueze, Philippe Do, Armando Noguera, Pierre-Yves Pruvot and Alain Buet, conducted by Jeremie Rhorer.

Luigi Cherubini (1760 - 1842) was born in Florence. He was something of a prodigy and trained in Bologna with Giuseppe Sarti (a disciple of Padre Martini). He wrote operas for Italian opera houses and his reputation was such the he wrote two operas for London, visiting there in 1784 and being presented to the Prince of Wales (the future George IV). Cherubini settled in Paris in 1786 and his first French opera, Demophon was premiered in 1788 at the Paris Opera (the Academie Royale de Musique). This was a fully fledged tragedie lyrique with no spoken dialogue, unfortunately it got caught up in the on-going conflict between supporters of Gluck and supporters of Piccini as to exactly what French opera really ought to be. Cherubini seems to have decided to side-step the problem, because for his second opera Lodoiska he wrote an opera with spoken dialogue.  Though Lodoiska is an opera-comique it was in fact premiered not at the Opera Comique but by another company at the Theatre Feydeau. The opera was described by its authors as a comedie heroique. It was a success, it was performed 200 times in one year and effectively established Cherubini's reputation. He would never write another tragedie lyrique, sticking with spoken dialogue for the remainder of his operas.

The plot has its barmy elements. The action takes place in 17th century Poland. Lodoiska is in love with Floreski, but her father disapproves of Floreski's politics. So Lodoiska is entrusted to Dourlinski, who has locked her up with a view to marrying her. Lodoiska's father has subsequently died without ever telling Floreski where she is, so Floreski and his valet Varbel are wandering around Poland trying to find her. This is where the action of the opera starts.

Act one opens with the leader of a group of Tartars (!), Titzikan (Philippe Do), about to launch an attack on the castle of his enemy Doulinski (who happens to be the man who has Lodoiska locked up). Floreski (Sebastien Gueze) and his servant Varbel (Armando Noguera) appear. Floreski fights a duel with Titzikan and they then swear an oath of loyalty to each other. Stones are thrown from the castle, catching Floreski's attention, it is Lodoiska (Nathalie Manfino). Floreski and Varbel decide to enter the castle pretending to be Lodoiska's brothers.

Act two takes place inside the castle. Altamoras, Dourlinski's confidant (Alain Buet) moves Lodoiska and her nurse (Hjordis Thebault) to a dark gallery. Lodoiska is full of hope having seen Floreski again, but Dourlinski (Pierre Yves Pruvot) says he will marry her by force. Dourlinski receives Floreski and Varbel, despite his mistrust he agrees to put them up for the night. The two fool a plot to drug them but the act ends with Dourlinski reappearing and taking them prisoner.

Act three sees Dourlinski using Floreski as a tool to put pressure on Lodoiska. She offers to take Floreski's place. She resolves to die with Floreski. They are saved by Titzikan and the Tartars who take Dourlinski and Altamoras prisoner. Love Triumphs.

The plot is clearly a development of the Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, but rendered somewhat more melodramatic. Cherubini has balanced this melodrama by writing terrific dramatic ensembles, there is also an heroic cast to his music which I can only describe as Beethovenian. There is still the neoclassical austerity to the writing  familiar from Medee and which is not at all Italianate, but you can also hear a distinct link between the sound world of Cherubini's orchestral writing, and that of Beethoven. This is something that Jeremie Rhorer and le Cercle de l'Harmonie bring out, their playing of the score is full of brilliant contrasts and they clearly relish the extremes of drama which Rhorer encourages in them.

Unfortunately, like Beethoven's Leonore and the heroic roles in Weber's opera, Lodoiska must be a bugger to cast. The piece requires a soprano and two tenors who can combine flexibility with power. The opera opens with a dramatic aria for Titzikan which clearly pushes Philippe Do's voice to its limit. Wisely, he does not press his voice and though taxed by the writing and sounding rather strenuous at times, does convey the drama well.

Act one is devoted to male voices almost exclusively, there is a trio and a quartet (for Do, Gueze and Noguera), both dramatic, heroic and rather terrific. Noguera as Varbel gets two solo numbers, he is the comic servant and is extremely charming. Of the soloists, Noguera is the one who comes out best as his role is not heroic, quite the opposite. Gueze does not get a solo number in this act, we hear him only in relation to everyone else. The act concludes with an extended finale where Cherubini brings on Lodoiska for the first time in what is quite an aurally dramatic coup, though the finale itself ends on a rather odd dying fall.

Act two opens with a big aria for Manfrino, a dramatic accompagnato followed by a two part aria, a lovely slow section then a fast dramatic one. Manfrino's performance raised rather conflicting emotions in me. Whilst dramatically she is credible and excellent, her voice does let her down. In the slow section her very noticeable vibrato rather compromises the long notes and in the fast section she sounds uneven and perhaps a bit squally. This impression is continued through her dramatic duet with Pruvot.

Cherubini again shows his skill with ensembles as we have a superb quartet with chorus for Manfrino, Thebault, Noguera and Buet plus chorus with repeated thunderings of Obeissez from Noguera. This is followed by a quieter, more thoughtful trio for Noguera, Buet and Gueze, showing that Cherubini didn't just do heroics.

When Gueze finally does get a solo aria, he seems to be rather taxed by it. His singing fails to match up to the heroic cast which Rohrer gives the orchestral music, particularly the rather striking use of horns. This is a problem throughout the opera, the singers fail to quite match the instrumentalists in the heroic intensity of their performance, the music clearly taxing them. 

Act two concludes with an extended dramatic sequence which is the closest we come to through composed writing in the whole opera. Act three is relatively compact. It opens with a pair of rather terrific arias, a gloating one for Pruvot and then one of defiance for Manfrino. A final quartet leads to a superb extended orchestral interlude describing the battle before the climax.

Though the work is performed with spoken dialogue this is cut to the bone, barely providing short breaks between the musical numbers. The CD booklet does not mention this, though it would be nice to have a summary of what we are missing.

As I have said, Rhorer and Le Cercle de l'Harmonie bring out the full drama of Cherubini's music and their performance is simply brilliant. Cherubini uses quite a large orchestra (double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets and trombone) and Rhorer gives them their head. The choir, Les Elements, provide fine support though their role is always secondary.

The beautifully produced CD booklet includes three different articles about Cherubini and Lodoiska which help to fill the background for the work, plus full text and translations.

There is a 1991 recording of the work (currently only available as an import), made live at La Scala with Riccardo Muti conducting. Whilst this uses modern instruments and has, I gather, poor French diction, it does include more of the spoken dialogue and has stronger principals in Mariella Devia and Bernard Lombardo.

Lodoiska is an important work in musical history, and Rhorer shows in this performance that it can work dramatically and certainly deserves to be heard. He makes a terrific case for hearing the work performed on period instruments and the symphonic cast of Cherubini's music responds to his approach. I would however like to hear it performed with more of the spoken dialogue. But my principal reservation must go to the singers who, despite some heroic efforts, do not match the discipline and intensity of the instrumentalists. This is an important recording, and one that many people with rightly want. But it is not the last word in recordings of this opera, though I suspect we will have to wait some time for another one.

Luigi Cherubini (1760 - 1842) - Lodoiska (1791) [109.33]
Lodoiska - Nathalie Manfrino (soprano)
Lysinka - Hjordis Thebault (mezzo-soprano)
Floreski - Sebastien Gueze (tenor)
Titzikan - Philippe Do (tenor)
Varbel - Armando Noguera (baritone)
Dourlinski - Pierre-Yves Pruvot (baritone)
Altmoras - Alain Buet (bass baritone)
A Tartar, first emissary - Pierre Virly (baritone)
Second Emissary - Antonio Guirao-Valverde (bass-baritone)
A Tartar, third emissary - Cyrille Gautreau (bass-baritone)
Les Elements
Le Cercle de l'Harmonie
Jeremie Rhorer (conductor)

Recorded live at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice 13 October 2010 and the Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, 15, 16 October 2010
nave ambroisie AM209 2 Cd's [49.33, 60.00]

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