Fromental Halevy: Charles VI (1843)

Grand opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 3 hours 45 minutes.

This is a French counterpart to Shakespeare’s Henry V. As the story is told from the Gallic perspective it is an interesting document for the student of history, but how does it hold up musically? This is yet another grand opera for whom the primary female role is a mezzo-soprano part created by Rosine Stoltz although somehow Halevy got away with including a soprano part in the wicked queen Isabelle de Bauviere. It is also, like everything else Halevy wrote other than La Juive very rarely performed. In fact, after an assassination attempt against Napoleon III in Paris when he was going to attend a performance of this opera, he banned it from being performed in that city although it was performed later in other parts of France as well as in Germany and Italy although after about 1901 it appears the only performances where from a 2005 production in Compiegne from which this recording derives. Because of its subject matter, the opera has never been performed in the United Kingdom.

PLOT: France, circa 1420. Odette is the goddaughter of the King whose evil queen Isabelle is trying to cede inheritance of the throne of France to the son of her lover, the Duke of Bedford, alienating the Dauphin.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xsHO6RmPL4&t=3301s

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A small village in a forest near Paris where Odette and her father live, a hunting party going on. (55 minutes)

0: The long overture ** has one truly memorable military march tune hymne nationale ( which can easily bring down the house and will be repeated so much in the opera that by the end you will recognize it anywhere). It first arrives about five minutes in and then comes back for a conclusion ten minutes in.

11: The opening scene * starts off with an agreeable maidens chorus saying good-bye to Odette (our heroine, daughter of the old soldier Raymond and goddaughter to the King who is about to go to him and nurse him in his recent bout of madness). Odette has a vague and underdeveloped reference to a haunting melody that will pop in later. The Dauphin lives with them for some reason (protection?) in disguise.

19: Raymond brings on the military hymn from the overture out for its first vocal outing and excites the male chorus into following his lead **. It is all about “Never England, the tyrant will be deposed” and so very militantly Gallic in orientation. This is the first of two major melodies which hold the act together.

22: The Dauphin leads another verse of the chorus *** before English troops arrive with their commanding officer Lionel and this gets the Dauphin into trouble. Odette saves him apparently.

28: The ladies of Queen Isabelle come on and round out the ensemble as their mistress arrives on the scene during a hunting party and she has a dialogue with the Duke of Bedford (who is her lover? maybe just co-conspirator). The chorus ends well **.

31: The dialogue between Odette and Isabelle includes such facts as the former’s age (eighteen). It has a rather strong orchestral accompaniment even though it is hard to make this out as a specific number until a haunting melody comes from Isabelle *** at first weakly but then it is taken up by Odette. This is the second major melody which maintains cohesion in this act and as it develops it gets stronger but will sadly never return. Isabelle tries to distract Odette with some false information in which she presents herself as a victim of English interests when in fact she is working for them.

38: The second part of the duet includes some nice coloratura from both ladies **.

41: Odette and the Dauphin embark on a lyrical duet for the remainder of the act. It starts off rather happily **. There is then agitation as they discuss his father.

45: The Dauphin gives a nice bit ** for about 90 seconds and then Odette goes into some details.

50: The Dauphin and Odette, in unison **.

52: Another nice melody ** before he takes leave of her and Odette reflects as he calls “adieu” in the distance.

ACT 2: The hotel Saint-Paul, a party in progress given by Queen Isabelle. (54 minutes)

3: Agreeable entertainments start things off until, after a dialogue between Isabelle and Bedfort, there is a choral number called the Villanelle in which the female chorus patters away as Isabelle comes in on a series of chromatic coloratura scales **.

5: This is followed by another solo number for Isabelle on love and death **. It is almost a cappella in places with minimal woodwind and string accompaniment and as well as minimal female choral work. Both sexes come in for the flowery finish. It is all very pretty coloratura soprano stuff (which readers of my La Juive review will recognize is the only thing Halevy never seemed to get right) but lacks warmth, although this is probably deliberate given that Isabelle is our chief villain, we really don’t need to like her so I’ll be nice and not demote this number by a star which it probably well deserves. Then Halevy does something bizarre and has Bedford (a tenor) in recitative on a low E as he and Isabelle continue discussing their plot against Charles. The three part ballet would be here and then there is another chorus in praise of the beauty of the night as they all clear off.

19, 26: The King comes on hungry and mental **. It takes about five minutes to get into the aria proper and it is rather fragment but I think this may be meant to represent how fragmented his mind. In any case he interestingly pleads for mercy **. The number seems to be reliant on the baritone performing it also being a good actor able to convey the king’s instability.

32, 35, 39: Odette arrives *. She sweetly tries to distract the mad king and finally gives in to singing a cute song **, followed by a game of cards leading to a battle? The vocal score is damaged right at this point but we get a good orchestral bit and then Odette and Charles embark on a vocal battle ***.

47: Isabelle and Bedford return waltzing about vocally ** as they trick Charles into signing away the Dauphin’s birthright to Bedford’s nine year old son Lancaster. Isabelle threatens to get rid of Odette and the card game in order to get Charles to sign.

51: Isabelle addresses the crowd *, there is now peace between France and England due to French royal capitulation, Odette can not believe that the Dauphin has been disinherited as Bedford gives her a run down on current events.

ACT 3:

Scene 1: An inn near Hotel Saint-Paul (?) (50 minutes)

0: The entr’acte is short but nice *, the drinking chorus in honour of the Dauphin is okay.

2: The Dauphin’s air **, the main melody is not half way away from the hymn national.

11: A sad but pretty chorus in praise of God and nature floats about ** as Charles shows up supported by Odette.

16: He addresses her to a rich orchestral accompaniment *.

18: Raymond (Odette’s father) comes on briefly and the Dauphin returns for a trio with Odette and Charles, the first melody coming from her and a clarinet *.

22: Charles and the Dauphin finally contribute, still to a low temperature accompaniment (a horn for the Dauphin) *. Halevy’s seems to have run out of ideas here but it gets the job done at least.

25: Charles recognizes his son at long last to some orchestral accompaniment that sounds strangely like the overture to Wagner’s Rienzi ** and the rest of the number plays itself out with the three taking turns, the Dauphin being the best, as the reconciliation of father and son brings the drama to its mid-way point.

31: Suddenly there is a trumpet call and Raymond tells the King that some sort of celebration is about to happen at Saint-Paul in a cavatina **.

34: An a cappella quartet for Odette, the Dauphin, Charles, and Raymond as they pray to the good Lord for strength ***.

38: Now the orchestra comes back on to finish off the scene and a recap of the hymne nationale **.

Scene 2: Before l’Hotel Saint-Paul.

42: Military drum roll starts off a bizarre (aborted) coronation scene. The chorus *** comes on not joyous but sounding utterly miserable, even funerary. Maybe this is because they are all horrified at seeing what they think is the end of France.

47: Wicked Bedford tries to have his son announced as Dauphin way too prematurely to the shouts of the enraged Charles who tears the crown off of the child’s head amid a combination of horror and joy from those present ***.

ACT 4: Chambers in the royal palace. (41 minutes)

0: Good agitated preluding ** before Odette comes on worried about all the goings on.

5: She prays **.

10: She then petitions God to give her strength to help save France **.

16: Isabelle, Bedford, and Charles come on, the wicked duo trying to convince the latter that he is mentally insane because it is apparently the only explanation for his actions regarding Lancaster (Bedford’s son), although how this figures out is beyond me. The two leave and Charles asks Odette where the Dauphin is, late for some reason. He goes off into a rather interesting ariosos to a minimal orchestral accompaniment *, followed in turn by Odette.

20: Odette’s prayer ***. As with all of Odette’s music its sweetness (and yet strength) are its prize attributes.

28: The bizarre and somewhat creepy Scene des Spectres in which Charles, thinking himself asleep, is visited by three visions “conjured” up by Isabelle: Clisson, Jean sans Peur, l’homme de la foret de Mons, who all tell him that the Dauphin is out to assassinate him. It sort of prances about for a while until a scary chorus finally lifts the number **. Charles wakes up the whole house and tells Isabelle, Odette, Bedford, and Raymond that the Dauphin is going to assassinate him and orders his arrest.

34: The principles go on into overdrive ** when the Dauphin arrives and is arrested (actually Charles wants for him to be killed).

39: The final ensemble as the Dauphin is taken to the dungeons **.

ACT 5 (24 minutes)

Scene 1: The banks of the Seine.

0: Lightly military music wells up from the waters and meanders about for a while *.

3: A soldier (tenor) gives out a message that the time to attack will be at midnight. This turns into a shockingly ardent song *** given that he is a non-important and even unnamed character, which is separated into verses by an interlude from the orchestra.

7, 11: Raymond and a group of previously unheard of knights (Dunois, Saintrailles, Tanguy Duchatal, Lahire) come on with their men * and vow to save France from being taken over by the English in a solemn scene **.

14: Odette finally arrives, the men think she will lead them but she says no, it will be the flame of God in a grand ensemble as the scene changes **.

Scene 2: Abbey of Saint-Denis.

17: The Finale Scene **. The Dauphin and the King meet, each threatening the other with sudden death. Odette and the men arrive to defend France and Bedford ends up dead but not before he mortally wounds Charles who then announces to everyone the new king, his son.

20: “Say no to the English!” in one last stand at French patriotism as the King dies and the curtain falls ***.

COMMENTS:

This is an excellent opera, bordering on greatness. Unlike La Juive where I have a love-hate relationship with Eudoxie (sort of a bad thing) here I despise Isabelle with a passion which is a very good thing because she is a witch with a crown, and that is putting it nicely. Odette, on the other hand, is a ravishingly wonderful heroine, virtuous and strong, an almost but not quite Jeanne d’Arc. What is more she gets most of the best music because our dear Rosine Stoltz created her. Charles VI’s insanity is well presented in acts 2 and 3 but becomes a little annoying in act 4 when he gets tricked by the ghosts and has the Dauphin arrested on conspiracy charges (shouldn’t he know better by now that Isabelle is an evil two faced liar out to destroy both of them, especially after the failed inheritance scene in the previous act?). Don’t get me wrong, Bedford is also terrible but at least we have the satisfaction of seeing him die on stage. That leaves the Dauphin as Raymond is relatively nondescript. We don’t really get to see that much of him (the Dauphin) but he does get a great verse of the hymne national, a duet with Odette in act 1, and a good aria with the drinkers and that lovely trio in act 3 as well as pop in cameos in the last two acts. Gilbert Duprez must have been wanting a smaller role for some reason.

There are a few low temp moments like the first half of the act three trio, and the ghosts in act four are a little below par, but these almost come as a relief and a time to come off of the best music, which is sublime (good music irrigates the entire score), and take a breather. I wish Halevy had brought back that haunting melody from the act 1 Odette-Isabelle duet, what a shame he did not because it was a much a real winner as the hymne nationale. If I can fault the opera it would be over Isabelle. She exposes the only weakness in Halevy’s music, he could not write a great lyrical coloratura soprano part to save his life. Like Eudoxie, Isabelle is musically sterile, but this isn’t as much of a problem here because she is evil and we aren’t supposed to like her anyway (also would Rosine have allowed herself to have been upstaged by a soprano, really?).

That said, this fact about Isabelle saves the opera from becoming a victim of its good but hyper-nationalistic libretto because she and Bedford are just so horrid, to do anything but cheer for the French would be like Nazi-collaboration. The other thing I might complain about is how long the opera is. Even without the ballet, this is still nearly four hours long and let’s face it, the plot isn’t that complicated, but such is the nature of grand opera. At first I sort of wanted more out of Odette and the Dauphin romantically (actually there is very little romance in the opera as a whole) but given that she is his god-sister I’ll let it pass. A strong A- on the cusp of a solid A and just below the masterpiece that is La Juive. 

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One thought on “Fromental Halevy: Charles VI (1843)

  1. Thanks for reviewing this, Phil – and really glad you enjoyed it! Lots of ** and ***-rated pieces, I see! The scenes that really stick out in my memory are the card duet, the ghost scene, and, of course, “Guerre aux tyrans!” – a great, rousing tune. I must listen to it again, soon!

    Like

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