FÈlicien David: Herculanum

The French
record magazines have been near-unanimous in praising the resulting 2-CD set,
and the work itself. No doubt in part because of this sudden success, Wexford
Festival Opera
(in Ireland) has announced that Herculanum will be
one of the three operas in their Fall 2016 season. The other two will be
Vanessa, by Samuel Barber, and Maria de Rudenz, by Giuseppe
Donizetti. Classy companions for a long-obscure composer and work!

Indeed, until now, opera lovers—including singers and musicologists—had
no means of experiencing FÈlicien David’s only grand opera Herculanum
(1859) except by playing and singing their way through the original
piano-vocal score, which can be found in many large music libraries or
downloaded at www.IMSLP.org. (The full
score is likewise at IMSLP.) A single aria, Lilia’s “Je crois au Dieu,”
continued to be published and performed into the early twentieth century,
though deprived of its highly dramatic choral component. It, too, then vanished
like the rest. With the present release, we now have ready access to the full
work (well, not quite all of it), in a performance that ranges from highly
proficient to masterful.

FÈlicien David (1810-76) is not even a name to most musicians and music
lovers. His only frequently performed number is “Charmant oiseau,” from the
first of his four French comic operas, La perle du BrÈsil. That aria, with
obbligato flute, has been recorded by numerous coloratura sopranos across the
decades, from Amelita Galli-Curci to Sumi Jo. In recent years, though, his
output as a whole has been gaining more attention. The songs
and chamber and solo-piano works were major rediscoveries.

A recording of his second comic opera, Lalla-Roukh—though minus its crucial connecting spoken dialogue—revealed it
to be consistently accomplished, even at times magical. And one work has even
been recorded twice: Le dÈsert, an engaging fifty-minute secular
oratorio (for one or two tenors, chorus, orchestra, and narrator), set in an
unnamed Arab-world desert. As the work unfurls, a caravan moves across
blistering sands, entertains itself while stopped for the evening, hears the
morning call to prayer, and then sets off for another day of grueling travel.
(The second, and more persuasive, recording of Le
recently won a Grand Prix du Disque for the “repertoire
rediscovery” of the year.)

The various works just mentioned are, for the most part, gentle and tuneful,
with colorful touches in the orchestra. By contrast, a nineteenth-century
French grand opera, composed for the prestigious Paris OpÈra, needed to
traverse a wide range of intense emotions and contrasting moods, corresponding
to the libretto’s hefty conflicts between political powers, social classes,
or religions. Opera lovers have a sense of the “French grand opera”
genre—not least its sometime monumentality—from such works as Meyerbeer’s
Les Huguenots, HalÈvy’s La Juive, and Verdi’s Don
. (Also from a German work that draws heavily on devices typical of
the genre: Wagner’s Tannh‰user.)

In 1859, many musicians and critics in Paris wondered whether the composer
of the ear-tickling “Charmant oiseau” could meet the very different
challenges of grand opera. As it turned out, Herculanum became a
success, holding the OpÈra stage 74 times during the next nine years.
Indeed—as we learn from a richly detailed essay by Gunther Braam in the
hardcover book that comes with this recording—Herculanum was, in its
day, performed at the OpÈra nearly as often as Gounod’s Faust and
Verdi’s Les vÍpres siciliennes and more often than Mozart’s
Don Giovanni. The numerous published reviews—excerpted and evaluated
in the book—praised the singers and the impressive sets and staging.
Contemporary illustrations and affectionate caricatures of scenes from the
opera—likewise reproduced here—give some sense of the visual splendor.
(Full disclosure: I wrote the booklet’s essay on the composer’s life, but I
had nothing to do with the recording.)

The opera takes place in Herculaneum, a city near Pompeii, in the year 79
A.D., just before the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. (In English, the
town’s name contains the second e; in Italian it’s Ercolano.) The central
tension is between a chaste, unmarried young Christian couple, Lilia and
HÈlios, and a nefarious sister-brother pair from the Middle East: specifically
the Euphrates valley. Olympia has come to Herculaneum to be named queen of her
native Eastern land by the Romans; Nicanor, Olympia’s brother, has been
raised to the position of a Roman proconsul. Consistent with the prevailing
operatic practice of the day, the two good characters are a soprano and tenor
and the bad ones are a mezzo-soprano (or contralto) and a bass-baritone. Less
typically, the latter two have some attention-getting passages of coloratura.
The only other solo role is that of a Christian holy man, Magnus—another
bass-baritone—who occasionally declares doom for those who practice sinful

In Act 1, Olympia seduces HÈlios by means of a potion, her dazzling beauty,
and the splendors of her pagan court. In Act 2, the devious Nicanor tries to
win the affections of Lilia, but the Christian virgin remains steadfast in her
devotion to HÈlios and to the God of Christianity. Frustrated, Nicanor
declares that her god does not exist. A bolt of lightning strikes him dead,
suggesting that his theology is faulty. Satan appears and shows Lilia, in a
magical vision, what her sweetie-pie has been doing at Olympia’s court. Satan
then grabs the corpse’s cloak so that, disguised as a mortal, he can continue
stirring up misery on earth.

Act 3 begins with a great festival in Olympia’s court, at which HÈlios
appears; then Lilia, who, dropping to her knees, sings a stirring Credo: the
aforementioned “Je crois au Dieu”; and finally Satan, now disguised as
Nicanor. (Lilia, in horror, recognizes him, but, perhaps out of fear, does not
alert the others.) HÈlios is briefly torn, but, during an impressive
act-finale, in which the characters interweave their music and words with much
intensity, he—in order to save Lilia from being put to death by the
pagans—claims again to love Olympia. Act 4 begins with Satan gathering the
city’s slaves and urging them to avenge themselves on their masters. (He
calls them “sons of Spartacus,” alluding to the famous slave revolt.) In
the final scene, during which Vesuvius has already begun to shake the earth,
Lilia and HÈlios are briefly reconciled; their extensive duet was much praised
by Berlioz and others. Satan reappears and causes Vesuvius to erupt. As hot
lava buries the pagan city and all its inhabitants, the two Christian
lovers—at least one of whom is still chaste—sing of their redemptive ascent
to heaven.

The opera’s music largely resembles that of French grand operas of the day
(and certain relatively serious opÈras-comiques) that are somewhat
better known today, by such composers as Auber, Meyerbeer, and Gounod. Several
of the solo and duet cabalettas are similar in style to ones by Bellini and
Donizetti (e.g., Norma’s “Ah! bello, a me ritorna”), and quite convincing
in context. The orchestra sometimes provides refreshingly quirky effects. For
example, the scene in which Satan urges the (male) slaves to rebel against
their masters may remind listeners at times of certain fantastical moments in
Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, a work that was performed twice in
Paris in 1846 but not again for some thirty years. (The entire ten-minute scene
can be heard on YouTube
.) Audiences in David’s day, hearing this same
scene, may have recalled instead something that at the time was much more
familiar: the “Infernal Waltz” scene in Meyerbeer’s Robert le
(“Noirs dÈmons, fantÙmes”), in which Bertram convokes the
spirits of hell (male chorus) to help him ensure his son’s destruction.

The Christian religious element is well caught by the composer in Lilia’s
“Je crois au Dieu” in the middle of Act 3. The
tune’s solid squareness makes it feel hymn-like and helps us appreciate the
Christian maiden’s bravery and commitment, especially when the chorus of
pagans calls for her death while she continues singing her profession of faith.
The gradual entry of harp and then cornets to the orchestra as the number
advances adds further grandeur and tension
. The dramatic effect, in a
live performance, of this faceoff between Christian soloist and pagan chorus
can be sensed in a video
—recorded in concert—by the same performers who are heard in the
present recording. (That video “trailer” begins with the opening of the
opera’s prelude and concludes with two excerpts from the big Act 4 duet
between Lilia and the now-remorseful HÈlios.)

A powerful confrontation of vocal forces likewise occurs in Act 1, when the
pagan couple and their courtiers ridicule Magnus’s call to repent and to
foreswear their evil ways. The pagans’ jaunty music here seems closely
modeled on the main theme of the closing section in Act 1 of Rossini’s Le
Comte Ory
. Indeed, numerous passages in the work have an
opÈra-comique lightness to them, appropriate to the pagans’
celebrations of pleasure and to their frequent expressions of sarcasm toward
the outnumbered, impoverished Christians.

Only the very ending of the opera disappoints. David was hardly the composer
for convulsive cataclysms. In fairness, though, the closing music was not meant
to stand on its own—as it must in a recording—but to accompany a
spectacular visual effect: Vesuvius erupting and destroying the town and
everyone in it.

Among the many notable passages in the opera, I particularly like four that
occur (or, in two cases, first occur) in Act 1. The romance sung by
HÈlios and then Lilia, “Dans une retraite profonde,” is a touching,
sweet-sad description—with an exotically sighing oboe solo in the coda—of
the modest, secluded life, religious commitment, and pure love that the two
innocents share. (In Act 3, this romance will be restated in its
entirety by the English horn while Lilia, in freer phrases over it, attempts to
draw HÈlios back from pagan bliss.) Olympia’s drinking song, the centerpiece
of Act 1, uses a vigorous polonaise or bolero rhythm; perhaps this attractive
number served as a model for “Je suis Titania,” a splendid aria—with
similar rhythm—in Ambroise Thomas’s opera Mignon. The orchestral
interlude portraying the effect of the love potion on HÈlios is vividly
descriptive, an aspect that Berlioz—not surprisingly, given his compositional
inclination toward the descriptive or programmatic—specifically admired in
his review. HÈlios’s ecstatic declaration of love for Olympia, “Je veux
aimer toujours” (“I want to love forever in the air that you breathe, O
goddess of sensuality!”)—sung soon after the weak-willed man drains the
potion-filled goblet—was much praised by Berlioz and other critics as being
“truly inspired” and full of “passion” and “elegiac gracefulness.”
Lilia is not on stage when HÈlios sings this hymn in praise of the queen’s
eyes, smiles, and “flower gardens” full of “balmy ecstasy.” The Christian maiden finally
gets to hear, horrified, his traitorous song at the end of Act 2, when Satan,
as noted earlier, uses his supernatural powers to let her see and hear—as if
on a closed-circuit television monitor—HÈlios, now decked in royal finery,
sitting at the feet of the pagan queen Olympia, and singing his smitten joy

All in all, this 2-CD set allows us to appreciate new aspects of David’s
compositional deftness. For example, when a vocal melody or phrase is restated
but to a different set of words, the composer often subtly adapts it to the new
words, more than was usual in French and Italian operas of the day. This may
make the vocal parts a little trickier to learn. But, in the end, it surely
helps the singer articulate the new words in a natural and expressive manner
and thus also helps the audience hear the words and grasp their point. (See,
for example, Lilia’s reworking of the melodic line of “Dans une retraite
profonde,” which had first been sung by HÈlios. Not to speak of the more
extensively altered return of this music in Act 3, involving the aforementioned
English-horn solo; this moment was among the many that Berlioz singled out for
special praise.) More generally, even certain numbers that may sound
conventional at first—the festive choruses, an orchestral march—display
intriguing touches in phrase structure, orchestration, or choral texture.

The five vocal soloists do the score proud, articulating vividly the
old-fashioned but elegantly worded text. (Mary Pardoe’s English rendering in
the accompanying book is admirable: accurate without ever sounding stilted. Her
English version of the synopsis is more helpful on a few plot points than the
version printed in French.) Orchestra and chorus are precise and full-toned.
One minor objection: the English-horn player could have been more eloquent in
his Act 3 solo, and even omits a particularly beautiful ornament written into
the score.

My only overall complaint is that the recording favors the voices too much.
For example, in CD 2, tracks 9 and 11, I had trouble hearing the orchestra’s
changing harmonies until I switched to headphones. Similarly, in HÈlios’s
song of ecstasy to Olympia (CD 1, track 21), a listener is not made clearly and
consistently aware of the 12/8 meter. David’s decision here to divide the
beat into triplets, in the orchestral accompaniment, could have been made more
evident to the ear; this would have increased the sense of illicit, throbbing
desire that contributes so much to the dramatic tension in this work.
Herculanum sometimes feels like a close predecessor to Samson et
, a work that Saint-SaÎns was just beginning to compose around this
time and would toil away at for more than a decade.

Edgaras Montvidas is
a Lithuanian tenor who performs in major opera houses and concert halls in
Europe and America: for example, Lensky at Glyndebourne and the Bavarian State
Opera, and Don Ottavio in Santa Fe. As HÈlios, he maintains a firm, sweet
tone, even when expressing (very well) such extreme emotions as ecstasy or
remorse. His French is remarkably good, except on the nasal-i (e.g.,
jardin, ainsi). VÈronique Gens is utterly magnificent
as Lilia, maintaining a full, rounded sound even while conveying much dramatic
specificity. Karine
, as Olympia, is at once commanding and subtle, quite an
achievement. Occasionally she seems too far from the microphone to make full
effect (as in Olympia’s coloratura-rich commentaries over the second
statement of HÈlios’s “Je veux aimer toujours”). Though these three
masterful singers have never performed the work on stage, they bring remarkable
alertness and seeming spontaneity to their solos and to ensemble scenes.

Nicolas Courjal ,
the singer of the roles of Nicanor and Satan, engages in frequent, incisive
word-pointing, which would be welcome in a live performance. But, for a recording
that one may want to listen to numerous times, I find his vocal quality
grating: the vibrato on long notes is slowish (though fortunately not wide),
the coloratura is labored, and short notes are not always perfectly pitched. As
a result, his Nicanor is less than seductive in the fascinating Act 2 duet with
Lilia. Imagine a young Samuel Ramey sinking his teeth into this double-role!
Still, Courjal never forces or barks.

(An interesting complication: At the premiere, the roles of Nicanor—plus
Satan in the guise of Nicanor—and Satan—as himself—were split between two
different bass-baritones, perhaps mainly as a way of managing to have Satan
appear while Nicanor’s lightning-struck body is still on stage. But having
one singer take both roles works just fine on a recording, perhaps even better,
since the characters are never present—or, rather, present and alive—at the
same time.)

At the end of Satan’s scene with the slaves, Courjal manages the tricky
scalar runs by gargling the notes rather than connecting them smoothly as the
score plainly implies (“Ah . . .”); this can be heard in the ten-minute-long YouTube
mentioned above, beginning just after the eight-minute mark. I
suspect that here the performer is turning a limitation into an asset: the odd
vocal production intensifies the weirdness of the moment and impresses the runs
on our memory, so that, when the string instruments restate them in the
scene’s creepy coda, we instantly recall Satan and his nastiness.

As for Julien
, who sings the smaller role of Magnus, he is a youngish bass
(born 1982), frequently appearing in roles such as Sharpless, Colline, and Dr.
Grenvil at secondary opera houses in France. He is capable here but, like
Courjal, not ideally steady. More basically, he lacks the deep, rolling
resonance that would help convey the moral authority of this divinely inspired
prophet. One’s thoughts naturally turn to the sort of singer who could have
made more of this character’s dramatic recitatives: say, JosÈ Van
Dam or RenÈ Pape.

The recording omits, in Act 3, one major vocal number for Olympia (a Hymn to
Venus: “Viens, Ù blonde dÈesse”)—much praised by Berlioz and
others—and the entire divertissement that follows it: an
extended ballet, a choral hymn to Bacchus, and a chorus-assisted Bacchanale.
Since CD 2 is only 49 minutes long, it could easily have included all the
omitted numbers. (The aria was omitted because the mezzo-soprano was indisposed
in the final days of the recording sessions.) This drastic cut, though, should
in no way dissuade anyone from purchasing the recording, which—many opera
lovers who hear it will agree—is one of the most important classical releases
of 2015.

Herculanum is the tenth item in the ongoing “OpÈra franÁais”
series produced by the renowned Centre de musique romantique franÁaise,
located at the Palazetto Bru Zane (Venice, Italy). A convenient listing of the
whole series, as well as of two parallel series—Prix de Rome cantatas and
composer-portraits—is located at the website of the Centre. A lengthy article about the
French-opera series
—including an interview with the Centre’s
enterprising and astute director Alexandre Dratwicki—appeared in the October
2015 issue of Gramophone.

As for the
upcoming performances at Wexford
, I trust that the missing sections of Act
3 will be reinstated, and hope that a video recording will be released
commercially or made available online.

Ralph P. Locke

Musicologist Ralph P. Locke (Eastman School of Music) comments
further on music by FÈlicien David in Jonathan
Bellman, ed., The Exotic in Western Music
University Press, paperback). The present review appears here with the kind
permission of American Record
where it first appeared (in somewhat briefer form).


image_description=Ediciones Singulares “OpÈra franÁais” no. 10
product_title=FÈlicien David: Herculanum
product_by=VÈronique Gens (Lilia), Karine Deshayes (Olympia), Edgaras Montvidas
(HÈlios), Nicolas Courjal (Nicanor and Satan), Julien VÈronËse (Magnus); Flemish Radio Choir, Brussels Philharmonic / HervÈ Niquet
product_id=Ediciones Singulares “OpÈra franÁais” no. 10 [2CDs]