Palazetto Bru Zane 2018 Festival Review: Gounod Gala Is A Goldmine of Hidden Operatic Gems

By Jonathan Sutherland

No one ever pretended that opera was a cheap art form.

As an extreme example, the Salzburg Festival has a budget of over 60 million euros for just six weeks, making its balance sheet the envy of several small Pacific island states. But even in countries with an immense musical patrimony such as Italy, there is a tendency for populist governments to see public funding for “elite” musical activities, particularly opera, as an expendable option rather than a cultural imperative.

To counter the onslaught of the efficacious philistines, wealthy philanthropists such as French-born scientist Dr. Nicole Bru are in the vanguard of what could be called “richesse oblige” private music sponsorship. As the founder of Palazetto Bru Zane – Centre de musique romantique française explained to Swiss Style Magazine, “There is a disinvestment on the part of the State with regard to art and we need individual Maecenas to get even more involved. The need is growing and we must make up for what the State has stopped giving. We need people who are committed to the arts or culture will diminish, and humanity with it.”  Through the Palazetto Bru Zane foundation Dr. Bru puts her considerable largesse where her bounteous mind wanders. PBZ operates out of a superbly renovated 17th century palazzo in Venice with the objective of rediscovering and proselytizing French musical heritage from 1780 to 1920. No small job description as the activities of the organization are not just restricted to presenting esoteric concerts in Venice and across Europe, but also include academic research, publication of rare scores and books, recordings and broad education projects. There is even a Bru Zane Classical music web-radio channel.

In his bicentennial year of 2018, the particular focus of Palazzetto Bru Zane is the music of Charles Gounod. The prolific French composer had a massive musical output but is now remembered for little more than “Faust.” The work is certainly standard repertoire with “Roméo et Juliette” coming a distant second, but as Ivan Turgenev perceptively remarked, “Gounod’s music is like a temple: it is not open to all.”

Entering the Temple

The bicentennial seems to have gone unnoticed by most opera houses, but as if to compensate, Palazetto Bru Zane presented a Gounod Gala in the Auditorium de Radio France in Paris which was recently given an impressive make-over by the ubiquitous pontiff of acoustical engineering, Yasuhisa Toyota.  Jesko Sirvend led the L’Orchestra National de France and the Auditorium’s warm acoustics displayed the ensemble’s frequent creamy sonorities, especially from the cellos. There were several orchestral interludes including selections from the ballet music from “Faust” but the breaks between “Les Troyennes” and “Danse de Phryné,” for example, broke the musical continuity.

Whilst some better-known arias were included, there were enough rarities on the program to satisfy the most recondite Gounod fan. The concert got off to an impressive start with the “Scène du breuvage” from “Roméo et Juliette,” which is also known as “Dieu! quel frisson court dans mes veines!” or more colloquially, the “Poison aria.” Elsa Dreisig, winner of the 2016 Operalia Competition, gave an outstanding account of this bravura scena with its soaring melodic line, tricky trills and stratospheric tessitura. The soprano had some resonant low notes such as the D sharp on “veines” and some really punchy upper range vocalization with solid fortissimo A naturals on “poignard” and “trembler.” The lusciously lyrical “Verse, verse toi-même ce breuvage!” was beautifully shaped with splendid legato and was followed with a pristine sustained trill before a stellar top C fermata on “Ah” which was Sutherland-esque in its precision. The rallentando chromatic scale before the da capo was flawlessly executed. The final fortissimo top B flat on “je bois à toi” had hefty puissance without losing musicality. This was a very fine interpretation indeed – in fact “je bois à toi” could have been directed at Madame Dreisig herself.

A Gem From His First Opera

The title role in Gounod’s first opera “Sapho” was written for the celebrated mezzo Pauline Viardot so unsurprisingly she gets the most famous aria “O ma lyre immortelle” before jumping into the sea à la Senta. The melody actually came from an earlier Gounod composition “Chanson du pêcheur” which Viardot convinced the callow Gounod to recycle. Despite initial public resistance in Paris, “Sappho” was also staged in London in 1851 where it was an even more abject failure, despite Viardot again singing the title role. Greenhorn Gounod unwisely blamed the acclaimed mezzo for the opera’s poor reception which caused a permanent rift between composer and diva. The inimitable George Sand described Gounod’s part in the breach as “his behavior reeked of selfishness and vanity and calculation.” American mezzo and accomplished “Carmen” interpreter Kate Aldrich certainly looked glamorous enough, but despite having the desirable melancholy in “les triestes jours” was lacking in really plummy chest notes such as the low D natural on “douleur.” The top G’s tended to wobble and spread, especially on “fidèlle.”

Unexpected Selections 

Gounod’s 7th opera “La Reine de Saba” is probably best remembered for the tenor aria “Inspirez-moi, race divine!” which was one of Caruso’s trademark encores. On this occasion, it was not inspiration which was offered but the bass aria for Soliman “Sous les pieds d’ne femme.” Patrick Bolleire made a decent enough effort and the recitative was acceptable but the aria marred by obvious gear changes and a tendency to spread the tone and force the upper tessitura. Lower notes were generally much more successful and “époux demain” came from the depths of Soliman’s seraglio.

“Tobie” was an oratorio written by Gounod in 1854 the same year as his spooky opera “La Nonne Sanglante,” which caused such a scandal the director of the Paris Opéra was forced to resign. “Tobie” is on much safer ground with lots of angels and appropriate piety. “Par la main de ce fils” is a relatively short quartet which brought back Kate Aldrich (an uneventful Anne) and Patrick Bolleire (a hooty old father Tobie) and introduced soprano Jodie Devos (a slightly shrill Ange Raphaël) and tenor Yosep Kang as the young Tobie. There were some good contrapuntal sections but the pp change at “Ici ton devoir” was ignored. There were some particularly refulgent low strings playing and the elegiac melancholic postlude was movingly intoned.

Belgian soprano Jodie Devos stayed on for the bravura “O riante nature” from “Philémon et Baucis.” This was a favorite encore piece of Amelita Galli-Curci and its chirpy stratospheric coloratura makes it an absolutely show-stopping aria. Considering Baucis has been transformed from a wizened old hausfrau to her previous nubile appearance by Jupiter, it is no wonder she is over the moon. The playful interchange with solo flute reflects “Lucia di Lammermoor” twenty years earlier and the pétillante rhythms anticipate Adele’s “Mein Herr Marquis” from “Die Fledermaus.” The semiquaver embellishments, scales and arpeggios, long trills and top B’s and C’s were all pristine. The tempo change to allegretto at “D’un époux” led to a deliciously light warbling fioratura with a stupendous cadenza soaring to top F.  If this was a champagne aria, it would most certainly have been vintage Krug.

There was a curious inclusion after the interval in the form of improvised variations on themes by Gounod played by Olivier Latry on the Auditorium organ. Although there were some amusing ideas, there was too much thumpy Soldiers Chorus from “Faust” and the overall impression was of a Wurlitzer accompaniment to a silent movie with less laughs.

Arias & Arias

Almost all the arias performed occur towards the end of Gounod’s lesser-known operas. “Ô chère et vivante image” from “Cinq-Mars” followed the pattern and is a kind of Gounod equivalent of “È lucevan le stelle” or “Come un bel dì di maggio” as the tenor prepares to bite the bullet or greet the guillotine as the case may be. Deutsche Oper Berlin ensemble member Yosep Kang sang with a bright, forward placed technique but his French diction was lacking and emotional involvement negligible. The voice has a pleasing, light lyric timbre but can sound pushed. There was good vocalization on the high G naturals and top A flats but the low A on “Marie” lacked resonance. The principal melody at the larghetto is marked piano but Kang made very little change in the dynamic. Similarly “Voilà tes grands yeux noirs” at the key change should be sung pianissimo but there was minimal modification. Solo oboe and clarinet provided a wistful accompaniment with better phrasing than the soloist.

Written in 1864, “Mireille” had an exceedingly auspicious birth. Reputedly a pre-performance try-out had Bizet playing the piano score and Saint-Saëns humming away on the harmonium. Gounod and the very grand Vicomtesse de Grandval sang all the solo parts. Considering the opera is about ragbag mulberry pickers, peasants and impoverished pilgrims, it must have been an amusing divertissement for the chic Parisians. Jodie Devos seemed less secure in the long lyric phrases of “Heureux petit berger” than she was in the coloratura pyrotechnics of “O riante nature” and the following “Ah! Parle encore” duet with Kate Aldrich was less than stellar. Devos did manage some pure sustained high G naturals in the cantilène with a solid concluding E natural which somehow segued via a short recitative directly into the duet. Devos solid top was evident in the B flat on “implorer Dieu” and although this duet is no “Mira, oh Norma” there were agreeable moments.

The program finished with the “Oro supplex” quartet and epilogue from Gounod’s late oratorio “Mors et Vita.”  A contemporary critic described the music at the premiere in Birmingham in 1884 as having “’the ooze of an erotic priest” and there is certainly some orgasmic, clearly anti-clerical writing in the relative short concluding passage. There is a broad romantic sweep to the oratorio, and despite its dedication to Pope Leo III, could easily have been incorporated into the sensual closing scene of “Faust.” The Latin text caused Kang and Bolleire less diction problems, Elsa Dreisig was able shine in the soaring soprano line and Patrick Bolleire was much more solid. The higher tessitura of the tenor part suited Yosep Kang more comfortably. From the luxuriantly lush orchestration, there was some notably excellent bassoon and cor anglais playing. The monumental instrumental postlude, with booming tuba and trombones, crashing cymbals and a tsunami of organ sonance, brought the concert to a titanic conclusion.

An orchestral encore of more ballet music from “Faust” was somewhat of a letdown. It would have been better to end the evening with the blasting triumphant C major chord of the oratorio, but in any case, the concert was a worthy vindication of the outstanding work being done by Dr. Nicole Bru and her Foundation. Bravos for the soloists and orchestra but bouquets for Palazetto Bru Zane for making it possible. Gounod would certainly have been grateful and his alleged “selfishness, vanity and calculation” well satisfied.


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