Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Antonio Salieri - Les Danaides – Gelmetti, Marshall, Gimenez, Kavrakos, Stuttgart Radio Orchestra







In writing of his Axur, Re d'Ormus, in December, I referred to Salieri's position as Gluck's acknowledged heir. Now, as the next step in this most welcome and timely revival, we have a recording of the opera in which that heirdom was established. Gluck himself had originally intended to compose Les Danaides himself, to a libretto newly commissioned from Raniero de' Calzabigi – there existed a well-known one on the same topic by Metastasio, lpermestra, set byPortrait of Antonio Salieri numerous composers, but this was to be something different, stronger, more tragic and 'barbaric'. Gluck may have begun to set it, but then he laid it aside; and soon the Paris failures of Echo et Narcisse decided him to end his career. He had Calzabigi's text translated into French and (without the author's permission) handed it on to his protégé Salieri; the resulting work was given at the Paris Opera in 1784, as composed jointly by Gluck and Salieri and only after the premiere did Gluck disclose that the opera was wholly Salieri's composition.
I am a shade surprised, on listening to it, that anyone could have been fooled. But it is perhaps easier to be wise 200 years after the event, especially considering that Gluck had continued innovating in various ways throughout his last decades. Salieri's score is certainly very 'Gluckiste', and it contains many fine things. Comparisons with Axur are rather beside the point, because the latter is an Italian reworking of a French opera. This, by contrast, is a French opera with what seem to me some marked Italianate features (it was Salieri's first French score). The story is horrific: King Danaïs is to marry his 50 daughters to his brother's 50 sons, ostensibly to end a dispute, but in reality plans that they should slaughter their husbands in their marriage beds; only Hypermnestra, the eldest, refuses – and, far from the usual eighteenth-century happy resolution, the opera ends in hell, with the daughters tortured by demons and furies in a rain of fire, while Danaïs's entrails are devoured by a vulture. We all know that Salieri is no Mozart, and he is not quite a Gluck either. The manner is close to that of Gluck's mature reform works, yet he ultimately lacks the intensity and also the austerity, the discipline that makes Gluck's late idiom so telling; Italian lyricism sometimes intervenes when it has nothing, certainly nothing positive, to offer. And the quality of the invention is uneven. Salieri shows a fine command of the sombre moods that naturally predominate in such an opera; there is a good deal of gloomy, chromatic D minot on lowpitched strings, as one may imagine. There is also some graceful, lyrical music, especially where the mutual love of the heroine, Hypermnestra, and her betrothed, Lyncaeus, is concerned. Salieri catches impressively the tone of agitation and conflict that runs through Hypermnestra's music and which inspires several very fine, extended monologues – there is some particularly striking music for her in Act 2, a grand utterance in a nobly pathetic style (with trombones in the orchestra), and a big air shortly after, notable for its expressive accompaniments. She also has a remarkable and powerful scene in Act 4 and a great dramatic outburst in the last act. Margaret Marshall rises well to the challenge of this role, for which she is amply equipped. The first Act 2 scene draws some fine rhetorical singing from her and also some exquisitely controlled pianissimo. But her special strength is in the expansive, lyrical music – in fact the voice is arguably too beautiful, too rounded to convey the full anguish of the emotions she experiences; a more tightly focused French timbre might serve better, though it would not be anything like as agreeable to listen to.
The role of Danaïs himself is equally demanding, with several narrative and exhortatory recitatives (as at the opening of Act 2 and the scene a little later where he issues his daughters with daggers); Dimitri Kavrakos's stern and steady singing, along with his clear diction, serves well for this role. His voice is now slightly on the low side for it and the higher passages have a hint of tension, which however is by no means inapt; and the depth and darkness of the middle and lower voice help convey the nature of Danaiis's character. There are one or two passages of rather softgrained singing, in the latter part of the work, but in all this is an impressive reading. I also greatly enjoyed Raul Gimenez's Lyncaeus – he has a lovely lyrical voice, with a smooth top in the French style, and a keen feeling for the shape of these lines. His Act 3 air, itself a most appealing piece, is finely done, as too is the noble duet scene for the lovers that follows. He can do less with the rather banal number in Act 4, though his singing is duly fiery. Clarry Bartha sings Plancippe's Act 1 song very gracefully. There are several attractive ensembles (a trio of real tendresse at the end of Act 1, for example) and vigorous choruses, though the triumphal one in the final act is fairly trite music. The use of modern instruments is to my mind slightly regrettable; the sharper definition offered by period ones might have etched in the orchestral contribution more effectively. Still, the performance is well controlled by Gianluigi Gelmetti, who characterizes the music with real feeling, and the choral singing is well disciplined. I note that rather a lot of short cuts are made in the recitative and dialogue – the libretto is printed in full, though for some reason only in French and German – which seems unnecessary with discs containing only 49 and 61 minutes' music. This is not exactly a great work, but it is in many ways very fascinating and I hope that those curious about Salieri and the tragédie lyrique will not hesitate to try it. SS


ape, covers

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