LA REINE DE CHYPRE: HALEVY.
Ediciones Singulares ES1032
French composer Fromental Halevy (1799-1862)--teacher of Gounod, SaintSaens and Bizet--is best known for composing La juive, a once hugely popular opera that was staged by the Met in 1919 as a vehicle for Enrico Caruso, but rarely heard today. Even more obscure are the nearly 40 other operas Halevy penned. This includes La reine de Chypre (The Queen of Cyprus), which had its Paris Opera premiere in 1841. Wagner wrote admiringly of it, and was commissioned to arrange its vocal score during his first Paris stay. Yet the work has not been performed for 140 years, necessitating a new performing edition based in part on Wagners reduction and the composers (partly illegible) original manuscript, which resides in the Bibliotheque-Musee de l'Opera. Some cuts have been made from the original, including the ballets.
The libretto, by Jules-Henri Vernoy de St-Georges, is set in 1469 during the Venetian annexation of Cyprus. It relates the historically factual (in part) story of Catarina Cornaro, who is named by the Venetians to be the wife of Jacques de Lusignan, King of Cyprus. Catarina's original betrothed and true love, the French knight Gerard de Coucy, is enraged and travels to Cyprus to crash the wedding and challenge his usurper. His attack fails and he is arrested. Two years later, with the King suffering from a mystery illness and Gerard pardoned, the dying monarch hands his crown to Catarina. She and Gerard renew their love, everyone withstands the Venetian invasion and the pair enjoy wedded bliss. Only in this last scene do we learn who the Queen of the title actually is.
This recording was made in the historic Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris and features a largely French-speaking cast: soprano Veronique Gens (Catarina), tenor Cyrille Dubois (Gerard) and French-Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis (Lusignan). Herve Niquet conducts the Orchestre de chambre de Paris and the Flemish Radio Choir. The cast and orchestral/choral forces are outstanding in every way. The chorus is especially impressive in the rousing drinking and card-playing song at the top of Act III.
The music, like that of Lajuive, is notable for its grand choruses and heavy emphasis on brass and percussion, particularly in the celebratory wedding scene in Act IV and the brief battle scene that forms the climax of Act V. But there are intimate moments too. Gens and Dubois sing a charming romance and lyrical duo near the beginning of the opera, "Gerard! Mon Gerard!" Gens displays her lovely, warm tone in the touching Act II aria "Et je perdrais mon bien supreme" as Catarina bemoans her fate. Dupuis, as the king, makes his first appearance near the end of Act III when, in disguise, he meets Gerard (on the run from Cypriot assassins). The two, unaware of each other's identity, exchange stories in their stirring duet "Triste exile" and swear eternal brotherhood. Berlioz dubbed this "the most important piece in the score."
Dupuis' warm baritone is a standout; he plays a believably regal and benevolent monarch. His part throughout is brutally high in tessitura, with tops C's, D's and even a D-flat, which he commands with ease in chest register and nicely balanced tone.
The packaging for this set is a story in itself: a hardcover book, totaling 180 pages, with sleeves at the front and back inside covers for the two CDs. The contents are in both French and English, including the full libretto plus several background essays on the opera, the edition used, Halevy's particular genre of French opera, and the soprano Rosine Stoltz, who created the role of Catarina. It is released in a limited and numbered edition of 4,000. The issuing company (www.bru-zane. com) has its headquarters in a Venetian palazzo, with the mandate of rediscovering and promoting the French musical heritage of the 19th century. Similar book+CD treatments have been given to lesser-known operas by Gounod, Godard, SaintSaens, Herald and Mehul. Overall, I'm left with the clear impression that La reine de Chypre is ripe for its first modern staged production. --Rick MacMillan