Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is probably best known for his opera “Faust” or perennial arrangement of Bach’s “Ave Maria,” which countless choir boys have crooned with cherubic innocence if not perfect intonation.
In fact the pious Parisian composer was extraordinarily prolific having written twelve and a half operas (“Maître Pierre” was not completed), six oratorios, three ballets and countless masses, motets and chansons, and a vast assortment of various instrumental works including two symphonies. Gounod was deeply religious and even toyed with the idea of joining the priesthood until coming to the sensible conclusion that ladies were more interesting than the liturgy. In his “Mémoires d’un artiste” Gounod wrote: “God created three beautiful things: music, flowers and women. It is of them that I have always sung.”
No mention of the Misericordia here, although many contemporaries considered Gounod’s scared music to be his most important legacy. Saint-Saëns for one, whilst not denying the popularity of “Faust” or “Romeo and Juliet,” judged the masses of “Sainte Cécile,” “Jeanne d’Arc,” and the short oratorio “Saint François d’Assise” to be Gounod’s most impressive compositions.
Revisiting a Rare Work
In this Gounod bicentennial year, the enormously grand sounding Palazzetto Bru Zane Centre de Musique Romantique Française based in Venice is at the forefront of a massive year-long Gounod revival, culminating on June 14 with a performance of the original version of “Faust” with spoken dialogue at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées conducted by Christophe Rousset.
In a charming reversal, instead of Paris being the epicenter of Italian lyric theatre as it was in the 1840s when Donizetti was more ubiquitous than Andrew Lloyd-Webber in London in the 1980s, this prestigious Venetian foundation has been safeguarding the heritage of French music from 1780 to 1920 since its inception in 2009. The Palazzetto Bru Zane Centre is not just involved in the revival of arcane compositions however. There are extensive research projects for musicologists, instrumental and vocal competitions, master classes and teaching sessions, concert programming in collaboration with other international institutions, recordings of lesser-known works for boutique labels and also the publication of books concerning lost oeuvres and performing practices of the past. Allison Zurfluh and Michel Juvet’s immaculately researched and beautifully illustrated book “The Veremonda Resurrection” published by Gli Ori Editori about Cavalli’s long forgotten eponymous opera was a worthy inspiration for such belletristic endeavours.
Palazzetto Bru Zane Centre’s most recent reincarnation was Gounod’s final operatic opus “Le Tribut de Zamora” which was presented in concert form in the opulent Prinzregententheater in Munich. First performed at the Palais Garnier in 1881, this exotic four-act spectacular was initially received with enthusiasm but subsequently faded into oblivion. The plot is hardly more implausible than “La Forza del Destino,” but could possibly offend present day concepts of political correctness or Islamic sensibilities. Set during the Moorish occupation of Spain in the 10th century, the opera contains slightly dubious divertissements such as the auctioning of virgins into sex-slavery, frequent references to the prophet Mohammed and the Qur’an, contemplation of a suicide pact, cross-religion camaraderie, mental illness, and Christian martyrdom. There is also a dramatically pivotal point, which librettist Adolphe d’Ennery attributes to the Qur’an, which postulates that the words of lunatics should be respected at the peril of eternal damnation (“Tiens pour saints les fous, sinon sois maudit”). Although such a precept would be well-received by contemporary mental-health discrimination activists, the view of most Muftis seems to be a tad more ambivalent.
The orchestration of “Le Tribut de Zamora” is rich and varied, sometimes reflecting the polyphonic grandeur of Halévy or instrumental excesses of Meyerbeer. Other passages have hints of Berlioz lyricism or the zippy zingara rhythms which Bizet borrowed so brazenly in “Carmen.” Despite the Moorish setting, there is minimal ersatz Arabic/Andalusian instrumental kitsch, with castanets and tambourine making limited appearances.
In the smaller roles, Juliette Mars sang both the foundling Iglésia and en-passant slave girl competently, albeit slightly blandly. The King plus Arab soldier were sung without much distinction by Jérome Boutillier but the parts of Le Cadi de Cordoba and l’Alcade-Maior d’Oviedo were a succès fou for École Normale de Musique alumnus Artavazd Sargsyan. From “Nous Ramire, ordonnons,” it was clear that this would be a performance to savor. The young tenor’s wonderful projection, excellent diction and a solid, forward-placed technique made Sargsyan’s passages a real highlight. As Ben-Saïd’s contrastingly upright and compassionate brother Hadjar, Russian baritone Boris Pinkhasovich brought considerable empathy and a fine legato to the role. His gratitude to Manoël was entirely convincing and “Moi-même, ô généreux sauveur” sung with refined lyricism and grace. Xaïma’s devoted fiancé was performed by Edgaras Montvidas and his light Mozartian tenore di grazie voice worked well in the opening “Ô blanc bouquet de l’épousée” aubade. As the tessitura moved upwards in the last two acts, the voice was not quite as dulcet and there was a tendency to push during “En vain mon âme espère” and on the top C’s. On the other hand, Montvidas’ dramatic intensity as Manoël was convincing.
Tassis Christoyannis sang Ben-Saïd, the dastardly all-powerful Ambassador of the Caliph of Córdoba and serial virgin-poacher. Christoyannis’ opening “Quel accent! quel regard! quelle âme!” was somewhat hesitant and limited in resonance but by the time he declared his devotion to Xaïma in “Je comprime en mon sein,” there was a Scarpia-like intensity, solid projection and convincing veracity to his unrequited sentiments.
A range of women from Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot to Fanny Mendelssohn played an important role in Gounod’s life, in both the romantic and platonic senses, but none was more significant than his pianist mother Victoire. In “Le Tribut de Zamora,” the ostensibly deranged character of Hermosa turns out to be the long-lost mother of the heroine Xaïma. In an example of true maternal devotion, Hermosa not only solves the problem of her happily betrothed daughter’s pernicious and powerful would-be seducer (Ben-Saïd) by stabbing him to death, but uses her supposed insanity to exculpate herself from the deed. Even better is that she is then able to ensure the betrothed couple’s safe departure from the infidels’ den of iniquity. Happy ending for all – except Ben-Saïd. Hermosa also gets some of the best music, which was impressively sung by American soprano and Broadway star Jennifer Holloway. The rousing national anthem “Debout! enfants de l’Ibérie!” with chorus at the end of the first Act was a real show-stopper. Reportedly it was so successful at the premiere in 1881 the audience clamored for an encore.
Inspired by Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, who happened to be the wife of the director of the Théâtre-Lyrique, Gounod was particularly drawn to the lyric soprano voice. Roles such as Mireille, Marguerite, and Juliette are typical of the pure, limpid timbre he valued so highly. In this regard Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij certainly didn’t disappoint in the principal part of Xaïma who is a kind of Andalusian Marguerite with more morals. The arias “Je les vis périr” and “Fils de roi devrait être!” showed fine appreciation for Gounod’s lyric line and phrasing and the duet ending Act three between Xaïma and Hermosa “Oh ! oui, malgré l’aurore” was a real highlight, displaying Gounod’s celestial lyricism at its finest.
Special mention must be made of the chorus of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester which play a major part in the first two Acts of the opera. Apart from the stirring “Debout! enfants de l’Ibérie!” anthem, there was some fabulous exclamatory singing in the manner of a Greek chorus, especially when the le peuple repeat the ever increasing bids for Xaïma in the dramatic auction of virgins. The shriek when Ben-Saïd finally offers the stupefying sum of ten thousand gold dinars for the belle of Zamora was far more cacophonous than anything ever heard on “The Price is Right”.
Leading the excellent Münchner Rundfunkorchester, French maestro Hervé Niquet displayed impressive familiarity with this complex partitura and with baton-less indications, kept the large instrumental and vocal forces under admirable control. Despite dressed in a rather glitzy David Copperfield-ish illusionist frock-coat and with a grabbing, flicking, punching conducting technique reminiscent of Teodor Currentzis, Niquet brought Gounod’s fascinating score back to life with fine attention to orchestral colorings and no small degree of élan.
Bravo maestro, bravissimo Palazzetto Bru Zane.