06 May 2010

CD REVIEW: André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry – ANDROMAQUE (K. Deshayes, M.R. Wesseling, S. Guèze, T. Christoyannis; Glossa GCD 921620)

Grétry: ANDROMAQUE (Deshayes, Wesseling, Guèze, Christoyannis; Glossa GCD 921620)

ANDRÉ-ERNEST-MODESTE GRÉTRY (1741 – 1813): Andromaque – K. Deshayes (Andromaque), M.R. Wesseling (Hermione), S. Guèze (Pyrrhus), T. Christoyannis (Oreste), M. Heim (Phœnix), É. Hache (une Greque), E. Hurtrait (un Greq); Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Chœur du Concert Spirituel; Orchestre du Concert Spirituel; Hervé Niquet [recorded at Salle Henry Le Bœuf, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, in October 2009, in conjunction with concert performances in Brussels and Paris; Glossa GCD 921620]

To all but those who are specialists in French opera of the late Eighteenth Century, the Belgian-born composer André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry is most remembered for a score that he did not compose: the opera Pikovaya Dama (or The Queen of Spades), in which Tchaikovsky quoted the aria ‘Je crains de lui parler la nuit’ from Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-lion as the Old Countess recalls her fast-and-loose youth in Paris.  Richard Coeur-de-lion was widely considered the masterpiece of its composer, who was a seminal figure in post-Rameau French music and some of whose fifty or so operas held French stages until the end of the Nineteenth Century (a record that the operas of Puccini are only just achieving, by comparison).  With Tchaikovsky’s appropriation of ‘Je crains de lui parler la nuit’ and the adoption of another aria from Richard Coeur-de-lion, ‘O Richard, o mon roi,’ by Royalists during the French Revolution, Grétry’s influence seems merely topical from an historical perspective, but his music was almost universally admired during the late Eighteenth Century, particularly the operas Zémire et Azor (recorded for French EMI/Pathé by the wonderful Mady Mesplé) and La caravane du Caire (which is similar in theme and certain efforts at ‘local color’ in scoring to Die Entführung aus dem Serail, though Mozart’s opera was not heard in France until fifteen years after the premiere of La caravane du Caire), and exerted a considerable influence over the composers active in France during the 1790’s and first two decades of the Nineteenth Century, especially Luigi Cherubini and Étienne Méhul.

The young Grétry honed his craft – as did many young composers in the Eighteenth Century – by studying in Italy, having been inspired by hearing the operas of Baldassaro Galuppi and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi in his native Liège.  During his five years in Italy, Grétry studied with Giovanni Battista Casali, maestro di coro at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, one of the last composers of unaccompanied polyphonic choral music in the tradition of Palestrina.  Learning more by absorption than by academic prowess, Grétry returned to France with understanding of the prevalent Italian operatic forms of the time.  Having devoted himself upon his return to the French opéra comique, still in its formative stages, with his best works like Zémire et Azor (which is based on the ‘beauty and the beast’ legend) and L’amant jaloux (the music and text of which are thought to have influenced Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte in their work on Le Nozze di Figaro), Grétry produced recognizably French works that built upon the examples of Rameau but also introduced Italianate elements such as complex coloratura.

Taking up the tradition of French tragédie lyrique inherited from Lully and Rameau, no composer was more influential in France during the latter half of the Eighteenth Century than Christoph Willibald von Gluck, whose ‘reform’ operas of the 1760’s and 1770’s sought to purge the music of the French lyric theatre of Italianate excesses and return to a style of utterance that aspired to the dramatic purity of Classical Greek theatre.  The extent to which Grétry was directly influenced by Gluck’s work is impossible to ascertain, but the controversial success of the premiere of Gluck’s Armide, in which his ideals of reform were fully explored, in 1777 may well have played a decisive role in Grétry’s decision to accept the commission to compose his first tragédie lyrique, sadly the only one of his several efforts in the genre which seems to have performed.  Grétry’s Andromaque was conceived as an ambitious setting of the famous literary tragedy by Jean Racine, and legal wrangling with the Comédie Française, by which institution the performance rights to Racine’s play were held, delayed the first performance of Grétry’s opera – which had entered rehearsals as early as 1778 – until 6 June 1780.  The opera did not manage to win either the unfettered appreciation of audiences or the praise of critics, by whom it was particularly condemned for its profusion of choruses, which led to the charge that the score was more an oratorio than an opera.  Grétry and his librettist, Louis-Guillaume Pitra, made significant alterations to the opera, most notably replacing Racine’s tragic ending (which is retained in the present recording) with a happier finale, in advance of a revival of the opera in 1781.  After this second run of performances, which won the favor of audiences, Andromaque seems not to have been performed again until the concert performances in October 2009 upon which this recording is based.

Listeners who are familiar with Grétry’s opéras comiques will encounter an entirely different sound world in Andromaque, one with similarities to the music that Gluck was contemporaneously composing for Paris but even stronger ties to Rameau’s mid-century operas.  The style of vocal declamation is similar to that heard in Gluck’s two operas on the myth of Iphigénie, with fast-paced recitative developing into brief but emotive arioso.  In an opera that runs for slightly less than ninety minutes (as recorded) even with the customary ballet, there is no room for long-winded arias and ensembles.  Though never reaching the level of inspiration achieved by Gluck in his finest operas for Paris, Grétry proves in Andromaque that he possessed a sensitive understanding of the tragédie lyrique tradition, composing music that is apt for the dramatic situations and unfailingly attractive if not ultimately memorable.  The Ouverture is perhaps the weakest number in the score, but the opera’s three acts move at a swift pace and contain much music that, while not distinctive, is never less than enjoyable.

The recording by Le Concert Spirituel and Hervé Niquet, renowned for their enterprising performances and recordings of French Baroque repertory, gives an impressive introduction to Grétry’s score.  Maestro Niquet and his instrumental ensemble are as comfortable in Andromaque as in the music of Charpentier, Lully, or Marais, shaping the music with articulation born of their experience with Baroque music but attentiveness to the stylistic nuances of Grétry’s music, which in this case is curiously suggestion of his forbears, his contemporaries, and his musical successors all at once: it is possible to hear the cornerstones laid by Rameau as well as the framework built by Gluck, but there is also the feeling that Les Troyens is not too far distant on the horizon.  This is perhaps to give Grétry’s musical inventiveness greater credit than it truly deserves, but Andromaque is a score in which there are subtle stirrings of Romanticism, perhaps more by chance than by intention.  Maestro Niquet’s leadership is alert to this sense of the opera being of both past and future, and the singers and musicians of Le Concert Spirituel – the former increased by the participation of Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles – sound devoted to their tasks and to Grétry’s music throughout.

The quartet of principal soloists assembled for the concerts and recording is excellent and, ideally for Grétry, comprised of singers with experience in both Baroque and later repertories.  Dramatically, the pick of the lot is Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis, a singer whose fiery reGreek baritone Tassis Christoyanniscorded performances (especially of Bajazet in Tamerlano) in mdg’s series of Händel operas have been thrillingly virile displays of technically-assured singing.  Given leaner material with which to work as Orestes in Andromaque, Mr. Christoyannis scales back the power of his singing, unleashing the full frisson of his voice only when required by the dramatic situation.  Having succumbed to the demands of Hermione, whom he loves, Orestes is complicit in the slaying of Pyrrhus.  By the time that Pyrrhus has fallen to Greek swords, however, Hermione realizes that she was not in full command of her reason when she directed Orestes to kill Pyrrhus, and Orestes brings the opera to a close with his own crushing grief and madness.  The brutality of this dénouement is conveyed with complete sincerity by Mr. Christoyannis, whose vocal quality fully equals the dramatic swagger of his singing.

The catalyst of the tragic actions that lead to Orestes’ madness is Hermione (the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy), sung with characteristic intensity by Swiss mezzo-soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling, who is also a veteran of many fine productions and recordings of Händel operas.  There is a darkness aroSwiss mezzo-soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling [Photo by Emilio Brizzi]und the edges of Ms. Wesseling’s tone that allows her to suggest pathos without causing her vocal lines to droop.  Whereas she has sometimes  struggled to maintain steadiness as Händel heroes, the music that Grétry composed for Hermione gives her the opportunity to fully express her femininity.  Hermione’s music is not of the difficulty of what she frequently sings in Händel roles, and perhaps this relative simplicity focuses the impact of Ms. Wesseling’s voice, uniting the purity of her technique with the emotional directness of her manner of singing.  In truth, Hermione’s music does not plumb the depths of passion suggested by her text, but the integrity of Ms. Wesseling’s performance closes the psychological gaps in Grétry’s music with heartfelt, beautiful singing.

Grétry gave some of the best music in Andromaque to Pyrrhus, the victim of Hermione’s jealousy and Orestes’ misplaced vengeance.  The role receives a very fine performance in this recording by young French tenor Sébastien Guèze, a tremendously promising singer who alternated with Roberto Alagna in the 2007 premiere production by Opéra Municipal de Marseilles of Vladimir Cosma’s Marius et Fanny and won the appreciation of Gounod fanciers throughout the world with a beautifully-sung Roméo in a Concertgebouw performance of Roméo et Juliette broadcast over Netherlands Radio.  The youthful pliancy of Mr. GuèzFrench tenor Sébastien Guèze [Photo by Lucile Leber]e’s tenor is very appealing, and he enters into his part in Grétry’s tragedy with touching conviction.  Throughout his performance, Mr. Guèze’s tone is refreshingly even, without the ugly or barely-concealed breaks at the passaggio that mar the singing of many young singers.  Mr. Guèze’s voice is a bright but rich lyric tenor, with sweetness and freedom in the upper register that are reminiscent of some of the most refined French tenors of past generations, not least the sublime Michel Sénéchal.  Mr. Guèze’s voice is of proportions larger than Sénéchal’s, allowing him to comfortably sing roles like Rodolfo in La Bohème, but he shares his artistic ancestor’s affinities for pointed delivery of text and musical expression that touch the heart even when the music he sings is not of the highest quality.  With this performance, Mr. Guèze manages not only to convince the listener that Grétry was a composer who, in his music for Pyrrhus, aspired to the heights reached by Rameau and Gluck but also that his own voice is among the finest tenors of his generation.

The title role is entrusted to French soprano Karine Deshayes, who at relatively short notice replaced Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij in both the concerts and recording sessions.  Like her colleagues in this performance, she sings a varied repertory: celebrated in Europe for her work in Baroque music, she made her début at the Metropolitan  Opera in 2006 as Siebel in Gounod’s Faust.  As AndroFrench soprano Karine Deshayes [Photo by Vincent Jacques]maque, Ms. Deshayes brings a youthfully vibrant voice that hovers, like those of some of the great exponents of tragédie lyrique of bygone years (Dame Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, for instance), between mezzo-soprano and soprano tessituras.  The absolute security of her voice is upset by none of the demands placed on it by Grétry’s music, and if there is not the last measure of grandeur that one expects from a figure such as Andromache – the grieving widow of Trojan hero Hector (who, in a tangential nod to Rameau, was descended from Dardanus) whose perseverance in her grief and determination to safeguard her son precipitate the tragic actions of Racine’s play and Grétry’s opera – that is to be credited to the composer rather than the singer.  Ms. Deshayes’ performance is touching and sung with complete confidence, making the most of the music that Grétry gave her: one can ask for nothing more.

It must be conceded that Grétry’s Andromaque is not the forgotten masterpiece that some of the other scores resurrected by Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel have proved to be, not least the marvelous Sémélé of Marin Marais.  As always, though, the artists involved with this recording have given of their best, and Glossa’s engineers have provided typically first-rate sound to complement the artists’ performances.  It is interesting to hear Grétry’s efforts at tragédie lyrique, which was as much a part of his musical heritage as the opéras comiques for which he is remembered, and of course a vital and sometimes thrilling element of the Period Practice movement is encountering carefully-prepared, expertly-executed performances of imperfect works.  Andromaque is an imperfect work in that its style did not draw from Grétry the brilliance and wit that flow so charmingly through his opéras comiques, and if the music of Andromaque displays no startling individuality it also avoids parody and facile imitation.  Andromaque is clearly the product of an important composer who merely was not working within his element.  The opera receives from Maestro Niquet, Le Concert Spirituel, and a team of excellent singers a performance that maximizes its eloquence and minimizes its deficiencies – in short, the best possible introduction for Twenty-First-Century listeners.