Thursday 2 May 2019

Revivifying Olimpie: Spontini's opera in a terrific new recording from Palazzetto Bru Zane

Spontini: Olimpie - Palazzetto Bru Zane
Gaspare Spontini Olimpie; Karina Gauvin, Kate Aldrich, Mathias Vidal, Josef Wagner, Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, Jeremie Rhorer; Palazzetto Bru Zane
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 April 2019 

Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A terrific recording which sheds light on Spontini's finely neo-classical final French opera with style and passion

Spontini's operas, despite the iconic status of La Vestale, still have not made the impact on the modern opera house that they deserve. A composer much admired by Berlioz, the neo-classical nature of his style seems somewhat difficult to re-capture in modern performance.

This new recording of Spontini's Olimpie, his final French opera, has been produced by Palazzetto Bru Zane and is a welcome opportunity to re-assess Spontini's music played on the instruments of the period. Jérémie Rhorer conducts Le Cercle de l'Harmonie and the Flemish Radio Choir, with Karina Gauvin as Olimpie, Kate Aldrich as Statira, Mathias Vidal as Cassandre and Josef Wagner as Antigone, plus Patrick Bolleire and Philippe Souvagie.

Spontini composed Olimpie in 1819, his third major French tragedy following La vestale (1807) and Fernand Cortez (1809). A composer much supported by the Empress Josephine, Spontini did not seem to fit into Restoration Paris and Olimpie failed. He moved to Berlin where he was given a post by the King of Prussia, and Olimpie was performed in Berlin with a new German text by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and a revised ending [this German version is usually called Olympie]. This was a success and the new libretto was translated back into French. The revised opera was performed in Paris in 1826, it barely did better than the original in 1819.

Caroline Branchu as Statira in Spontini's Olimpie in Paris in 1819
Caroline Branchu as Statira in
Spontini's Olimpie in Paris in 1819
Olimpie is based on a Voltaire play from 1761 in which the classical unities are preserved, and the ending with its triple death was designed to provoke 'terreur'. The original 1819 libretto preserved the sense of the Voltaire play but reduced the number of deaths to two. The revised version, however, substantially re-wrote the final act, removing the deaths altogether and adding a lieto fine to what had been a tragedy. It is this version that we hear.

To modern eyes, the plot is a farrago involving two of Alexander the Great's possible successors competing for the hand of his daughter, Olimpie, despite one of them being suspected of Alexander's death. The music, however, is terrific.

In the wrong hands, Spontini's music with its neo-classical style can either seem a little chilly or be pushed in totally the wrong direction by performances that are stylistically too Italianate. The work's early 20th century revivals were in Italian, and first recording is a 1966 one in Italian from La Scala. Here Rhorer conducts the piece with passion and love, keeping the pace going and revelling in the rich details which are revealed by the use of instruments of the period. It is this vivid orchestral detail which really enlivens the performance.

In style we can certainly hear Spontini's debt to Gluck's French operas; there is that same sense of concentrated classical nobility, combined with powerful drama. You can also hear the way Spontini's music influenced Berlioz, perhaps more surprisingly there are hint of Weber in places (in fact Weber contributed an aria to some of the German performances of Olimpie), maybe indicating that Spontini was not so fixed in a chilly neo-classical fastness as we migh assume.

In fact the opera is remarkably passionate, but with the period instruments comes the ability to use somewhat lighter, more flexible voices than modern instruments would require.

Karina Gauvin makes a finely elegant heroine, singing with a supple sense of line and warming the character's rather passive nature thanks to Gauvin's warmly expressive tone. Kate Aldrich is terrific as Olimpie's mother, Statira, with a superb scene at the opening of Act Two in which we hear of her complex history (both mother and daughter are in disguise and neither knows the other!).  Mathias Vidal is the hero, Cassandre, a less conflicted figure than in the original version. He sings with just the right sort of flexible lyric tone with a degree of spine that this music needs. He and Gauvin make a lovely pairing as the lovers. Josef Wagner is a wonderfully elegant baritone villain, Antigone.  Patrick Bolleire provides fine support as the Hierophant with Philippe Souvagie as Hermas.

As usual with Palazzetto Bru Zane the book includes extensive articles but curiously neither the article by Olivier Baras nor the one by Gerard Conde makes a good case for the revised version, and I would be interested to hear the original tragic ending. Unfortunately, the musical sources for this does not seem to exist.

There is a recording of the opera in the catalogue already, a very credible one from 1987 with Gerd Albrecht conducting. This has Julia Varady as Olimpie and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau as Antigone. But it is cut (the present recording is also slightly cut, but not as significantly as the 1987 one) and the performance style does veer a little to much towards Italian bel canto.

It would be easy for this opera to fail because, frankly, its characters are rather unloveable. But this terrific recording manages to revivify the neo-classical drama, giving us a performance which combines style and passion. Rather worryingly, this might be the most recommendable Spontini opera recording on disc as by far the majority of recordings are either cut or in Italian or unavailable and La Vestale does not yet have a completely recommendable modern account in French.

Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851) - Olimpie
Olimpie - Karina Gauvin
Statira - Kate Aldrich
Cassandre - Mathias Vidal
Antigone - Josef Wagner
L'Hierophane/Un Pretre - Patrick Bolleire
Hermas - Philippe Souvagie
Flemish Radio Choir
Le Cercle de l'Harmonie
Jeremie Rhorer (counductor)
Recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris, 31/5/2016, 1-2/6/2016
PALAZZETTO BRU ZANE 2CDs [58:24, 76:08]

Available from Amazon.

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