03 March 2016

CD REVIEW: Arthur Honegger & Jacques Ibert — L’AIGLON (A.-C. Gillet, M. Barrard, É. Dupuis, P. Sly, P. Charbonneau, I. Bell, T. Duncan, J.-M. Richer, H. Guilmette, M.-N. Lemieux, J. Boulianne, K. McLaren; DECCA 478 9502)

IN REVIEW: Arthur Honegger & Jacques Ibert - L'AIGLON (DECCA 478 9502)ARTHUR HONEGGER (1892 – 1955) and JACQUES IBERT (1890 – 1962): L’AiglonAnne-Catherine Gillet (L’Aiglon, duc de Reichstadt), Marc Barrard (Séraphin Flambeau), Étienne Dupuis (Prince de Metternich), Philippe Sly (Maréchal Marmont, L’autre, Arlequin), Pascal Charbonneau (L’attaché-militaire, Un manteau vénitien, Pierrot), Isaiah Bell (Frédéric de Gentz, Un matassin, Un polichinelle), Tyler Duncan (Chevalier de Prokesch-Osten, Un Gilles), Jean-Michel Richer (Comte de Sedlinsky), Hélène Guilmette (Thérèse de Lorget), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Marie-Louise), Julie Boulianne (Fanny Elssler), Kimy McLaren (Comtesse Camerata, Une marquise, Isabelle); Chœur de l’Orchestre Symphonie de Montréal; Orchestre Symphonie de Montréal; Kent Nagano, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during three concert performances in Maison symphonique de Montréal, Québec, Canada, on 17, 19, and 21 March 2015, and in sessions with Hélène Guilmette and Marie-Nicole Lemieux in the same venue during September 2015; DECCA 478 9502; 2 CDs, 92:29; Available from DECCA Classics, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

There are many reasons why operas disappear from the repertory. Some scores quickly outlived their usefulness for the occasions for which they were composed. Others were conceived for individual artists whose singular qualities have not been replicated among singers of subsequent generations. Some of the music simply does not merit revival, and some libretti are rubbish. There are also operas afflicted with the inseparable baggage of uncomfortable associations. The neglect of some scores can only be attributed to ignorance, however, and this must be the case with Arthur Honegger’s and Jacques Ibert’s L’Aiglon. With the problems created by the interventions of multiple pairs of hands in operas like Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Puccini’s Turandot looming large in the international repertory, perhaps there is a stigma attached to the appearance of more than one composer’s name at the head of a score. Premièred at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in 1937 by a cast that included Fanny Heldy and Vanni Marcoux, L’Aiglon is an opera with none of the hallmarks of merited obscurity. Its libretto, based upon a play by Edmond Rostand, respected throughout the world for his Cyrano de Bergerac, is of high literary quality, the characters convincingly drawn and differentiated. The opera’s plot is engaging and fast-paced, its ending restrained but no less touching than the final scenes of La traviata, La bohème, and Werther. Most significantly, Honegger’s and Ibert’s music—extant evidence discloses that Honegger substantially composed Acts Two and Four, Ibert Acts One and Five, and that they worked closely together on Act Three—is consistently superb, the cohesiveness produced by their collaboration nodding to virtually every idiom in French opera from Grétry and Philidor to Debussy and Ravel. Recorded by DECCA with unobtrusive but unmistakable technical wizardry during concert performances that furnished the opera’s long-overdue North American première, L’Aiglon here receives an introduction to the Twenty-First Century wholly worthy of the progeny of one of the most fascinating figures in human history.

Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, history’s and Honegger’s and Ibert’s l’Aiglon, was born at the Tuileries in Paris on 20 March 1811, the son of Napoléon and his second empress consort, Marie Louise, the eldest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. Napoléon’s sole legitimate heir, the young Prince Imperial was from the time of his birth the titular King of Rome, but his crowns ultimately shielded him from few of life’s difficulties. His tenuous claim to the French imperial throne when his father abdicated, provisionally in 1814 and unconditionally in 1815, was not recognized by Napoléon’s vanquishers: safe in exile in his mother’s native Austria, the tyke may never have known that he was briefly proclaimed emperor after Napoléon’s decisive defeat at Waterloo. Sadly, the younger Napoléon’s life was destined to be little longer than his unheralded tenure as the head of the Empire Français. Sidelined by statesmen understandably wary of seeing another Bonaparte rising to power, Napoléon II lived in a sort of official limbo, his brief career in the Austrian army largely an exercise in keeping him distant from the goings-on at the court of his Hapsburg relatives. Chancellor von Metternich having used the youth as a pawn in his eternal chess match with France, a tribulation that figures prominently in Henri Caïn’s libretto, politics may even have hastened his demise when a request to be allowed to relocate to the healthier climate of Italy was denied. His constitution undermined first by a long bout with pneumonia and then a virulent strain of tuberculosis that plagued Austria in the wake of the cholera pandemic of 1832, l’Aiglon stretched his wings for the last time on 22 July 1832, four months after his twenty-first birthday.

His skill in leading Twentieth-Century French operatic repertory, not least Francis Poulenc’s harrowing Dialogues des Carmélites and Olivier Messiaen’s sprawling Saint François d’Assise, having been revealed in numerous critically-acclaimed performances and recordings, California-born conductor Kent Nagano was an inspired choice for presiding over the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal performances planned to lift L’Aiglon aloft. The orchestra’s lauded mastery of Tchaikovsky repertory during the tenure of former Artistic Director Charles Dutoit was a fantastic preparation for approaching L’Aiglon. Fusing elements of the French and Viennese traditions so beloved by Tchaikovsky, Honegger’s and Ibert’s score mixes portions of Stroh and Courvoisier into an intoxicating musical cocktail. The brief scene for L’Aiglon and Thérèse in Act One is reminiscent of Richard Strauss’s Presentation of the Rose in Act Two of Der Rosenkavalier, and there are echoes of Massenet’s Don Quichotte, the libretto of which was also written by Henri Caïn, in the final scene of Honegger’s and Ibert’s score. The opera’s surrealistic fourth act would not seem out of place in the pages of Balzac’s Colonel Chabert. If these resemblances suggest a disconcerting stylistic mélange, the unimpeachable continuity of the music will be especially astonishing to the listener. Even in Act Three, on which both composers toiled, transitions are seamless. The fluidity of Nagano’s conducting makes them seem even more so. Under his baton, the spirited waltz of the ballet music—a sequence that might easily be assumed to be the work of Johann Strauß II—sounds like bona fide music for dancing, and every dramatic point made by Honegger, Ibert, and Caïn is recreated by Nagano. There are no suggestions of ticking boxes or crossing moments off of a list, however. The whole of the Impressionistic Act Four is paced with the abstract inevitability of a play by Harold Pinter, and Act Five, which has the potential to be maudlin and treacly, is all the more moving for being allowed to progress steadily, eschewing tears and hollow dramatics. The conductor’s baton often seems to soar as if borrowing the eaglet’s wings. Not one passage in the opera’s ninety minutes sounds anything other than ideally-paced.

Following Nagano’s lead, both the orchestra and the Chœur de l’OSM contribute accounts of their parts that none of their Parisian counterparts could surpass. Whether playing passages scored with the gossamer effects of chamber music or those steeped in the bloody din of battle on the hills of Wagram, the OSM musicians play with authentically Gallic elegance and bristling intensity. The ballet receives from them the requisite grace, and the contrasting tumult of Act Four and melancholic subtlety of Act Five are conveyed with complete conviction. The inventiveness of the composers’ instrumentation is apparent throughout the performance owing to orchestral playing that is without shortcomings. As the disembodied voices of the Wagram battlefield, the twenty singers of the chorus, trained by Andrew Megill, deliver the utterances of the veterans of the engagement and those of the hallowed ground itself with menace, mystery, and resounding musicality. Allied with Nagano’s imaginative but accurate conducting, the OSM instrumentalists’ and choristers’ performances give L’Aiglon a brilliant, cloudless sky into which to take flight.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this recording of L’Aiglon is the uncompromisingly excellent work of a true ensemble cast of native French speakers. Large casts without weaknesses among their ranks are now only very rarely encountered in the world’s opera houses. Honegger’s and Ibert’s music is good enough to make a vivid impression even if not ideally sung, but the artists assembled in Montréal’s acoustically spectacular Maison symphonique prove on disc to be a far better-integrated ensemble than many casts with extensive experience in staged productions. Among the alluringly phonogenic gentlemen, tenor Jean-Michel Richer is a Comte de Sedlinsky whose brief presence in the drama lingers in the memory, the character’s lines poured out in a stream of silvery tone. Fellow tenors Isaiah Bell and Pascal Charbonneau are similarly effective in their respective rôles, including their turns in the Act Three masque as Un polichinelle and Un manteau vénitien and Pierrot. Bell’s dulcet-toned Frédéric de Gentz matches Richer’s Sedlinsky in seizing the listener’s attention. As L’attaché militaire, Charbonneau’s slender, pointed voice chills and calms in equal measures, his timbre perfect for the character who clings to the periphery of the plot with ambiguous intentions. The Chevalier de Prokesch-Osten was among the young Prince’s few true friends, and it is impossible to imagine his operatic incarnation being more deserving of the confidence of an emperor’s son than he is as portrayed here by baritone Tyler Duncan. Both his Prokesch and his Gilles in Act Three are luxuriously voiced, the warmth of both the sound and the demeanor endearing him to the listener as an inspiringly reliable beacon of safety and genuine camaraderie for the increasingly isolated l’Aiglon.

Alongside such a strong cast of male singers, the female contingent of DECCA’s L’Aiglon command admiration for their own finely-judged, capably-voiced portrayals. Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne sings Fanny Elssler so attractively as to make the character markedly more appealing to the senses than Caïn’s words permit her to be in the drama. Soprano Kimy McLaren’s Comtesse Camerata, the agent of l’Aiglon’s escape from his Austrian wardens, and impersonations in the masque in Act Three are also sung and acted with youthful charm and tones that seem to effervesce from a freshly-uncorked bottle of champaign. Soprano Hélène Guilmette’s Thérèse de Lorget, the widowed empress’s reader and the young Prince’s de facto love interest, is distinguished by radiant singing, her voice glowing with ardor even when the words that she articulates express the character’s embarrassment in the presence of l’Aiglon. ‘Little Brooklet’ is a wonderfully appropriate epithet for Guilmette’s Thérèse: her singing flows like the crystalline waters of an unspoiled spring.

Though dismissive of her concern for him in one scene, the operatic Napoléon II is kinder to his mother than his historical counterpart is known to have been, accounts of his life documenting his wish that the more famous Joséphine were his mother rather than Marie-Louise. Who would not be inclined to deal affectionately with a mother sung by contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux? Throughout the opera, Lemieux depicts Marie-Louise as a stern, aptly imperious figure who loves her son and regards him wistfully as the only remaining vestige of a glorious past. Hers are the misfortunes of political disgrace and outliving both spouse and child. Lemieux’s vocalism occasionally sounds flustered, the pitch secure but the tone not as formidably solid as it has often been. Marie-Louise’s music does not provide Lemieux with opportunities for the kind of bold, full-throttled singing at which she excels, but her artistry engenders a consequential performance.

Singing the rôle of Maréchal Marmont, bass-baritone Philippe Sly enriches the performance with every note that he sings. The shame and sadness with which he intones ‘Je ne l’ai pas revu’ when confronted by l’Aiglon about having abandoned Napoléon on the battlefield are deeply poignant. Still more stirring is the sense of honor with which Sly phrases ‘Ah! monseigneur, accusez la fatigue. Que voulez-vous?’ Sly’s burnished timbre lends his portrayal of the Maréchal both humanity and tragic grandeur, but it is the beauty of his singing that sustains his haunted, haunting performance.

The Prince de Metternch and Séraphin Flambeau of baritones Étienne Dupuis and Marc Barrard are the dueling forces that collectively form the fulcrum upon which the opera’s diegesis teeters. Vocally and dramatically, the gentlemen are on equal footing, the importance of their opposing loyalties cogently expressed through their impactful singing. Dupuis and Barrard spar with the sure aim of Olympic fencers in the second and third scenes of Act Two, when Flambeau terrorizes Metternich with the pseudo-shade of Napoléon. Barrard’s vocal acting in Flambeau’s phantasmagorical death scene affords the character’s suicide the honor of a hero’s passing. In the opera’s final scene, Dupuis manages to suggest that Metternich at last sympathizes with l’Aiglon. Perhaps his compassion is born solely of the relief of the legacy of Napoléon finally receding into the past, but the dignity with which Dupuis pronounces ‘Vous lui remettrez son uniforme blanc’ as the curtain falls rings with sincerity. Like Sly, Barrard and Dupuis proffer such expressive performances principally because they sing so handsomely.

Continuing the tradition established by Monteverdi with Nerone in his L’incoronazione di Poppea and advanced by Sesto in Händel’s Giulio Cesare, Mozart’s Cherubino and Massenet’s Chérubin, and Richard Strauss’s Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos, Honegger and Ibert made their l’Aiglon a brother of Gounod’s Siébel and Stéphano. If her singing on this pair of discs is indicative of her work in general, l’Aiglon could hope for no better interpreter than Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet. Hearing her assured command of the wide range of l’Aiglon’s music, it is hardly unexpected that she is also a noted interpreter of Massenet’s Manon. Gliding through the awkward adolescent exchanges of Act One, Gillet’s upper register gleams. Gillet garners pity for the merciless treatment that l’Aiglon receives from Metternich in Act Two. The son that Gillet depicts in Act Four wants desperately to live up to the impossibly imposing stature of his diminutive father. In Act Five, the serenity and simplicity with which Gillet’s Prince takes leave of life, revisiting the grandeur of his christening, elevates the opera’s final scene to the heights of Machiavellian tragedy. Not surprisingly, the soprano’s diction is splendid. Every word that she caresses with her dazzling voice has its place in her captivating portrayal of l’Aiglon. This eaglet’s plumage is a musical wonder of nature.

The lion’s share of artistic works fashioned by collaborative efforts suffer from an unequal distribution of riches. In L’Aiglon, a passage here emphatically says, ‘Honegger,’ and a passage there just as emphatically says, ‘Ibert,’ but every passage in the score renders a message of artistically advantageous cooperation. Indeed, the heart of this recording of L’Aiglon is cooperation: respect among artists for themselves, one another, and the score in their hands yields a performance that enchants and enlightens. A more plaintive memorial to the hapless Eaglet of Napoleonic France and a finer performance of L’Aiglon are unfathomable.

IN REVIEW: Le Chevalier de Prokesch-Osten and Napoléon II in a scene from Edmond Rostand's L'AIGLON [Print by LaCroix, Paris, circa 1910; public domain]Un prince et son ami: Le Chevalier de Prokesch-Osten and Napoléon II in a scene from Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon [Print by Lacroix, Paris, circa 1910; public domain]