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4.4.16

Briefly Noted: 'L'Aiglon'

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Honegger/Ibert, L'Aiglon, A.-C. Gillet, M. Barrard, É. Dupuis, H. Guilmette, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, K. Nagano

(released on March 4, 2016)
Decca 00028947895060 | 92'26"
When Napoleon Bonaparte was driven from the imperial throne, he left his son, Napoleon II, with no path to succession. The young man, nicknamed "L'Aiglon" (the Eaglet), went to Austria to live with his mother's relatives, where he briefly attempted a military career before dying of tuberculosis when he was only 21. Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac) wrote a play about the doomed young man, with the title character designed for and premiered by Sarah Bernhardt, en travesti, in 1900. An opera of the same title, premiered at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in 1937, keeps the play's use of a trouser role for the title character, composed in tandem by Arthur Honegger (Acts II-IV) and Jacques Ibert (Acts I and V). As a joke, when asked about who had composed what parts of the opera, the composers replied, "One of us wrote the sharps, the other wrote the flats."

The story covers only the last year or so of Napoleon II's life, as he struggles to break free of the identity his Austrian relations have tried to give him, calling him Franz and granting him the title of Duke of Reichstadt. His valet, Séraphin Flambeau, is actually one of his father's former grenadiers, who encourages his employer's inclinations toward taking up his father's imperial standard again. The Eaglet agrees, which puts him in opposition to Metternich, who opposes any return of Napoleon's heir to France. In the France of 1937, that fight to maintain French identity in the face of Germanic domination was understandably relevant, and French revolutionary songs are woven into the ends of Acts II and IV. (By an odd coincidence, it was Adolf Hitler who ordered the remains of Napoleon II transferred to Les Invalides, to be placed next to those of his father.) The prettiest music, aside from some charmingly Vienn-easy waltzes by Ibert, including those composed to replace some cuts to Honegger's part of the score in Act III, is the angelic music that accompanies the Eaglet on his deathbed, including a touchingly harmonized version of the chant Ubi caritas.

While the cast is perhaps not stellar, with Anne-Catherine Gillet fervid but not always pretty at the top in the title role, Marie-Nicole Lemieux is a warmly maternal Marie-Louis, mother of Napoleon II. Hélène Guilmette is pretty as Thérèse de Lorget, Marie-Louise's lectrice who becomes the Eaglet's love interest, but Marc Barrard's Séraphin is not always sure, a wide vibrato obscuring the center of the pitch. As Metternich, Étienne Dupuis is the most impressive presence in the male cast, although the scene in which the valet tricks Metternich into thinking the Eaglet arriving is actually the Emperor Napoleon back from the dead, is slightly silly. Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal revel in the French lightness of the score, in which Ibert's contributions outweigh those of Honegger.

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