Thursday 23 April 2015

The French Connection - Piotr Beczala in French 19th century opera

The French Connection - Piotra Beczala
Massenet, Berlioz, Verdi, Boieldieu, Gounod, Bizet; Piotr Beczala, Diana Damrau, Orchestre de l'opera national de Lyon, Alain Altinoglu; Deutsche Grammophon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 Mar 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Modified rapture for Piotr Beczela's all French album

I have to confess that my heart sinks when I see another CD of French 19th century operatic tenor arias. Styles of singing French operatic music have changed enormously in the last 100 years. The CD booklet for this new disc from Piotr Beczala talks about the negative reaction when Georges Thill sang Massenet's Werther at the New York Met and used a voix mixte rather than full chest for the climactic top C. So somewhere along the line we have lost a general feel for the style needed to sing this music. Not so much the lyric repertoire, but the more dramatic where Italianate technique with its open vowels and pushed-up Verismo inspired chest registers can significantly falsify the sound. Yes, a great tenor in the repertoire is always thrilling and illuminating, but I usually want something more.

That it can be done is shown by a small group of post-war artists who have responded to the challenge, the CD's booklet article talks about Piotr Beczala responding to performances by Nicolai Gedda. And it shows, Nicolai Gedda and Alfredo Kraus were watchwords for style in this repertory, combining a modern technique with a feel for the style of the music which has to be based on a narrower focussed tone (none of those big wide-open top notes). More recently the tenor Ben Heppner released a disc of French arias in 2002 which showed exactly how a modern dramatic tenor can respond to these pieces.

The problem is that to make them work they often require a big voice, but rather different approach than Verdi's Otello. French composers expected their big voices to be narrow and to be able to move somewhat, and remain flexible. (If you want to hear what I am talking about, just listen to Aeneas's first entry in Berlioz's Les Troyens, it is high, loud and fast and can often come out like a shocked yelp). Another Polish tenor, the great Jean de Reszke (1850-1925) whose technique was largely French and who sang a lot of Meyerbeer, had the roles of Romeo in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette (Piotr Beczala sings Lever toi soleil on this disc) and Wagner's Siegfried and Tristan (roles of which Piotr Beczala would probably never dream) in his repertoire at the same time. It gives you a huge pause for thought, about how his ability to perform the one role might have reflected on the other.
On this new disc on Deutsche Grammophon, Piotr Beczala has chosen a repertoire which is highly traditional encompasses arias which are familiar from early tenor recitals but from operas which are no longer in the regular repertory though some, like Donizetti's La Favourite (in French) are coming back. So we have Massenet's Werther, and Le Cid, Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust and Beatrice et Benedict, Verdi's Don Carlos, Boildieu's La Dame Blanche, Donizetti's La Favorite, Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and Faust, Bizet's Carmen, Donizetti's Dom Sebastien, roi de Portugal and Massenet's Manon (with Diana Damrau), all accompanied by the Orchestre de l'opera national de Lyon conducted by Alain Altinoglu.

The problem comes when we listen to the arias in detail. On repeat listening it became apparent that having hit upon a suitable style, Piotr Beczala has simply stuck with it. There seems to be little differentiation or sense of character. Pourquoi me reveiller from Massenet's Werther is darkly passionate if rather generalised, but in O Souverain, o juge, o pere from the same composer's Le Cid then the general feel is the same. The two Berlioz arias just don't have sense of the ardency of the words. In fact the issue of the words kept coming back to me, so I listened to Viens, gentille dame from Boieldieu's La Dame Blanche blind, and though it was beautiful I found no sense of the ardent anxiety of the words. Perhaps the two Gounod items might be an improvement because Piotr Beczala has sung these a lot. And on the final item on the disc, N'est-ce plus ma main from Massenet's Manon, Piotr Beczala is joined by Diana Damrau who is more alert both to words, colour and character.

Throughout the disc Piotr Beczala is well supported by Alain Altinoglu and the Lyon orchestra. There is indeed much to enjoy on this disc, and it is heartening that Piotr Beczala has thought so much about style but we need more colour and character.

Jules Massenet (1842-1912) - Pourquoi me reveiller (Werther) [3.06]
Jules Massenet (1842-1912) - O Souverain, o juge, o pere (Le Cid) [5.26]
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) - Merci, doux crepuscule (La damnation de Faust) [5.25]
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) - Ah! je vais l'aimer (Beatrice et Benedict) [3.01]
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) - Fontainebleau! Foret immense (Don Carlos) [4.54]
Francois-Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834) - Viens, gentille dame (La Dame blanche) [9.15]
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) - Ange si pur (La Favorite) [3.48]
Charles Gounod (1818-1893) - Ah! leve-toi, soleil! (Romeo et Juliette) [4.40]
Charles Gounod (1818-1893) - Salut! demeure chaste et pure (Faust) [5.06]
Georges Bizet (1838-1875) - La fleur que tu m'avais jetee (Carmen) [4.43]
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) - Ange celeste (Dom Sebastien) [5.14]
Jules Massenet (1842-1912) - N'est-ce plus ma main (Manon) [8.03]
Piotr Beczala (tenor)
Diana Damrau (soprano)
Orchestre de l'opera national de Lyon
Alain Altinoglu (conductor)
DEUTSCHE GRAMOPHON 479 4101 1CD [62.1]

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