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Louis-Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791-1833)
Le Pré Aux Clercs - opéra-comique in three acts (1832)
Marie-Ève Munger - Isabelle de Montal
Marie Lenormand - Marguerite de Valois
Jeanne Crousaud - Nicette
Michael Spyres - Mergy
Éric Huchet - Cantarelli
Christian Helmer - Girot
Emiliano González Toro - Comminge
Leandro César - Le Brigadier
Coro e Orquestra Gulbenkian/Paul McCreesh
rec. Grande Auditório de la Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal, 7-8 April 2015
EDICIONES SINGULARES ES1025 [71:57 + 49:59]

The name of Louis-Ferdinand Hérold will always be associated with one work, in England at least, and that is his ballet La Fille Mal Gardée. Who can forget the famous Clog Dance in Frederick Ashton’s production, although having watched a German production on VHS some years ago I remember being shocked by its omission. Even allowing for the popularity of this ballet, Le Pré Aux Clercs, commissioned and premiered by the Opéra-Comique in Paris, is regarded as his greatest success; this despite the lead soprano walking out after its premier production. This in turn led to the composer having personally to coach a replacement, something which has been said to have contributed to his death a few weeks later. The opera was premiered on the 15 December 1832 and went on to receive over one thousand performances in less than forty years.

The opera's plot takes place during the period of the French Wars of Religion that followed the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. It is set some ten years after this terrible event in which hundreds of Huguenot men, women and children were killed by an angry French Catholic mob, said to have been instigated and encouraged by Catherine de Medici. It tells the unlikely love of a Catholic woman, Isabelle de Montal, the queen's lady-in-waiting. The queen's plan is that Isabelle will marry the royal favourite Comminge. Isabelle is in fact in love with the Huguenot Baron de Mergy, the King of Navarre’s envoy. What follows is plot and counter-plot, but eventually Isabelle and Mergy are secretly married; this despite the queen's express orders to the contrary. Their marriage leads to a duel between Comminge and Mergy in which Comminge dies and the newlyweds are able to flee to Navarre. You might think that this is hardly the subject for a comic opera, but it works and works well.

The production recorded here follows the work's modern premiere at l’Opéra-Comique in March 2015 and is beautifully sung throughout by an expert cast. Michael Spyres as Mergy is the stand-out singer. His light, slightly nasal voice is perfect for the role, and he finds an ideal partner in Marie-Ève Munger as Isabelle, whilst Emiliano González Toro adds that sinister edge as Comminge. All the solo singers are in fine voice and have been well cast. The chorus have been well drilled and are a valuable part of this production, as are the Orquestra Gulbenkian under the direction of Paul McCreesh. The overall effect can hardly be described as 'grand opera', and actually reminds me more of the great French operetta tradition. I just wish it was longer.

The recorded sound is excellent. Every aspect is captured well including chorus, orchestra and the cast, whether singing or speaking - and there is quite a bit of dialogue. The discs are presented, as with all Ediciones Singulares releases, inside the covers of a hardback book. The 180 page book offers the listener a wealth of information in both French and English to heighten enjoyment of the opera. Along with the usual synopsis you get chapters entitled: Le Pré Aux Clercs in its context, The music of Le Pré Aux Clercs, The Romantics and the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Two operas for one novel and A popular and sophisticated comedy. This is a limited and valuable edition and one I urge fans of nineteenth century opera to waste no time in acquiring. Whenever I hear one of these productions it reminds me to add more to my meagre collection of Ediciones Singulares releases, and I imagine listening to this might have the same effect on others.

Stuart Sillitoe

 




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