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Fanfare Magazine: 39:4 (03-04/2016) 
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Code-barres / Barcode : 3760014199585 (ID515)

Definitely recommended

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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal


Andre Campra is best known today for his opéras-ballets, a genre he pioneered and excelled at. But in his lifetime he was equally famed for his sacred music, and his tragédies en musique—though that combination of the theatrical and churchly didn’t sit well either with his conservative church superiors or the priggish court of Louis XIV under Madame de Maintenon’s reign. For this reason Campra’s first opéra-ballet, L’Europa galante, debuted in 1697 with its composer using a pseudonym. Not that this left anyone in doubts as to its authorship. According to the lyrics of a popular song circulating at the time, “When our Archbishop discerns/the composer of the new opera/Notre Dame’s Campra/will decamp.” (Yes, the pun’s in the original. I have my pride.) Ultimately this prophecy proved true. Campra left Notre Dame, which he had served as maître de musique, in 1700—and a year after the great success of his Le carnaval de Venise, performed with a transparent attribution to his younger brother (“par M. Campra le Cadet”).

Tancréde was given at the Opéra in 1702. It was not Campra’s first tragédie en musique, but his third in three years: proof that he had settled his considerable ambitions for the time being on winning a reputation as a serious stage composer. They also created a debate with political and social undercurrents over the merits of departing from musical perfection, personified by the late Lully. Rameau wasn’t the first to reap the insults of the Lullistes, although Campra’s musical innovations borrowed from the Italian States were less profound and consistently applied in his tragédies en musique than those of his successor. (In the field of sacred music, on the other hand, Campra introduced and maintained many far-reaching changes that thoroughly displeased the French canons.)

Campra’s regular librettist, Antoine Danchet, piled highly dramatic situations on one another with plenty of the special effects loved by their audience, but without the density of characterization, expressive subtlety, and structural tautness of Lully’s librettist, Quinault. In this, there was no continuation from an earlier day, but a flattening of literary perspective. Campra, on the other hand, expanded greatly the color in his score, accomplished on several levels. Texturally, low voices are employed to an unusually prominent degree. The three male leads are all basses, and one of the two female leads is scored for what we call in modern terms a mezzo. There are also harmonic innovations tied to specific events. Isménor’s “Manes des Roys,” a majestic summoning of dead rulers, is notable for its sudden, far-flung shifts of tonality. Later in that same scene the chorus has completely distinct music from the orchestra, the latter depicting the progress of an earthquake, creating a convincing contrapuntal fabric. Though nothing is mentioned in the liner notes or on the jewel box about which version of the opera is recorded here, it is in fact Campra’s 1729 revision; but much of the content I’ve mentioned, and similar imaginative choices, derive from the original score.

Rameau was very impressed with Tancréde, calling it a masterpiece. He wasn’t the only one who thought highly of the work, and it seems to have become a great favorite both within and outside the French capital for many years. The only other complete recorded version I’m aware of, conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire and released in the early 1990s, is currently out of print in hard copy, so having a new production of it on record, especially with good voices and production values, makes a case for further investigation into Campra’s operatic music.

The recording was made live. It’s impossible to miss this, what with the audible special effects and shrieks from supernatural beings in the background. Alpha’s engineers, however, did an excellent job both in balancing singers with the orchestra, and keeping volume levels and perspective even throughout. There’s definitely a sense of occasion. The flip side to that is here, as well: the imprecisions that come with live stagings. This is understandable, and provided they don’t get to the point of drawing attention away from the work, they’re not that important.

Another issue, though, is. Olivier Schneebeli clearly wants his singers emoting, and some of them aren’t always careful about how this is accomplished. As a result, several of his cast members press their voices in a way suggestive of some verismo singers, who believe tightening the throat and pushing hard in the chest for extra resonance make matters somehow more exciting. This is especially noticeable in the singing of Benoít Arnould. He’s a baritone rather than the bass called for in the score, and frankly sounds uncomfortable in the lower notes of his part. He’ll also frequently press the upper mordents that begin many musical paragraphs in his part so hard as to make them more of a splutter than a note. His lengthy, expressive act IV aria, “Sombres Forêts,” provides numerous examples of this, alongside much attractive, centered tone, agile trilling, and cantabile phrasing. He has an unpleasant way of beginning some phrases with an added “uh” syllable, as well: a 20th-century Italian invention that should have been refused abroad when other nations reasonably accepted Fellini, Calvino, and Pirandello.

If Arnould is the worst offender in this respect, he is by no means alone. Tenor Erwin Aros, who sings several secondary parts, has apparently little concern for staying on pitch in his brief but powerful air as Vengeance, “C’est assez differer.” Isabelle Druet certainly doesn’t go anywhere near as far in her haunting aria “Estes-vous satisfaits,” but there are moments when she forces her voice and goes slightly off-pitch before bringing matters once again under control. (It’s a pity, because her voice is one of the most innately attractive in the cast.) And though Chantal Santon sings Herminie with great power or delicacy, as warranted, she chews up the carpet when it comes to much recitative in a way that does credit to her theatrical instincts but less to her musical ones. It’s not that French Baroque opera should be performed without any expressiveness, after all. But there are ways to provide it that are not only stylistically appropriate but simply sound better than losing one’s pitch in an emotional Sprechstimme.

By contrast, Alain Buet turns in one of the better performances I’ve heard from him in several years. The insistent wobble that has affected his voice for some time is still evident, but not as severely, while the lower notes in his range have a good deal of firmness and much of their old, attractive quality. He still pushes his voice too hard, but in his case it appears to be for greater resonance rather than to convey emotional extremes. The ensemble is also graced with another excellent bass in Éric Martin-Bonnet. His voice has more support than Buet’s, and he uses it with ease. Dynamics play a greater part of his emotional range than they do for any of the rest of the cast aside from Santon, and he scores his points while remaining firmly in control of his vocal production.

Oliver Schneebeli conducts a spirited but suitably varied performance, alive to the broad range of emotions the characters invoke. He phrases warmly, and allows his orchestral soloists full opportunity to make the most of the score’s range of color. His musicians are excellent ones with, in a few instances, striking solo careers of their own. (It’s definitely overreach, for example, to have Sylvia Abramowicz as your continuo’s bass viol, albeit a welcome one.)

The performers then are a mixed bag, but generally satisfactory. Tancréde itself is a fine work, filled with excellent airs, expressive full arias with lengthy orchestral introductions, varied choruses and many, many brilliant dances. Definitely recommended.

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