LOUIS THÉODORE GOUVY (1819 – 1898): Oedipe à Colone, Op. 75 (Dramatic Oratorio, 1880)—V. Haab (Oedipus), C. Ratzenböck (Antigone), S. Roberts (Theseus), J. Cornwell (Polyneikes); Les Choeurs de La Grand Société Philharmonique, Kantorei Saarlouis; La Grande Société Philharmonique; Joachim Fontaine [Recorded in on 14 – 16 October 2012; cpo 777 825-2; 2CD, 93:05]
The British novelist George Eliot wrote that ‘music sweeps by me as a messenger carrying a message that is not for me.’ Its context changed, the sentiment might be an apt assessment of the career of Louis Théodore Gouvy, a composer whose sad lot it was to be appreciated by his most refined colleagues and contemporaries but to subsequently be forgotten for nearly a century after his death and for three decades of his life to essentially be a man without a country: born in the Sarre, a much-disputed départment of the Napoleonic Empire, just after the region was placed under Prussian rule by the Congress of Vienna, he was denied French citizenship for the first thirty-two years of his life. A contemporary of Verdi and Wagner, Gouvy’s primary musical interests were centered in the concert hall rather than the opera house, his imagination notably fired by the efforts of Mendelssohn and Schumann to resurrect the oratorio traditions of Bach and Händel. Interestingly, Gouvy was most influenced in his composition of Oedipe à Colone not by his contemporaries but by the Sophocles-inspired operas of Gluck and Sacchini. One lesson learned in the 20th-Century revivals of interest in Baroque and bel canto operas is that the obscurity to which music has been subjected is not necessarily indicative of its quality. Still, it is unexpected to encounter in the music of Gouvy, particularly in Oedipe à Colone, a compositional voice of such originality. The lack of appreciation for Gouvy’s music thus seems all the more cruel and the endeavors of cpo to rectify this collective act of cultural ignorance especially praiseworthy.
Musically, Oedipe à Colone is a distinguished work of multi-layered sophistication and beauty. The opening Introduction, essentially an operatic overture in all but name, is faintly reminiscent of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, Gouvy’s orchestration both making use of the structured elegance of Classical models and displaying complete understanding of the development of orchestras during the 19th Century. Gouvy’s writing for brass instruments invites comparisons with Brahms, and choral episodes show a comprehensive absorption of traditions old and new. The choruses in the operas of Gounod are close cousins to choruses in Oedipe à Colone, but the musical environment of Mendelssohn’s Elias is also close at hand. The interplay of voices with strings in the first choral section of the Part One Finale, ‘Vous que l’innocence même,’ recalls the ‘Lacrymosa’ of Mozart’s Requiem, and the spirit of Mozart’s 25th Symphony appears in Gouvy’s orchestration of the concluding pages of the Part One Finale. Throughout the oratorio, Gouvy’s vocal writing rivals the melodic fecundity of Gounod and Ambroise Thomas. The style of recitative that develops into arioso is appropriately derived from Gluck but also recognizes the ancestry of French dramatic music from models by Lully and Rameau. Gouvy’s music is at its most inspired in the exchanges between Oedipe and Antigone in Part Two. Like Verdi, Gouvy’s sensibilities as a composer and dramatist were obviously powerfully engaged by the dynamics of the relationship between father and daughter. The faithfulness of Antigone to her blinded, tormented father brings to mind the fidelity of Cordelia to Shakespeare’s King Lear, and the beauty and distinction of Gouvy’s music are comparable to the sublime scenes for father and daughter in Verdi’s aborted opera on the subject of Lear that found their way into Rigoletto. There are also parallels with Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra in Part Three, Oedipe’s death ending unendurable suffering and restoring an uneasy sense of order to the lives of those affected by his tragedy, both publicly and privately. Though unconvinced by the composer’s vocal writing, Gouvy acknowledged the unavoidable influence of Wagner’s orchestration, and while there is no single passage in Oedipe à Colone that bears the clear stamp of Wagnerian influence, there is an unmistakable expansiveness in Gouvy’s orchestration that would scarcely have been possible for a composer unfamiliar with Wagner’s music. In a work populated by characters whose psyches are so shaped by rage, resentment, and violence, it is the tenderness expressed in Gouvy’s music that is most striking: each of the four characters is blessed by the composer with music of exceptional beauty. Foreshadowing the power of Elektra’s recognition of her brother Orest in Strauss’s Elektra, the scene in which Antigone is reunited with her brother Polynice in Oedipe à Colone pulses with joy tempered by tragedy. The ecstatic duet for Antigone and Polynice in Part Three, ‘Antigone, ma sœur,’ would not be out of place in any of the better operas of Gounod or Massenet.
Conducted by Joachim Fontaine, the players of La Grande Société Philharmonique meet all of Gouvy’s considerable demands with playing of power and secure intonation. The brass players face particular challenges, all of which are confidently overcome. Articulation of rapid string passages is occasionally undermined by the vibrancy of the acoustic of the recording venue, ever a danger of recording in a church sanctuary, but the natural ‘bloom’ in the sound is very pleasing. The choristers of Kantorei Saarlouis face tremendously daunting music, the requirements of tessitura and precision of ensemble as great as those in any of the oratorios of Bach and Händel. Hearing the accomplishment with which they sing Gouvy’s music, it is not surprising that the Kantorei Saarlouis singers are acclaimed for their performances of Baroque choral music. Here taking the role of the Chorus familiar from Greek tragedies of Antiquity, the choristers are unfailingly convincing whether expressing triumph, paralyzing fear, or pleas for mercy. A few passages requiring the sopranos to soar to the tops of their ranges strain the singers, but their performance is one of the foremost glories of this recording.
British baritone Stephen Roberts, a familiar presence in Early Music performances, takes the role of Thésée, the legendary slayer of the Minotaur who, in his capacity as king, magnanimously grants the hounded Oedipe asylum. Gouvy gives Thésée music of nobility and regal profile, which Mr. Roberts sings strongly. After a long and successful career, Mr. Roberts’s voice is no longer as firm as it once was, the tone spreading when pressure is applied, but his excellent musical and dramatic instincts are untouched by time. Mr. Roberts’s singing of Thésée’s lines in ‘Vous que l’innocence même’ is wonderful, befitting the utterances of a mythological hero.
Capable of bringing off almost unbelievable feats of bravura singing, tenor Joseph Cornwell has contributed memorably to many recordings of Baroque repertory. Gouvy’s music for Polynice, Oedipe’s estranged son, nods to the esteemed haute-contre tradition of French opera but adheres to the somewhat less altitudinous tessitura of modern tenor writing. Mr. Cornwell’s singing of Polynice suggests that, in addition to his accomplishments in the music of Händel and Vivaldi, he might prove an excellent interpreter of roles in French Baroque operas, as well as the ‘reform’ operas of Gluck. After the manner of many of the finest tenor roles in French opera, Polynice does not make extravagant demands on the tenor’s extreme upper register but has a tessitura that is consistently high and punishingly centered around a lyric tenor’s passaggio. Except in a single moment in Part One when he cannot quite summon the power required to soar at the top of his range over the chorus in full cry, Mr. Cornwell sings with an ideal combination of muscle and dulcet tones. The crise de conscience that Polynice experiences, his determined rejection of his father giving way to guilt and pangs of filial duty at the sight of the tortured old man, is heartbreakingly conveyed by Mr. Cornwell via subtle shading of his tone. The rapture that Mr. Cornwell brings to Polynice’s reunion with his sister is fetching, and both his seemingly limitless breath control and plangent upper register make his singing in ‘Antigone, ma sœur’ richly rewarding. A more persuasive performance of Polynice’s music, which combines the necessity of a simplicity of approach with the requirement of technical prowess sufficient to command a challenging tessitura over a large-scaled orchestra, than Mr. Cornwell achieves in this recording is difficult to imagine.
As in many of Wagner’s operas in which archetypes of femininity triumph over the foibles of patriarchal society, the role that Antigone plays in Gouvy’s Oedipe à Colone is one of unbending devotion to her father that inspires her to acts of defiance of the fate that plagues him. In a sense, it is his presumed worthiness of Antigone’s love that is Oedipe’s most redeeming quality. Tenderness and an element of panic in the face of unrelentingly punishing destiny are central to soprano Christa Ratzenböck’s performance. Like Polynice, Antigone is also conceived along Gluckian musical lines but accompanied by an orchestra related more closely to those that accompany Wagner’s Elsa or Verdi’s Elisabetta di Valois. Ms. Ratzenböck displays a very attractive tone and a freedom in the upper register that is tested but never broken by Gouvy’s music. Only a few moments of rapid ascents above the ledger lines find Ms. Ratzenböck grasping at pitches, and her intonation is delightfully secure throughout her performance. Among many passages of great quality, Antigone’s ‘Mon sort, je le préfère’ in Part Two is particularly gorgeous, and the expressivity with which Ms. Ratzenböck sings it is ravishing. Like Mr. Cornwell, Ms. Ratzenböck is at her best in Antigone’s duet with Polynice in Part Three, her voice growing more rounded and her delivery of text more heated as the emotional intensity of the scene increases. The sorrow that Ms. Ratzenböck conveys in the scene in which Oedipe denies her the opportunity to accompany him on his final journey towards death is wrenching yet voiced with unaffected sweetness. Ms. Ratzenböck’s French diction is not consistently idiomatic, with a Teutonic accent occasionally distorting the unique French vowels, but she shapes phrases with instinctive grasp of the patterns of the language as set in Gouvy’s score. Ms. Ratzenböck creates a compelling character with singing that surpasses the achievements of many of the more famous sopranos heard in the world’s opera houses today.
Sophocles’s Oedipus is one of the most flawed but embraceable characters in Greek theatre, his misdeeds unpardonable and his remorse unforgettable. Gouvy succeeds in translating much of the dignified tragedy inherent in Sophocles’s portrait of Oedipus into musical terms, his Oedipe rightly emerging as the central figure in Oedipe à Colone. Bass-baritone Vinzenz Haab sings Oedipe’s music with expert control, shading his tone to meaningfully depict all of the nuances of the part. The world-weariness that Mr. Haab communicates is stirring. There are infrequent moments in which it is apparent that Mr. Haab is a bass-baritone in a true bass role, the line occasionally going beyond the lower extremity of Mr. Haab’s vocal comfort zone. Mr. Haab avoids forcing the voice, however, instead darkening the tone to increase the resonance of his lowest notes. Oedipe requires the widest range of emotions of any of the roles in Oedipe à Colone, and Mr. Haab responds with an engaging array of feelings expressed through his singing. Gentle and sensitive in his exchanges with Antigone and seething with anger and disappointment in his dealings with Polynice, Mr. Haab’s Oedipe assumes the stature of a tragic hero by expressing all of Oedipe’s emotions in a vocal performance of majestic profundity, taking advantage of every weapon in his considerable musical arsenal.
Oedipe à Colone is unquestionably a dramatic oratorio as designated by its composer, but in this age in which oratorios are frequently given dramatized stagings by major opera companies Gouvy’s score would likely prove a worthwhile addition to the repertory of an enterprising opera house. This recording proves Gouvy’s score to be the work of a first-rate musical mind, its dramatic contrasts explored through the craftsmanship of a master composer with thorough understanding of the musical styles of the past and more than a passing notion of what lay in the future. Far more than a piece of musical esoterica, Oedipe à Colone receives from four talented singers, an excellent chorus, a well-rehearsed orchestra, and a dedicated conductor a performance that reveals both its creativity and its dramatic effectiveness. Music is a sometimes maddening, always captivating journey from timeless traditions to new ways of exploring humanity in sound: few vessels that convey eager-eared passengers along that journey are as interesting, commendable, or undeservedly overlooked as Gouvy’s Oedipe à Colone.
Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819 – 1898)