Thursday 30 April 2020

Russian opera before Glinka: Karina Gauvin & Pacific Baroque Orchestra's Nuits Blanches on ATMA

Bortnianski, Fomine, Berezovski, Dall'Oglio, Gluck; Karina Gauvin, Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Alexander Weimann; ATMA Classique
Bortnianski, Fomine, Berezovski, Dall'Oglio, Gluck; Karina Gauvin, Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Alexander Weimann; ATMA Classique
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Canadian soprano and ensemble explore Russian operatic music from the 18th century in a fascinating disc which illuminates life before Glinka

In many ways this new disc from soprano Karina Gauvin is complementary to Cecilia Bartoli's 2014 disc St Petersburg [see my review]. Bartoli explored the work of 18th century Italian composers writing for the Imperial court in St Petersburg. In Nuits Blanches: Airs d’opéra à la cour de Russie au XVIIIe siècle, on ATMA Classique, Karina Gauvin, and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra under conductor Alexander Weimann, spread the next a little wider and explore Italian operas by the Russian composers Dmitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski, Evestignei Ipatievitch Fomins and Maxime Sozontovitch Berezovski, plus music by Domenico Dall'Oglio and Christoph Willibald Gluck [Released 1 May 2020].

For much of the 18th century, operatic music and more at the court of St Petersburg was in the hands of foreigners, usually Italians (kapellmeisters including Giovanni Paisiello), and in fact in 1726 Johann Sebastian Bach enquired about a job working at the Russian court! From the mid-18th century there was a School for Court Singers, the first Russian institution for training professional musicians.

Of course, any composer had to go abroad for training; this was still true in the 19th century when Mikhail Glinka went to Italy to study. Both Maksym Sozontovych Berezovsky and Dmytro Stepanovych Bortnyansky sang in the Imperial court chapel as boys and received Imperial support to travel to Italy to study. Borotniansky studied in Venice with Galuppi, another Italian composer who had worked in Russia, whilst Berezovsky studied with Padre Martini in Bologna. Martini's other pupils include Gretry, Myslivicek, the young Mozart, and Johann Christian Bach. It should be pointed out that both Berezovsky and Bortnyansky were in fact Ukrainian, products of the famous choir school in Hlukhliv. Christina Hutten's note in the booklet suggests that the trips to Italy may not have been just for study, and that a little spying was done on the side.

Berezovsk's opera Demofoonte was  premiered in 1773 in Livorno, whilst Russian troops were stationed there. Only four arias from the opera survive. He died penniless only four years after returning to Russia, perhaps committing suicide after being passed over for promotion.

Bortnyansky's opera Alcide also premiered in Italy in 1778, and was sufficient a success for him to be recalled to Russia. Bortnyansky's name is now mainly associated with his Russian liturgical music. On his return to Russia he became Director of Ecclesiastical Music at court, and directed the Imperial court chapel. In all he wrote seven operas, three premiered in Italy and four in Russia; his opera Le Faucon, also heard on the disc, premiered in 1786 in Russia.

Also Italian trained, Yevstigney Ipat'yevich Fomin wrote the opera The Coachmen at the Relay Station for the salon of the scholar and folk-music collector Nikolai Alexandrovich Lvov, for a visit by Empress Catharine in 1786. The opera was to include a folk ensemble and folk-choir performing music from Lvov's collection of folk-music. Unfortunately, Empress Catharine's travel plans changed, and she never saw the opera.

The composer Hector Berlioz made a number of trips to Russia, and during one of them performed Gluck's Armide. Berlioz' performances of Gluck's operas had a significant effect on Russian composers, Cesar Cui wrote 'Gluck he has made new to us, alive, unrecognisable - outmoded by now, maybe, but undeniably a brilliant innovator, a genius'.

The recital begins with an aria from Bortnianski's 1786 opera Le Faucon, and whilst Bortnianski might have been Italian trained there is something rather French about this piece, and not just the libretto. It is an opera comique in French and was performed by aristocratic Russian amateur singers. The plot comes from Boccaccio's Decameron, the story that also gave us Gounod's La colombe. The aria is short and charming, elegantly sung.

Next comes the lively opening Allegro from Domenico Dall'Oglio's Sinfonia Cossaca, a work written based on  Russian themes by the Italian composer resident in St Petersburg. For all the Russian inspiration, this is clearly an Italian work.

Gauvin and the orchestra follow this with a sequence of arias from Gluck's 1777 opera Armide. Here Gauvin is on more familiar ground, and she is clearly in great sympathy with Gluck's style bringing a fine combination of intensity and style to the accompanied recitatives, and an elegant passion to the arias. Both she and the orchestra manage to combine Gluck's classical style with an emotional intensity and stylishness which makes you rather want to hear them in more Gluck.

We then return to Bortnianski for the dramatic and rather characterful overture to Le Faucon. Then comes a sequence from Bortnianski's 1778 opera Alcide. The first aria rather elegant and well-made, then a substantial accompanied recitative, and finally another stylish aria which has a distinctly French cast to its music.

Fomine's The Coachmen at the Relay Station (Les Cohers au relais) is represented by its overture, short but delightful fun, it makes you wonder what the rest of the opera is like. Finally, we have a pair of arias from Berezovski's Demofoonte, stylish and imaginative enough to make us wish he had lived to write more. Both arias are substantial affairs in rather stylish performances with Gauvin providing fine passage-work.

This disc is very much a Canadian production, as Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin is joined by the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, a Vancouver-base period instrument orchestra founded in 1990, whilst the first version of the programme on this disc was co-produced by Early Music Vancouver and Vancouver Opera for their 2018 Russian White Nights Festival.

Whilst Russian operatic tradition started in earnest with the 1836 premiere of Glinka's La Life of the Tsar, this disc shows us that this tradition had its feet in the 18th century with this Italian-inspired music by Russian composers. For all the fine performances of the Gluck, his inclusion in the recital seems to stretch things somewhat and you feel perhaps Armide is here because a famous name was preferred, rather than for the light shed on Russian composers.

The music is stylishly and persuasively performed by Gauvin, the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and Alexander Weimann. And surely the sign of a successful disc such as this is that after each group of arias, you rather wish to find out what the rest of the opera is like!

Dmitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski (1751-1825) - Ne me parlez point (Le Faucon) (1786)
Domenico Dall'Oglio (v1700-1764) - Allegro (Sinfonia Cossaca)
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) - Enfin, il est en ma puissance (Armide) (1777)
Christoph Willibald Gluck - Ah! si la liberte (Armide) (1777)
Christoph Willibald Gluck - Oh ciel, quelle horrible menace (Armide) (1777)
Christoph Willibald Gluck - Grazioso (Armide) (1777)
Christoph Willibald Gluck - Le perfide Renaud me fuit (Armide) (1777)
Dmitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski - Ouverture (Le Faucon) (1786)
Dmitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski - Mi sorprende (Alcide) (1778)
Dmitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski - In qual mar (Alcide) (1778)
Dmitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski - Dei clementi (Alcide) (1778)
Evstignei Ipatievitch Fomine (1761-1800) - Ouverture (Les Cochers au relais) (1787)
Maxime Sozontovitch Berezovski (1745-1777) - Mentre il cor (Demofoonte) (1773)
Maxime Sozontovitch Berezovski - Misero pargoletto  (Demofoonte) (1773)
Karina Gauvin (soprano)
Pacific Baroque Orchestra
Alexander Weimann
Recorded October 2019, Eglise Saint-Augustin, Mirabel, Quebec, Canada
ATMA CLASSIQUE ACD2 2791 1CD [57:04]
 Released 1 May 2020

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