Tuesday 10 May 2022

Boulevard des Italiens: tenor Benjamin Bernheim explores Paris' long love-affair with French composers

Boulevard des Italiens: arias in French by Cherubini, Spontini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni; Benjamin Bernheim, Orchestra del Teatro Communale di Bologna, Frédéric Chaslin; Deutsche Grammophon

Boulevard des Italiens:
 arias in French by Cherubini, Spontini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni; Benjamin Bernheim, Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Frédéric Chaslin; Deutsche Grammophon
Reviewed 9 May 2022 (★★★★★)

Tenor Benjamin Bernheim bring style and passion to a recital that explores French opera's long love affair with Italian composers.  

With the opening number of his new recital, Benjamin Bernheim firmly sets a stake in the ground. 'Adieu, séjour fleuri' is from the French premiere of Puccini's Madame Butterfly, given in French translation but in a revised version by the composer which was then transferred to become the standard Italian one. This is a disc of music by Italian composers working in France and working in French. 

For Boulevard des Italiens, tenor Benjamin Bernheim joins the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, conductor Frédéric Chaslin on Deutsche Grammophon for arias by Cherubini, Spontini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, and Mascagni. This is a mix of composers working in French and French versions of Italian operas. Both Cherubini and Spontini based themselves in Paris, writing in French and having a significant effect on the development of French opera. Another important visitor is missing, Meyerbeer, though he was Italian trained he was in fact German. Both Donizetti and Verdi had their Italian operas performed in Italian at the Theatre Italiens, but for the Paris Opera and other companies,  French was the norm. And both took some pains with the the creation of specifically French music. 

And the music is often something of challenge to modern tenors as it requires different virtues to the Italian repertoire - a different approach both to emission (thanks to the French language) and to top notes (with the fondness for using what we might call head voice). These are all aspects that Bernheim understands and what is so lovely about the recital is the way he combines technical facility with style, language and a compelling sense of drama.

'Adieu, séjour fleuri' from Madame Butterfly is a beautiful introduction to Bernheim's art, combining as he does a lovely sense of line, the necessary focused power for the climaxes, a seductive shape to the phrases and a great feel for the French text. This is music that is clearly in French.

We follow this with a pair of arias from Donizetti operas written especially for Paris, 'Pour me rapprocher de Marie' from La fille du Regiment and 'Ange si pur que dans un songe' from La Favorite. Both are operas that would enjoy success in their Italian translations, but Donizetti took some care to shape them to the French language. The aria from La fille du Regiment is not the familiar showpiece with its top Cs, but a more intimate Romance, tenderly shaped by Bernheim. And with La Favorite, we also get a lyrical Cavatine. sung with intimacy and intensity in a way that makes you want to hear more.

We then move on to Verdi, the last Italian composer to have a significant career writing opera in French for the French. Verdi's Don Carlos was the ultimate re-invention of the French grand opera of Meyerbeer, here. One of Verdi's masterpieces, it proved too large and too unwieldy even for the Paris Opera, but whatever the version, Verdi constantly returned to the idea of primacy of the French language and his writing was sympathetically designed for the French text.

From Act One, the Cavatine 'Je l’ai vue' shows Bernheim to be a finely passionate Don Carlos, but one for whom line and intensity matter as much as sheer power. The result is seductive and stylish. We then move on to Act Two, where Bernheim is joined by baritone Florian Sempey for the scene which leads to the duet 'Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes'. Both singers make the dialogue as important as the duet itself, with high musical performances combined with strong dramatic values. This makes for compelling listening, and we can only wish for a complete recording!

We then return to Donizetti for an Air from his late grand opera, Dom Sébastien, roi du Portugal from 1843. The work was recorded some years ago by Opera Rara but still makes hardly a ripple in the repertoire. 'Seul sur la terre' is a lovely Air with a prominent harp and horn parts, imaginatively written yet also a technical challenge for the tenor. Bernheim makes it seem stylishly effortless, bar the climax top notes which are intended to impress. Yet at the end he also floats a beautifully tender top C in head voice.

Both Spontini and Cherubini had careers in the French capital made more complex by the vicissitudes of French history at the period. Spontini was very much associated with the court of Napoleon and his later career seems to have foundered in Paris (and he would be largely based in Berlin). Cherubini returned with the Bourbons, but was best known as a teacher and most of his operas date from his earlier period. 

We hear Licinius' Air 'Julia va mourir!' from La vestale, preceded by the instrumental Prelude and the recitative (throughout the recital, the approach to recitative is admirably full). Spontini's La vestale from 1807 played an important role in moving French opera from the 18th century tragedie lyrique to more 19th century forms (and his 1809 Fernand Cortez would play an equally important role, prefiguring as it does the historical grand opera of Auber and Meyerbeer). For La vestale we combine classicism (Spontini's music was much admired for this quality by Berlioz) with romantic passion. It is a balance difficult to get right. Bernheim makes the music dramatic and stylish, with a sense of sturm und drang alongside the classical style.

We then return to Verdi, to Jerusalem his major French recasting of I Lombardi. The two are sufficiently different to be almost different operas. Here we get Gaston's Act Two recitative and Air, 'Je veux encor entendre ta voix'. Here we have Verdi using drama and Italian form, but with an admixture of Italian style, and a very unItalian head voice top not floated at the end.

Instead of something well known, Bernheim has chosen something of a rarity by Cherubini, an aria from his 1833 opera Ali Baba. The work's libretto is one of Scribe's collaborations, and the cast for the performance at the opera also used singers who were performing Meyerbeer so that Nadir's Romance, 'C’est de toi, ma Délie, que dépendait mon sort', very much explored Adolph Nourrit's facility with powerful top notes! The music is intriguing, Cherubini writing in a more Romantic style than we usually expect, and Bernheim does it full justice.

Next comes another of the Italian post-Verdi school, Pietro Mascagni. His Amica sets a French text and was premiered in Monte Carlo. The opera's mixture of Italian Verismo, French text and some chromatic experimentation in the music meant that it did not have a long shelf-life, even though an Italian version was issued shortly after the premiere. The result is, again, intriguing with its mix of Verismo passion and French language. Though it is noticeable that unlike Verdi and his predecessors, Mascagni does not significantly make concessions to French prosody.

Verdi's Les Vêpres siciliennes was a complex collaboration with his librettist Scribe and the result, whilst it had fine moments, does not quite have the confident full-scale drama of Don Carlos. But there are plenty of lovely things, and Bernheim gives us Henri's Act Four Romance, 'Ô toi que j’ai chérie'. Darkly brooding, this number's haunting and moody aspect is well caught by Bernheim.

We end with Puccini, Tosca which was premiered in France in 1903 in a translation by Paul Ferrier, returning to the intriguing sound of Puccini in French.

The disc was produced in collaboration with Palazzetto Bru Zane – Centre de musique romantique française which edited most of the scores on the disc. The contribution from Frédéric Chaslin and the orchestra highlights one of the other differences composers found when working in Paris, the sophistication of the orchestral forces available (particularly at the Opera) and the expectation that the orchestral writing be far more than mere accompaniment. And here Chaslin and the orchestra are finely stylish partners to Bernheim.

This disc makes you long for someone to create some complete recordings of these works with Bernheim. In the present economic environment that is probably wishful thinking. But this disc gives us some wonderful tasters. Bernheim has a way with the style of this music which fits the Franco-Italian ethos and always respects the French language and prosody. Finely partnered by Chaslin and the orchestra, this disc is one that I will return to often and must be one of the highlights so far from 2022.

Boulevard des Italiens
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) - Madame Butterfly
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) - La fille du régiment
Gaetano Donizetti - La favorite
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) - Don Carlos
Gaetano Donizetti - Dom Sébastien, roi du Portugal
Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851) - La Vestale
Giuseppe Verdi - Jerusalem
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) - Ali Baba
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) - Amica
Giuseppe Verdi - Les Vêpres siciliennes
Giacomo Puccini - Tosca
Benjamin Bernheim (tenor)
Florian Sempey (baritone)
Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Frédéric Chaslin (conductor)
Recorded Teatro Auditorium Manzoni, Bologna, April 2021

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