The world’s first recording of an opera by the composer of Faust is a cause for celebration. Charles Gounod’s Cinq-Mars (1877) – about a 17th-century French nobleman who plots against Cardinal Richelieu – had a longer first run than Faust, was popular in the provinces – and then vanished, apart from the occasional recital of Nuit resplendissante by an enterprising soprano.
Palazzetto Bru Zane, dedicated to the rediscovery of French musical heritage from 1780 to 1920, is fast becoming a rival for Opera Rara as a purveyor of luxury editions of little-known operas. This recording of a concert performance is a triumph of scholarship and makes a strong case for the opera.
Like most of Gounod’s operas, the work exists in several versions, as the composer turned a historical opéra comique, with spoken dialogue, into a full-scale grand opéra, with sung recitatives and expanded numbers.
The libretto is undramatic, though based on a story which cries out for operatic adaptation: Cinq-Mars began as a protégé of Richelieu, became the favourite (read: lover) of Louis XIII, plotted with Louis’ queen and brother to overthrow Richelieu, and ended up on the scaffold. The French royals and Richelieu do not appear, while Cinq-Mars, Marie Gonzague and Marion Delorme are only shadows of their historical selves.
In the title role, Mathias Vidal shows why he is regarded as one of the best tenors in France. He learnt the role in 24 hours, replacing an indisposed Charles Castronovo, but sounds fully at ease. His voice is in the best French tradition: bright and clear, with impeccable diction, each syllable distinct. He is well matched by Véronique Gens, singing Cinq-Mars’ beloved; she brings her experience of Baroque opera and Mozart to French opera, which requires elegance, clarity and sensitivity to text. Tassis Christoyannis as Cinq-Mars’ noble best friend and Andrew Foster-Williams as a predatory priest are equally enthralling.
While the opera is a pleasure to hear, anyone expecting another Faust or Roméo et Juliette may be disappointed. Although there are beautiful trios and duos, the music is, as its first audiences found, well-crafted rather than inspired, and old-fashioned. Operatic tastes had changed, but Gounod looks back to Meyerbeer and Halévy. Nevertheless, this is an excellent recording of a minor opera, which may hold the stage. Bru Zane must be commended for bringing another work out of the vault where the dust of history has gathered thick upon it.