Saturday 15 July 2017

Michael Spyres & Joyce El-Khoury in Auber, Halévy, Hérold, Donizetti & Rossini

Gilbert Duprez
Gilbert Duprez
Auber, Halévy, Hérold, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi; Joyce El-Khoury, Michael Spyres, the Hallé, Carlo Rizzi; Opera Rara at Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 14 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Rare mid-19th century French opera and superb singing in an evening from Opera Rara

In February, Opera Rara recorded a pair of recital discs with tenor Michael Spyres, soprano Joyce El-Khoury, the Hallé and conductor Carlo Rizzi exploring mid-19th century repertoire associated with the singers Gilbert Duprez and Julie Dorus-Gras (the discs are available exclusively on the Opera Rara website and on general release in September). On Friday 14 July 2017, the same forces assembled at Cadogan Hall to perform music from the CD, a celebration of repertoire rarely heard in London with extracts from operas by Auber, Halévy, Hérold, Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi.

The tenor Gilbert Duprez (1806-1896) is very much associated with the role of Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell, he was the first tenor to sing the top C using chest voice (essentially the start of the modern tenor sound), but he also created the role of Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor as well as performing in a number of operas by Auber and Halévy plus Verdi's Parisian debut, Jerusalem. Soprano Julie Dorus-Gras (1805-1896) had a somewhat parallel career, singing roles in operas by Meyerbeer and Halévy, and with Duprez she would sing in Halévy's Guido et Ginevra, Berlioz'  Benvenuto Cellini and Donizetti's Les Martyrs. Intriguingly she also sang the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, most notably in London when it was conducted by Berlioz!

Julie Dorus-Gras as Marguerite in Les Huguenots
Julie Dorus-Gras as Marguerite
in Les Huguenots
The concert thus gave us a chance to hear music which is rarely heard in London, French grand opera of the 1830s and 1840s. Whilst Opera Rara has been exploring Donizetti's engagement with this style of opera, recording Le duc d'Albe (see my review), and Les Martyrs (see my review of the CD and of the concert) with L'ange de Nisida to come, what we lack is a good overview of the French background to the style. Performances of operas by Auber and Halévy in London are rare indeed and there still seems a general lack of sympathy for, and understanding of the French grand opera style of the 1830s and 1840s.

We started with the overture to Manon Lescaut by Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber, premiered in 1856 well before the settings of the story by Massenet (1884) and Puccini (1893). It was full of imaginative effects, a solo horn call, a lyrical oboe melody, with a main theme akin to a galop. The result as attractively constructed, full of contrasts and not without charm.

Next came 'Venise, o ma patrie' from Rossini's Othello; Gilbert Duprez originally sang the role of Rodrigo in Rossini's Otello in Italy, but later in Paris he sang the title role in French versions of the opera, and the aria sung by Michael Spyres was Othello's entrance aria from this French version. The opening section did indeed make a spectacular opening, full of complex ornamentation yet sung with vibrant tone, firmness and evenness by Spyres, allied to a superb technique (and some fine top Ds, I think). The middle section was more lyrical, but no less complex; a real showpiece.

Joyce El-Khoury followed with one of Julie Dorus-Gras's break-out roles, Isabelle in Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le diable, and we heard the Cavatine 'Robert, toi qui j'aime'. Opening with two harps to the fore, and then a cor anglais solo, the work was full of lovely orchestral details. El-Khoury (who had been announced as suffering from a cold), sang affectingly with evocative almost tremulous tone. A highly effective piece, with combined showy elements with moments of drama.

Fromental Halévy's Guido et Ginevra was premiered at the Paris Opera in 1838 with Gilbert Duprez and Julie Dorus-Gara. Michael Spyres sang Guidos Act III Air 'Quand renaitra', which opened with an impulsive melody on the cellos leading to an arioso-like recitative; a melancholy solo for trumpet (Gareth Small) finally led to the aria proper. This was elegant rather than showy, but there was still room for a cadenza!

Verdi's Paris debut was Jerusalem (a re-write of I Lombardi), and we heard Carlo Rizzi and the orchestra in the 'Pas de quatre' from the ballet music. Charming rather than dramatic, the piece was notable for the colouristic imagination of the orchestra writing, and the orchestra played with a nice sense of lightness and style, though I have to admit the movement did slightly outstay its welcome.

We finished the first half with Guido and Ginevra's Act IV duet from Halévy's opera, a strange piece where he moons over her corpse, except she is not dead and after a moment when he thinks she is a ghost they have a duet proper. Halévy's use of reminiscence and leitmotif is important, and the scene opens with a reminiscence of Guido's romance which we heard earlier. Starting out with an elegant near simplicity, the opening section was fluidly interesting in form, and cabaletta-like closing section, whilst more dramatic, was similarly fluid and full of invention yet, of course, expecting two singers with stunning technique, something Spyres and El-Khoury certainly delivered. The duet, and the other works in this half, revealed that French opera of the 1830s and 1840s as richer and, perhaps, more complex than we give it credit for.

The second half opened with the overture of Gaetano Donizetti's La Favourite which premiered at the Paris Opera in 1840, with Gilbert Duprez as Fernand. An interesting side-note is that the young Richard Wagner (in Paris at the time) was employed to do the piano reduction of the opera! It opens with some striking dramatic counterpoint in a slow introduction, before the grand overture proper. Not a million miles away from Auber, this was music which had far more drama and depth than that of the Auber overture.

Joyce El-Khoury sang the Isabelle's Air 'Jours de mon enfance' from Ferdinand Hérold's Le Pre aux clercs which premiered at the Opera Comique in 1832. Starting with a lovely violin solo from the Hallé's leader, Simon Blendis, an increasingly florid, fantasy like movement which led to the aria which formed something of a duet between violin and soprano, lyrical yet full of ornament. The ending came as something of a surprise, and you felt that there was more to come.

Michael Spyre's sang Albert's Air 'Gentille feé' from Auber's 1839 opera Le Lac des feés. This opened with an elegant oboe solo, and the equally elegant tenor cavatina had oboe interjections, remarkably simple except for elaborations at the end. The final cabaletta was sung with engaging enthusiasm, vibrant tone and a terrific top E.

El-Khoury then sang Lucia's Act I Scena e Cavatina from Lucia di Lammermoor. Initially singing daringly quietly, El-Khoury made the cavatina notable for the sense of tremulous excitement, a terrific combination of technique and emotion, whilst the cabaletta had some very affecting moments. This was a very particular view of Lucia, very dramatic and intense.

The orchestra played the 'Pas de six' from the ballet music for Donizetti's Le Favourite, this was full of brilliant orchestra writing and lively detail including a solo role for cornet. The last official item on the programme was Edgardo and Lucia's Act One duet from Lucia di Lammermoor, familiar but with a most welcome sense of drama in the music and notable for Michael Spyre's confidence and technique with the high tessitura.

Of course, this wasn't the end and we heard the final duet from Donizetti's Les Martyrs (which Gilbert Duprez and Julie Dorus-Gras premiered).

Throughout the Rizzi and the orchestra provided superb support to the singers with many fine instrumental solos. This was quite a large band (around 70 players in all), but there were no balance problems at all and the orchestra played with an admirable combination of lightness and style.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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