Saturday, November 13, 2010

The operas of André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry

For a long time the interest in French music of the ancien régime was mostly limited to the music during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV. Only fairly recently the music which was composed and performed in France in the second half of the 18th century has been given some attention. It can't be a coincidence that this year no less than two recordings of operas by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry were released, conducted by Hervé Niquet and Guy Van Waas respectively. With Grétry we have one of the most successful composers of that era in French music history. Part of his success came from the fact that he was the favourite of Marie-Antoinette. She was a music lover and also played the keyboard and the harp. Recently I reviewed a disc which contains a survey of the music played and sung in the salons of Marie-Antoinette and the upper class of her time.

Grétry is also represented in the programme, with a duet from his opera La Caravane du Caire. A complete recording of that opera was released in the early 1990's, under the direction of Marc Minkowski [1]. But that remained a single event, and didn't create any real interest in Grétry's music.

Grétry was first and foremost famous for his comic operas. It is ironic that the two operas Niquet and Van Waas have recorded, both don't belong to that genre. It could well be that comic operas of that time don't go down that well to the audiences of our time. Some years ago I heard a recording of the comic opera L'irato ou l'Emporté by Etienne-Nicolas Méhul [2], and I didn't find it very funny at all. But maybe it had more to do with having a different sense of humour.

Considering his reputation it was quite surprising that in 1778 Grétry was commissioned to compose an opera on a libretto after the tragedy Andromaque by Jean Racine, the most famous French poet of the 17th century. But the then director of the Opéra wanted to offer various styles to his audience, and give them the opportunity to compare them. Andromaque [3] wasn't a great success when it was first performed in 1780. The libretto by Louis-Guillaume Pitra was sharply criticised for disfiguring Racine's tragedy. The same critic also had some bad things to say about Grétry's music: "In this work there is nothing but a shrill and tedious noise (...)." The opera was also criticised for the number of choruses and the lack of divertissements. It was considered too tragic, and particularly the ending. For later performances it was therefore reworked by the librettist and the composer, and that made the work more successful. Niquet decided to perform the original version. It is a pretty modern work in which the three acts are actually three large scenes, in which recitatives, arias and choruses merge into one another almost without interruption. There are very few long arias and the number of dances is limited. The chorus is part of the dramatic development and comments the events or pushes them forward. The orchestra is playing a particularly important role by depicting what is going on. It is also full of contrasts in dynamics and colour, thanks to the scoring with flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani plus strings. There is no keyboard: all recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra.
It is easy to understand that the audiences had problems with the tragic ending: one of the four main characters dies, another commits suicide, and a third is becoming mad.
Hervé Niquet's interpretation is almost ideal. The orchestra is just as colourful and dynamical as the score requires, and greatly contributes to the dramatic character of the performance. The choruses are also splendidly realised. The casting of the main protagonists is spot-on: Karine Deshayes (Andromaque), Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Hermione) and Tassis Christoyannis (Oreste) all give excellent accounts of their characters. Sébastien Guèze (Pyrrhus) gives a fairly good interpretation of his role, but is a bit undifferentiated: he mostly is too loud, and stylistically his singing is debatable.
This recording makes it abundantly clear that Andromaque is a masterpiece, and one has to be thankful to Hervé Niquet for digging it up.

I find it harder to consider Céphale et Procris [4] a masterpiece. It was called a ballet-héroïque and was first performed in 1773. It received a mixed reception, and that was largely due to its ambivalent character. Grétry tried to incorporate elements of the Italian style of his time into the traditional French opera. On the one hand there are sequences of recitatives - which are accompanied by the orchestra -, arias and choruses, on the other hand it includes ballets as in the classical French opera. The work is also traditional in its mythological subject matter and the appearance of allegorical characters. In addition the libretto was considered problematic: Céphale is not a very heroic character, and there are few direct conflicts between the protagonists. As a result the work is not very dramatic, and the fact that the performance under the direction of Guy Van Waas was recorded live doesn't make any difference. All in all, this is an interesting piece because of its form and the quality of the music, but not very captivating. On the whole the interpretation is good, but also a bit flat. Pierre-Yves Pruvot is good as Céphale, but Katia Vellétaz is too uninvolved as Procris. Bénédicte Tauran (Aurore) and Isabelle Cals (Palès, Jalousie) give good accounts of their respective roles, but their continuous vibrato is disturbing. Stylistically Caroline Weynants (L'Amour) and Aurélie Franck (Flore) make a better impression. The choir is, as one would expect, excellent, and the orchestra - more or less of the same constitution as in Andromaque - is also playing well. This production is definitely interesting, and enhances our knowledge of Grétry as a composer of music for the theatre. It is just a shame it is musically not completely satisfying.

[1] Grétry, La Caravane du Caire
Greta De Reyghere, Isabelle Poulenard, Guy De Mey, Jules Bastin et al, Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Ricercar Academy/Marc Minkowski (Ricercar RIC 100084/085; 1991)

[2] Méhul, L'Irato ou l'Emporté
Pauline Courtin, Svenja Hempel, Cyril Auvity, Alain Buet, Georg Poplutz, Miljenko Turk, Bonner Kammerchor, L'arte del mondo/Werner Ehrhardt
(Capriccio 60128; 2005)

[3] Grétry, Andromaque
Karine Deshayes, Maria Ricarda Wesseling, Sébastien Guèze, Tassis Christoyannis, Choir and Orchestra of the Concert Spirituel, Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles/Hervé Niquet
(Glossa GCD 921620; 2009)

[4] Grétry, Céphale et Procris
Isabelle Cals, Bénédicte Tauran, Katia Vellétaz, Caroline Weynants, Aurélie Franck, Pierre-Yves Pruvot, Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Les Agrémens/Guy Van Waas
(Ricercar RIC 302; 2009)