Composers: Gounod
Compositions: Le Tribut de Zamora
Performers: Judith van Wanroij s, Jennifer Holloway ms, Edgaras Montvidas t, Tassis Christoyannis bar, Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Hervé Niquet
Catalogue Number: Bru Zane BZ1033 (2CD)

The history of music is littered with fine composers who had the misfortune to grow old while maintaining their allegiance to an unchanging musical style. Take Gounod, for example. Despite the success of Mireille (1864) and Roméo et Juliette (1867), there is little stylistically to distinguish them from the composer’s greatest hit, 1859’s Faust. A worse fate would befall the cheerful Cinq-Mars (1877), a victim of a public whose tastes were changing faster than Gounod’s. His final opera, Le Tribut de Zamora from 1881, was initially a success, but it slipped rapidly into obscurity, having to wait until now for its recorded premiere.

A proper grand opera, Zamora is a historical epic in the lyrical vein of Faust. Bursting with good tunes and orchestrated with delicacy and imagination, it shows no signs that its composer was suffering a decline in inventiveness. If it looks doggedly backwards, who cares – just imagine it was written in 1855 and be grateful to Palazzetto Bru Zane and BR Klassik for rescuing a delicious score from the dustbin of history.

Set in ninth-century Spain at the time of the Caliphate of Córdoba, the plot concerns a Christian soldier Manoël and his betrothed, the orphaned Xaïma. Alas, the cruel treaty of Zamora requires 20 virgins be taken from their native Oviedo and the lot falls on – you guessed it – Xaïma. When Ben-Saïd, the Moorish warrior sent to collect the tribute, falls for her charms, he sets in motion a chain of events that will ultimately lead to his death at the hands of Hermosa, a supposed madwoman, but actually Xaïma’s long-lost mother. Yes, it’s that kind of story.

Hervé Niquet leads the Munich Radio Orchestra in a pitch-perfect reading of the colourful score, delivering a flexible performance with just the right degree of dramatic punch. The Bavarian Radio Chorus are equally superb and given plenty to do as they alternate between Christian and Arab soldiers and townspeople.

As Xaïma, Judith van Wanroij is a natural-voiced, old-fashioned soubrette with excellent diction. She’s well paired with Edgaras Montvidas who sings Manoël with a passionate and slightly plangent tone. Even better are Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis and the American mezzo Jennifer Holloway in the more complex roles of Ben-Saïd and Hermosa. Christoyannis is a Gounod specialist with a firm, walnut-toned instrument that exudes character and authority. Holloway sings with steady power and a glorious top, making the most of her histrionic opportunities, and is magnificent in the ‘national anthem’, Debout! Enfants de l’Ibérie.

Bru Zane have restored some wonderful music in recent years, but this superbly recorded toe-tapper is a treat, even by their standards.