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Briefly Noted: Campra's 'Tancrède'

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Campra, Tancrède, B. Arnould, I. Druet, Les Temps Présents, Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, O. Schneebeli

(released on July 31, 2015)
Alpha 958 | 166'52"
When I was researching my doctoral dissertation, most of the sources in question were not published in modern editions, let alone recorded. One of the exceptions was Jean-Claude Malgoire's recording of Tancrède, an opera by André Campra (1660–1744), made in the early 1990s and brand new at the time. Mostly I just had to read scores and play what I could reduce at sight on the piano. Two decades later, I could do a good part of the primary source research I had to do in Paris at home on my laptop: a manuscript version of this opera and the short score are available on IMSLP.

Premiered in 1702 at the Palais-Royal theater in Paris, the opera had over a half-century in the repertoire of the Académie Royale de Musique. Made with librettist Antoine Danchet, the work hews closely to the Lullian model, sumptuously filled out with dance music, even though by this point in Louis XIV's reign, the monarch's interest in opera and dance had faded. Campra's training as a chorister and church composer gave him greater contrapuntal range in this and his other operas. This new recording is more complete than Malgoire's, which is shorter by over twenty minutes, and although it was recorded live, during two staged performances in May 2014 in the recently restored Opéra Royal of the Château de Versailles, it is an improvement in sound quality as well. Blemishes here and there cannot be avoided in live recordings, but the forces of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles are generally excellent.

Act II's opening scene between Tancrède and Clorinde, where he captures the haughty warrior-maiden and then is compelled to confess his love for her, is such gorgeous music, here admirably sung by baritone Benoît Arnould and mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet. It leads into a lovely divertissement of warriors and battle-maids, and conductor Olivier Schneebeli adds percussion colors to some of the dance numbers. The flute playing is especially beautiful, both in the somber opening of Act III, where Herminie and Argant lament that those they love have instead found each other, and in Herminie's devastating aria Cessez, mes yeux sung with plaintive yearning by soprano Chantal Santon, as is the trumpet playing in the last act's triumphal music. In my dissertation I was focusing mostly on the ways that composers set the magical scenes in these stories, so the second part of the third act and the fourth act were of most interest to me, where Tancrède enters the lair of the sorceror Ismenor and then the confrontation in the enchanted forest. Both are treated here with plenty of instrumental variation and inventive color.

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