Thursday 21 April 2022

Rivales: Veronique Gens and Sandrine Piau celebrate two eminent personalities of 18th century French opera

Rivales - Monsigny, Edelmann, JC Bach, Gluck, Loiseau de Persuis, Gretry, Cherubini, Sacchini, Dalayrac; Veronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Le Concert de la Loge, Julien Chauvin; Alpha

- Monsigny, Edelmann, JC Bach, Gluck, Loiseau de Persuis, Gretry, Cherubini, Sacchini, Dalayrac; Veronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Le Concert de la Loge, Julien Chauvin; Alpha Classics
Reviewed 20 April 2022, (★★★★½)
The idea of the rivalry between two late 18th century French sopranos is a lovely excuse for this thrilling examination of French opera superbly sung by two modern day contemporaries

This disc celebrates two eminent personalities of French opera from the late 18th century. Born within a year of each other, each forged an important career, Madame Dugazon (1755-1821) as a member of the Comedie Italienne, and Madame Saint-Huberty (1756-1812) as a member of the Academy Royale de Musique (the Paris Opera). And whilst it is not known that they ever appeared on stage together, that they were probably rivals is likely.

So, on Rivales, on Alpha Classics, we hear arias and duets by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny, Jean-Frederic Edelmann, Johann Christian Bach, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Louis-Luc Loiseau de Persuis, Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry, Luigi Cherubini, Antonio Sacchini, and Nicola Dalayrac, with Veronique Gens (soprano) and Sandrine Piau (soprano) and Le Concert de la Loge, director Julien Chauvin.

But the rivalry is simply an excuse to explore some wonderful repertoire that the two did or might have sung, and to re-unite two French sopranos who have proved pre-eminent in this genre and who, co-incidentally, were born the same year.

We begin with Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny; Sandrine Piau in Arsène's aria 'Où suis-je?' from La belle Arsène (1773). A short scene which is more accompagnato than aria, combining terrific dramatic style with vivid orchestration and gripping declamation. We follow with the scene 'Mais, Thésée est absent' from Jean-Frédéric Edelmann's Ariane dans l'ile de Naxos (1782), where Veronique Gens moves from stylish accompagnato to a vividly urgent aria (with hints of Mozart), creating dramatic scene leading to a thrilling climax where the abandonned Ariane invites death. The duet 'Me infelice! Che intendo?' from Johann Christian Bach's Le Clemenza di Scipione (1778) features Piau as Arsinda and Gens as Luceio. Again we begin with stylish accompanied recitative, leading to a duet whose Mozartian pre-echoes are clear (JCB was a big influence on the young Mozart), and the two singers bring style, drama and thrilling virtuosity to the music.

Next a pair of Gluck arias. First Sesto's 'Se mai senti' from La Clemenza di Tito (written for Naples in 1752) and from the first notes of the orchestral introduction the composer is clear. Piau gives a lovely stylish, intent performance, spinning a finely intense line over the thrumming accompaniment. Gens then returns with something more dramatic, 'Divinités du Styx' from Alceste (1776), combining thrilling power with sense of line and intensity, whilst Chauvin and the orchestra relish Gluck's dramatic style in the orchestra writing. It really makes you long for the whole opera.

The next pair of arias are lesser known. First, Piau in Pauline's aria 'O Divinité Tutélaire' from Louis-Luc Loiseau de Persuis' Fanny Morna of 1799. There is a Mozartian depth to the orchestral writing in the long introduction, leading to some thrilling melodrama followed by a lovely poised aria with more dramatic middle section. And no, I have no idea who Fanny Morna was except that she was a Scottish woman! Gens sings Rosette's aria 'Dès notre enfance unis tous deux' from Gretry's L'embarras des Richesses (1782), a change from her earlier dramatic arias and here singing a piece with simple grace and lovely line. This reflects the way the two historical singers mixed and matched, Huberty generally singing fiery, dramatic roles but not always (she created the role of Rosette) whilst Dugazon had the lighter voice but was not averse to a bit of drama on her own terms.

This group ends with another duet, this from from Cherubini's Démophon (a work Huberty created in 1788).  Gens sings Dircé with Piau as Ircile in 'Un moment. A l'autel', a piece full of classical style and by turns touching and stylish.

Gens sings Armide's 'Barbare Amour, tyran des Coeurs' from Renaud (1782) by Marie-Antoinette's favourite composer, Antonio Sacchini. This begins with a terrific accompanied recitative, leading into an intense aria in the early classical style. The opera got caught up in the dispute between supporters of Gluck and Piccinni, but was liked by neither faction! Piau follows this with another aria by Gretry, this time Nicolette's 'Cher objet de ma pensée' from Aucassin et Nicolette (1779).

We end with a final duet, from Nicolas Dalayrac's Camille ou le Souterrain (1791) with Piau as Camille and Gens as Adolphe. What we notice first is the charming orchestration, leading to a short burst of melodrama before the charming duet which gradually develops into something more dramatic.

Throughout Le concert de la loge, directed by Julien Chauvin (who co-curated the programme with Benoit Dratwicki of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles) accompany with style and drama. They relish some of the thrilling orchestral moments that composers brought to the music, whilst giving charm to the lighter moments. 

This disc is full of music that makes you curious about the works from which they come, particularly as all but the two Gluck arias and the Sacchini aria are world premiere recordings! Whilst the CD booklet is full of admirable information about the two sopranos, Huberty and Dugazon, and the repertoire they sang, there is less information about the operas performed. We do get the texts, but a couple of sentences of context would have been useful for each.

Still, that is a small point. What is important is the confident sense of style and drama, intensity and line, the two sopranos bring to this music. They have different voices, but both shares a feeling for the sensibility of this music; music that is is easy to do badly. Here it is done very, very well indeed. More please!

Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729-1817) - 'Où suis-je?' from La belle Arsène (1773)
Jean-Frédéric Edelmann (1749-1794) - 'Mais, Thésée est absent' from Ariane dans l'ile de Naxos (1782)
Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) - 'Me infelice! Che intendo' from Le Clemenza di Scipione (1778)
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) - 'Se mai senti' from La Clemenza di Tito (1752)
Christoph Willibald Gluck - 'Divinités du Styx' from Alceste (1776)
Louis-Luc Loiseau de Persuis (1769-1819) - 'O Divinité Tutélaire' from Fanny Morna (1799)
Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry (1714-1813) - 'Dès notre enfance unis tous deux' from L'embarras des Richesses (1782)
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) - 'Un moment. A l'autel' from Démophon (1788)
Antonio Sacchini (1730-1786) - 'Barbare amour, tyran des coeurs' from Renaud (1782)
Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry - Cher object de ma pensée' from Aucassin et Nicolette (1779)
Nicolas Dalayrac (1752-1809) - 'Ciel protecteur des malheureux' from Camille ou le souterrain (1791)
Veronique Gens (soprano)
Sandrine Piau (soprano)
Le Concert de la loge
Julien Chauvin (violin & direction)
Recorded in June 2021 at the Abbey of Saint-Michel-en-Thierache
ALPHA CLASSICS Alpha 824 1CD [63.12]

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