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Bringing Philémon Back to Life

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Gluck, Le Feste d'Apollo (Aristeo / Bauci e Filemone), Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset (released on October 31, 2006)
The first act of the incredible story behind this recording is the most horrible tragedy a parent can imagine, the sudden death of a young child from a mysterious disease. Having lost their baby son Philémon, Vincent and Caroline Guiot made the brave decision to honor their child and the tireless doctors and researchers who had labored to try to save him by producing performances and ultimately this recording of a lesser-known Gluck opera. By this point last year, their association (Les sept vies de Philémon) had already raised more than 40,000 € for the Genetic Center at the Hôpital Necker for Sick Children and the Association to Fight Mitochondrial Diseases. If I had gone through what these parents have, I would not be able to do much more than curl up in a corner and hope to die myself. If you love good music or even if you don't, buying this CD can help these parents make some good come out of what happened to their son.

Also on Ionarts:

Summer Opera: J. C. Bach's Temistocle [conducted by Christophe Rousset] (July 13, 2005)

Summer Opera: Rameau's Zoroastre in Drottningholm [conducted by Christophe Rousset] (August 17, 2005)

Harpsichord Like Rarely Ever [Christophe Rousset recording] (November 2, 2005)

Tamerlano-Alcina Double Bill in Paris [conducted by Christophe Rousset] (November 11, 2005)

Handel Arias, Sandrine Piau [conducted by Christophe Rousset] (January 26, 2006)

Vicente Martín y Soler, La Capricciosa Corretta [conducted by Christophe Rousset] (September 28, 2006)
As for the good music part, Christophe Rousset is also to be commended for bringing his excellent historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, into this project. The Guiots were drawn, because of their son's name, to the recovery of the two operas that Gluck was commissioned to create for the marriage of Ferdinand, Duke of Parma (grandson of the King of France, Louis XV), and Maria Amalia, Archduchess of Austria (sister of Marie-Antoinette) in 1769. When the wedding festivities finally took place (delayed by the death of the pope) in August, the court celebrated with an elaborate fête in the style of those at Versailles since the time of Louis XIV. Among many lavish entertainments was a theatrical performance called Le Feste d'Apollo, with two operatic acts by Gluck. Each act sets a modified version of a minor myth, Aristeus in the first act and Baucis and Philemon (whence the connection to the Guiots' child) in the second.

François Rude, Aristaeus Mourning the Loss of His Bees, 1830, bronze, Musée des Beaux Arts, DijonAristaeus was a minor agricultural deity, who mastered the arts of beekeeping and cheesemaking. Virgil added Aristaeus to the version of the Orpheus-Eurydice legend in his Georgics, saying that Aristaeus tried to rape Eurydice and caused her to be bitten fatally by a snake, which she did not see as she ran away from Aristaeus. (In Orphée aux enfers, Offenbach has Eurydice willingly take Aristée as her lover.) In the libretto by Giuseppe Pezzana, Aristeo suffers from his involvement in Eurydice's death and seeks to regain his bees, which were all killed by Eurydice's nymphs. (In the bronze sculpture by François Rude, shown here, Aristaeus stands mournfully by his empty beehive.) By faithfully listening to the counsel of his mother, Cyrene, he is able to bring his bees back to life and is ultimately wedded to his new love, Cidippe.

Ovid told the story of Baucis and Philemon in Metamorphoses (English translation: Book VIII), the contented, poor, and old husband and wife (in English, a Darby and Joan) who are the only ones in Phrygia to offer hospitality to the traveling gods Zeus and Hermes. When the outraged gods wipe out Phrygia in a flood, Baucis and Philemon are spared. The gods transform their house into a temple and the couple live there as priests and guardians. The couple get their wish to die at the same time and are transformed into two trees that stand next to each other in the sanctuary for all time. The librettist of Gluck's opera, the monk Giuseppe Maria Pagnini, altered the story so that Bauci and Filemone are a young shepherd and shepherdess (to reflect the youth of the noble bride and groom whose marriage was being celebrated) and their reward is to live together as guardians of Jupiter's temple.

Ditte Højgaard Andersen, sopranoNeither of these one-act operas is an unjustifiably lost masterwork, but there is plenty of good music to be heard, some of it borrowed by Gluck from his own operas or recycled into later operas. (As a self-borrower, he was no worse really than Handel or Vivaldi or Bach: this kind of plagiarism was perfectly acceptable in the 18th century.) The singing on this recording ultimately makes it worthwhile, beginning with the fine soprano of Ditte H. Andersen. As Cirene in Aristeo, she gives an excellent reading of the challenging aria Nocchier che in mezzo all'onde, in which she counsels her son, Aristeo, to remain steadfast in the face of trouble, like a confident mariner during a storm. In the most stunning performance on this recording, Bauci's coloratura aria in Bauci e Filemone (Il mio pastor tu sei), the Danish soprano ably negotiates the ultra-high notes that Gluck often has pop out of nowhere.

The soprano who created the role, Lucrezia Agujari (her illegitimate birth gave her the nickname La Bastardella), was something of a vocal freak, with a range of over three octaves, strong in both high and low registers. This recording's helpful liner notes, by Emmanuelle and Jérôme Pesqué, even quotes Leopold Mozart, who heard her sing while in Italy with his son in 1770, on both her voice and unusual manner of performing. Andersen is a strong and graceful singer, with admirable agility, but it is the high notes that are so stunning, soaring up to F#, with purity only occasionally perturbed by a slightly nervous vibrato. There is likely a Queen of the Night in Andersen's future.

Christophe Rousset, harpsichordist and conductorFrench soprano Marie Lenormand has some lovely turns as Filemone, especially in several duets with Andersen (including the excruciatingly beautiful Se tuo dono, o fausto Nume), and as Cidippe in the first opera. Lenormand sang in Washington last March, with Steven Blier hosted by Vocal Arts Society, a concert I missed (review by Stephen Brookes). She now lives in New York. Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg is excellent as Aristeo in the first opera, especially on the brief cavatina Numi offesi, ombre sdegnate and her main aria, Cessate, fuggite. In the second opera, she sings the solo part of Una Pastorella with the chorus in Di due bell'anime, an utterly charming dance-like number accompanied by pizzicato strings.

Norwegian tenor Magnus Staveland is an excellent young voice. He is studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Opera but has already worked with Fabio Biondi and sang the role of Enea in Cavalli's La Didone at La Fenice in Venice this season. Conductor Christophe Rousset may have been put in contact with all these Scandinavian singers on his summer trips to conduct at Drottningholm. Rousset elicits a fine performance from his ensemble, in keeping with the high standard of sound they have set. The Chœur de Chambre de Namur, at a lean 18 voices, give a precise and subtly shaped rendition of the choral numbers.

Naïve/Ambroisie AMB9995

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