It is ironic that one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite composers should write an opera that culminates in the death of an “execrable tyrant” and “abominable monster” and that it should receive its premiere just four months before the storming of the Bastille sparked the French Revolution. The modern listener might imagine the executioner honing the guillotine and the clicking of the tricoteuses’ knitting needles when they hear the world premiere recording of André Grétry’s Raoul Barbe-Bleu under the baton of Norwegian Martin Wahlberg, who is a specialist in the French repertoire of opéra-comique.
Grétry’s take on the Bluebeard legend is a double parody – of Charles Perrault’s version of the folk tale and the legend the Lady of Fayel, which was very popular in the 18th century – with a libretto by his regular collaborator Michel-Jean Sedaine.
The work remained unperformed for more than 200 years until 2018, and this co-production of the Barokfest Early Music Festival Trondheim and Centre de Musique Baroque Versailles, with its top-notch cast and the excellent Orkester Nord. Judging from the production photographs in the liner notes, it’s a shame this wasn’t released as a DVD as the costumes and sets look gruesome and spectacular.
French soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery is convincing as Isaure, who is forced by her brothers to retrieve the family’s fortunes by marrying the aristocrat Raoul (Bluebeard, sung superbly by baritone Matthieu Lecroat) instead of her lover Vergy (Francois Rougier).
Comic operas, with their combination of sung and spoken lines, were popular entertainment for the whole family at the time and this tale, in which Isaure’s curiosity about what lies behind a locked secret door reveals her husband’s propensity for slaughtering his wives, may have been a bit strong for some of the younger members of the Paris audience. However, there are some stirring orchestral passages which foreshadow Gluck and even Rossini, and notable arias – the best of which goes of course to Bluebeard – with touching duets between the two lovers and comic relief from Osman (Manuel Nuñez Camelino), Bluebeard’s servant who does the right thing in the end.
As one contemporary put it: “In general this work, less well-known and less referred-to than many others [of M. Grétry’s operas] because it is not as melodious, is pleasing to the connoisseur, who discovers in it the austere beauties it was intended to represent”.
Work: Raoul Barbe Bleu
Performers: Chantal Santon-Jeffery s, Francois Rougier t, Matthieu Lecroart b-bar, Orkester Nord/Martin Wahlberg
Label: Aparté AP214