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Sacchini's Œdipe à Colone

Sometimes musicologists have these dreams, where we discover a piece of music, make an edition of it, have it performed and recorded, so that people connect with forgotten music. Well, sometimes that dream comes true, and one of those times was Saturday night's performance by Opera Lafayette at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, on the campus of the University of Maryland. As you know, I don't leave the District of Columbia for just anything, but how could I miss the chance to hear the first performance of Antonio Sacchini's Œdipe à Colone since the 19th century?

Sadly, the man who provided the edition and parts for this performance was somehow omitted from the program. Washington composer Maurice Saylor (see my review of a recent performance of his music) has had an interesting side career doing this sort of work, including being responsible for preparing scores and parts for premieres of operas by Gian Carlo Menotti. I know from personal experience that this involves an incredible amount of work and worry, which is never really compensated as it should be, not that most scholars really work for that sort of remuneration. (An interesting exception is the case of Professor Lionel Sawkins, who won a lawsuit about just this sort of work, which I mentioned here last year.)

Most readers are probably familiar with the first installment of the story of Oedipus, as found in the first play in Sophocles' tragic trilogy, Oedipus the King. A prophecy about the heir to the throne of Thebes causes his parents to abandon him, although a shepherd raises the child under another identity. Because of their actions, Oedipus does not know who his real parents are, and when he returns to Thebes, he is doomed by the gods to fulfill the very prophecy his parents sought to undo. On the road into the city, he kills his father, Laius, and is welcomed into the city as the new king, where he then marries his mother, Jocasta. Sigmund Freud, believing that myths are preserved and retold because they tell us something profound about human nature, cited this myth as the basis of his theory about the nature of the relationships between parents and children, which he said is related to the primal sex drive. If unresolved, this so-called "Oedipus complex" could lead to neurosis later in life.

Probably less familiar are the subsequent two tragedies in the trilogy: Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. You would think that the hero blinding himself in self-punishment would be the low point of tragedy, but the story just gets bleaker. Oedipus survives and wanders to Colonus, guided by his faithful daughter, Antigone. All of the children born from the unlawful union with Jocasta are cursed. An oracle tells Oedipus that Colonus will be the location of his death. Theseus, King of Athens, agrees to help Oedipus against Creon, Jocasta's brother, who now rules Thebes. Oedipus's son Polyneices comes to ask his father to forgive him, because an oracle has told him that whichever son Oedipus supports before he dies will win. Oedipus curses Polyneices, who is slain by Creon, and Oedipus is taken by the gods. It doesn't turn out any better for Antigone, who tries to bury her brother in Thebes. Creon has her buried alive but then later relents his decision, only to discover that she has hanged herself. The Brady Bunch this story is not.

So much of the shaping of the canon of music history, those composers now performed enough to be familiar to wide audiences, is due to the influence of musicologists, who led us on this quest into the history of our musical heritage. The earliest scientific musicologists were working in Germany and Austria, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like just about all other artists and thinkers of that period, they worked under certain nationalistic assumptions about history. When they wrote the history of music in what is now known as the Classical Period, those assumptions played out in their choice of German and Austrian schools of composition, notably at Mannheim and Vienna. The composers from the latter city especially now define our understanding of the classical period, for better or worse. Naturally, there were composers working in similar styles of other nationalities and in other places. Antonio Sacchini, whose music you could believe was Mozart’s if you didn’t know any better, is one of those composers. Italian by birth, an admirer of Gluck, he worked in Rome, London, and finally Paris in the late 18th century, just as his idol had done.

In my doctoral dissertation, I did some work on Sacchini's opera Renaud (premiered in Paris in 1783), because it uses a story from Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata. Coming to Paris from London, Sacchini found himself in the midst of the polemical battle among opera fanatics at the time, between supporters of Gluck and supporters of Piccinni. Shortly before Sacchini died, Marie-Antoinette was forced to renege on her promise to have his late opera, Œdipe à Colone, performed at Fontainebleau. In 1787, shortly after his death, the Paris Opéra premiered the opera to great acclaim, and it remained in the repertory for more than 500 performances, through 1830, after which time it disappeared from the face of the earth.

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C. Gluck, Orphée et Euridice (1774 Paris Version), Opera Lafayette (released March 2005)
That is, until Ryan Brown and Opera Lafayette decided to raise it from the dead. The conductor introduced the opera with an explanation of the supertitles, which were not complete (and were difficult to read at times from where I was seated, in the front row of the balcony). Presumably, supertitles were less noisy than a hall full of libretti, and noise was a concern, he advised us, because this performance was being recorded, for sale on the Naxos label, the first-ever recording of the opera. (This follows their first Naxos recording, of the 1774 Paris version of Gluck's Orphée et Euridice.)

The Violins of Lafayette, who provided the orchestral part of the performance, are musicians specializing in historical performance from all over the country. The only prominent instrumental problem was in the horn parts, played on natural horns with transposing crooks (we were treated to a hasty key change for the horns at one point) which were not cooperative. Percussionist Tom Jones's violent shaking of the thunder sheet, so strong that it was torn from its stand in the temple scene at the end of Act I, was merely funny. (One wishes that the real thunder that penetrated into the hall from the thunderstorm outdoors had cooperated at that point. It did not.) Sacchini was probably trained on the violin, judging from the difficulty of his violin parts, which both violin sections played well. The full performance of the opera's dance music was a welcome diversion, although Opera Lafayette's usual partner, Catherine Turocy's New York Baroque Dance Company, was missed, although they would have been too noisy for the recording.

Some of the vocal performances were top-notch, especially bass François Loup (who appeared most recently in Massenet's Esclarmonde with Washington Concert Opera), who had the perfect amount of rage and bluster as the spiteful Œdipe. He was well cast with tenor Robert Getchell as his son Polynice, whose voice was light in the most French way but carried effectively. (In the operatic version, with its mandatory lieto fine, father and son are reconciled together and with Antigone in an extraordinarily beautiful trio at the end of the opera. All of the doom and suffering of the original Greek are nowhere to be found.) Nathalie Paulin (Antigone) had a full tone, too, with some strain at the top of her range, and excellent French. A surprise came from chorus member Jonathan Kimple, one of Mr. Loup's undergraduate voice students at the University of Maryland, whose powerhouse bass voice could be heard clearly even from his place with the chorus at the back of the stage. By contrast, I sometimes had trouble hearing the other solo voices, although I imagine that the microphones on the stage picked up enough sound for the purpose of recording. This may not have been the best imaginable performance of Sacchini's opera (such a thing happens so rarely), but it is for now the only one and a welcome chance to hear a lost masterpiece.

As a late Baroque or early Classical composer, especially of serious opera, Antonio Sacchini is certainly underestimated. Opera singers and directors, take heed: he composed some 45 operas, all of which (now minus one) remain unrecorded. But that's not all. According to the New Grove works list, there are "numerous Masses, motets, psalms," several oratorios, two symphonies (published in Paris in 1767), six trio sonatas, six keyboard sonatas, and six string quartets. Performers needed!

See also the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, May 16).

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