Fromental Halevy: La reine de Chypre (1841)

Grand Opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes.

This is another of my re-reviews as OperaScribe has been asking me for years to review the new Bru Zane release which won the Gramophone Award in 2019.

reine_de_chypre

This is one of those operas which has vocal casting to die for. According to Wikipedia, there are seven soloists: all men apart from a solitary contralto. Why aren’t more operas like this? The uninitiated might actually go to operas! Unfortunately, Bru Zane, in its infantile wisdom, decided to cast a soprano in a role written specifically for mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz, a woman who, by all accounts, despised women (although she was very fond of men).

400px-la_reine_de_chypre_-_costume_design_acts4265_-_rosine_stoltz_26_gilbert_duprez_-_gallica

Costume designs for Stoltz (Caterina) and Gilbert Duprez (Gerard).

SETTING: Venice (acts 1-2) and Cyprus (acts 3-5), 1441. Similar to Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro,  (contralto) Catherine’s engagement to Gerard (tenor) is terminated when the Council of Ten decides to marry her off to the King of Cyprus (baritone), otherwise her father Andrea (bass) will be executed. She is forced by Mocenigo (baritone-Martin) to tell Gerard to get lost but he later shows up in Cyprus, is saved from assassins by her husband (both men in disguise) and the two men bizarrely swear eternal brotherhood to each other which becomes a problem when at the wedding feast Gerard almost assassinates the King who throws him into prison for two years when an attempted coup by the wicked Mocenigo (who causes most of the problems in the opera) is defeated by Gerard who gives up his suit for Catherine as the King dies from poisoning by the Venetians and hands over his crown to Catherine to the acclaim of the Cypriots.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Great Hall in the Cornaro Palace, Venice. (42 minutes)

0: The prelude ** has a single, placid, dominating theme which sounds related to the Meditation in Thaïs. Otherwise, the other main attraction consists of some angst and a bit of chromaticism. This is also an abridgment of around half of the originally eight minute long overture, the remainder of which consists mostly of shock gesturing and references to the act two aria for Caterina (the original theme does not return).

4: Le cieux est radieux After a brief recitative from Caterina (although according to the piano-vocal score produced by Wagner these lines go to Gerard), Gerard is heard off-stage singing a gorgeously high (two b-flats and a high d-flat at the end) serenade to a harp accompaniment ** and a rather medieval plain chant vibe to it.

8: En ce jour The pre-wedding duet *** as Gerard and Caterina express their future hopes (if only they knew). It has two solid tunes: the dreamy unison opener, and then another with a bit more spring first from Gerard which he hands off to Caterina and then unison).

15: O vous, la sage providence A lovely trio for the lovers and daddy Andrea ** as they embark on more pre-wedding hopes.

22: Sommes-nous seuls ici? Moncenigo arrives and tells Andrea that either Caterina marries the King of Cyprus, Jacques de Lusignan, or the Council of Ten will have him executed. He has an hour to decide. The duet has one, grave, forwarding tune *, but is otherwise rather brassy and similar to the recitative, if pregnant with terror from start to finish. Musically, easily the weakest item in the opera.

30: Joie infinie A chorus of maidens approaches as the wedding festivities begin. This is okay (if a little meandering for the first two minutes) before the men show up and ground the thing with a bit more bounce **. The cut ballet would go here.

34: L′autel est préparé Everything seems okay until Andrea returns and calls off the wedding. Caterina rebukes her father, Gerard is horrified, the assembled chorus rages in confusion. The finale ** maintains the shock-horror power for five minutes but otherwise lacks a cohesive dominate tune and can get a bit garbled. It just menaces effectively to the curtain.

ACT 2: Catherine′s Chambers. (25 minutes)

1, 8: Le gondolier, dans sa pauvre nacelle After a tick-tock prelude, Catherine has her ten-minute long scene: first about gondolas and love (short but more compact) **, then (much longer, takes a while to warm up) her current situation as she is torn between her true love for Gerard and this having to marry the King of Cyprus thing. Three and a half minutes into this second part the orchestra gets a little more lively and provides us with something a bit more cohesive **.

12: Caterina! Moncenigo arrives and there is a small orchestral nuclear explosion that occurs when he tells Catherine that she must give Gerard the letdown ***.

14, 24: Arbitre de ma vie The remainder of the act consists of an eleven-minute duet for Gerard and Catherine in which she tells him it is over and he (thankfully) musically dominates over the contralto **. There are frequent instances in which he is actually singing higher than her. It shifts gears a lot, but maintains momentum the entire time and the last minute gains an agitation from the bass ** which goes to the curtain call from Moncenigo that Catherine is essentially condemned to Cyprus.

ACT 3: The Gardens of Nicosia. (23 minutes)

3: Au jeu mes amis! After an okay party opener, Moncenigo pays Strozzi (the leader of a band of assassins) to kill the recently arrived Gerard. Strozzi and the chorus then give us one heck of a party number ***.

10, 17, 20: Vous qui de la chevalerie/Triste exilé The remainder of the act consists of a twelve-minute long post-assassination attempt duet for Lusignano and Gerard which includes three good sections: one in unison to a walking melody **, the second has each man taking turns **, and finally in the last three minutes they swear eternal brotherhood while not know who the other actually is ***.

ACT 4:  Great Hall of the Royal Palace, Nicosia. (31 minutes)

0, 5, 9: Le beau jour/Le ciel/Gloire à la reine! A bizarre but joyful wedding feast opener *, incredibly weird if energetic. It is followed by the strident chords from the Herald. The orchestration is somewhat Beethovenian here, in contrast to the country-walk chorus that follows **, which nevertheless ends in an explosion. Lusignano does his thing introducing Caterina to the Cypriots, followed by a grand march *.

14: À mes aieux! Gerard, in a long recitative and a brooding aria ***, attempts to assassinate Lusignano during a public procession with Caterina to a modified form of the opening theme from the prelude to act one. Although slow at first, it builds, and once the chorus comes on it turns to operatic platinum giving the tenor a magnificently high finish. This nine-minute sequence recitative/aria is an addition not included in the live performances given in Paris.

20: Qu′ai-je vu! The ten-minute act finale ***: Gerard is foiled upon realizing that Lusignano himself is his savior from act three. Caterina is surprised to see Gerard again and rather wants to die, Lusignano left in the uncomfortable position of being unwilling to kill Gerard even though he has just attempted to kill him. Gerard is imprisoned, in spite of the calls for capital punishment from the Cypriots.

ACT 5: (35 minutes)

Scene 1: The bedroom of Lusignano, two years later.

3: Gerard! Gerard! After a brief orchestral introduction and a report from Caterina on the deteriorating health of her husband, she fantasizes about Gerard **.

7: À ton noble courage Lusignano staggers out of bed long enough for this cavatina ** which turns into a duet with Caterina. Gerard is brought and reveals that the Venetian physicians are poising the King and that he, Gerard is the former fiance of Caterina.

12: Quand le devoir sacré Gerard starts us off with an etherial melody which raises further in his duet with Caterina *** and finishes magnificently. She pleads with him to flee Cyprus, which he promises, but Moncenigo shows up revealing his plot to murder the King and then have the lovers disposed of. Lusignano rises from bed.

25: À cet instant suprême After a long patch of recitative, and after one thought Halevy could not top himself after that duet, he does it with this six-minute quartet ***.

Scene 2: The port of Nicosia.

31: Nous triomphons! The finale ***: Gerard is victorious (in one minute) over Moncenigo  , the dying Lusignano gives the crown to Caterina, and Gerard leaves her to her kingdom (queendom?) as the curtain falls.

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Hans Makart, Venice pays tribute to Catherine Cornaro, 1872-73.

COMMENTS:

Well, this is big difference from when I first reviewed this opera back in 2017!

Although all of the ballets have been cut (and there are many), the only thing I can still really fault this recording on is that Caterina is performed by a soprano, and I really wanted the role to be sung by a mezzo-soprano or contralto as it was intended to be sung. Not that Veronique Gens does a bad job, she is great, but I sort of wanted to hear a lot of contralto/tenor music here and I was deprived that pleasure. It is painfully obvious that Gerard is the primary exhibition role in the opera, and this would be more greatly stressed if in fact the opening lines of the opera were reassigned to Gerard. The inclusion of the act four aria for Gerard also reenforces this. However, this all amplifies that Caterina is not intended to be sung by, nor pitched up for, a soprano.

The plot unfolds in the simplest fashion, each act consisting of only one or two plot elements. The music is mostly successful, although there are weaknesses: the Moncenigo-Andrea duet in act one is sterile, the opening of act four is also rather bizarre, and there are long passages of plot forwarding recitative, but when having to rise up for a number, Halevy does not disappoint. An alpha, maybe even plus.

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