Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Le Roi d’Ys (1888) [102.57]
Giuseppina Piunti (mezzo: Margared), Guylaine Girard (soprano: Rozenn), Sébastien Guèze (tenor: Mylio), Werner van Mechelen (baritone: Karnac), Eric Martin-Bonnet (bass: King), Léonard Graus (bass: St Corentin), Marc Tissons (baritone: Jahel)
Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Wallonian Opera/Patrick Davin
rec. Royal Wallonian Opera, Liège, 1-3 April 2008
DYNAMIC CDS 592/1-2 [58.46 + 44.11]

Lalo was accused by his contemporaries of succumbing to Wagnerian influences in the second of his two operas. In truth apart from the occasional use of leitmotive there is nothing very Wagnerian in this work, certainly not in the sense we hear in works such as d’Indy’s Fervaal. Instead the lineage seems to derive from French grand opera in the tradition of Berlioz’s Troyens, albeit at considerably shorter length. Lalo effectively wrote the score twice, destroying an earlier version, and the opera had a considerable initial success. However in recent years it has fallen out of the repertory even in France, and so far as I am aware this is only its fourth complete recording in the modern era and the only one currently available - both (as here) on CD and also on DVD. There was also a complete set on 78s recorded in 1943, which I have never heard. Apart from the overture, and Mylio’s lightweight aubade from the last Act - a popular favourite with lyric tenors - the work is therefore nowadays almost totally unknown.
It really is a very good piece, full of excitement as well as the good tunes that one would expect from the composer of the ever-popular Symphonie espagnole. The plot derives from the same Breton legend that inspired Debussy’s The sunken cathedral, the destruction of the city of Ys when it sank beneath the waves. Here the catastrophe is attributed to the rivalry between two sets of lovers, the tenor and soprano pitted against the villainous mezzo and baritone who let the waters in to drown their enemies. Lalo is certainly a very much more dramatic composer than his younger contemporary Gounod. In the score he proudly points out several places where he has used Breton folk tunes to suggest local colour, although it must be said that they don’t sound very different to his own music which surrounds them.
The sound on this live recording is not at all bad, immediate and with plenty of presence although the substantial overture suffers from a rather enclosed theatrical acoustic - but there are plenty of alternative recordings of the overture which have a more generous reverberation. The playing of the orchestra is excellent, although the lengthy round of applause at the end could have been edited down to advantage. The choir are not of the best; in their opening chorus of rejoicing they substitute a diminuendo (at 1.00) for Lalo’s carefully marked crescendo to f which obviates the contrasting quieter passage which follows. At the end of this chorus the score indicates that the sound should fade into the distance, but here the choir are all too palpably still present.
In the duet which follows we hear the two principal female singers. Guylaine Girard is a very positive heroine, but the contralto-ish Giuseppina Piunti shows signs of strain on her higher notes. The women’s chorus, who then return, do not give much pleasure; they sound ragged and the melodic charm is lost. When he first enters, one suspects that Sébastien Guèze may not give much pleasure either, but he soon settles down and delivers some nice phrasing as well as richly rounded high notes. Later, in her big scene at the beginning of the Second Act, Piunti’s sense of strain becomes positively unpleasant; she may be the villain of the piece, but she doesn’t have to sound as nasty as this.
Eric Martin-Bonnet is far from satisfactory in the part of the King; he almost immediately comes in on the wrong note - A instead of C (at CD 1, track 6, 0.58), although he corrects himself after half a bar - and he sounds strained on his high E flat shortly thereafter, which is unfortunate as he has quite a few of them to sing. Oddly enough by his side Werner van Mechelen sounds more resonantly bass-like, but he has the range to reach his generally higher tessitura until he is confronted with a high F (CD 1, track 7, 0.43), which sounds decidedly beyond his comfort zone. He seems similarly incommoded by later high notes (as at CD 2, track 2, 2.52).Throughout one notes how much of Lalo’s writing for his bass and baritone soloists seems to lie above the staff, and the duet between Mechelen and Piunti is not pleasant to listen to. 

The appearance of St Corentin (CD 2, track 3) brings a good solid performance from Léonard Graus (offstage) but his menaces could have been more terrifying if he had been better amplified. At the beginning of the Third Act Marc Tissons also sounds strained by his high notes, even though the chorus sound more secure than hitherto. Sébastien Guèze, who has been nicely heroic in the Second Act, sounds ill at ease in his famous serenade; this has been more persuasively sung elsewhere, although Guèze is clearly trying to be delicate in his approach and he floats his final high A very pleasantly.
Lalo goes overboard in his depiction of the drowning of the city, but it is a pity that - presumably for staging reasons - Patrick Davin employs Lalo’s optional full close to the First Tableau in the last Act, which he states specifically is only for use “in theatres who are unable to effect the change of scene.” The final Tableau is accompanied by the sound of rushing flood water which is obviously dramatically appropriate, but as a sound effect is goes on for too long; and at the same time we are not given the roars of thunder which are specified in the score. The cessation of the sound of flood water for the final bars is slightly startling, but Guèze gives us a nice ringing top C to end with (in the other sets mentioned below, we get this from Vanzo but reprehensibly not from Villa).
The first LP recording of Le Roi d’Ys was conducted by André Cluytens with a cast including Janine Micheau, Rita Gorr and Henri Legay, but the 1955 mono sound, which also suffers from a very dead acoustic, cannot begin to do justice to Lalo’s orchestral palette although it was once available on CD. The first stereo recording from EMI, conducted by Pierre Dervaux in 1973, had the advantage of Alain Vanzo and Robert Massard in the two principal male roles but suffered from some gusty singing in the leading female parts; I have not heard this recording for some years, although I believe it also was available on CD at one stage. The second set from Erato, which I purchased at the time of its original issue in 1990 and still own, had considerably better singing on the female side from Barbara Hendricks and Dolores Ziegler, but on the other hand Édouard Villa and Marcel Vanaud were inferior to their predecessors as the two male protagonists although Armin Jordan conducted with vigour. All of these were recordings made in the studio. The Erato set also had a full libretto and translation; Dynamic make a French and English text available online, but the booklet notes with the CDs come only in English and (oddly) Italian rather than French.
One is always grateful to Patrick Davin for his sterling work in reviving neglected French repertoire, and in the absence of an alternative CD version from the catalogue (or any other DVD version at all) this set deserves a welcome; and it may look better on DVD than it sounds here, although the staging appears to be updated to the Victorian era. But as an audio version it can be little more than a stop-gap until the Erato set re-appears, which it surely must; the recorded sound there (from French radio studios) is much more attractive than the somewhat dead theatrical acoustic here, and the singing - particularly from the women - is better too.
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

Little more than a stop-gap until the Erato set re-appears.

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