Fromental Halévy (1799-1862), was once remembered for La Juive, an underrated gem championed by Caruso and adored by Mahler. In his own day he had a few other hits, including the grand, five-act La Reine de Chypre, a work admired by Wagner. It here receives its premiere recording, albeit in a slightly pruned version that strangely omits the offstage Gondolier’s song, one of the score’s noted hits.
Sharing subject matter with Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro, it tells of the Italian noblewoman married off to the Lusignan King of Cyprus at the bidding of the dastardly Venetian Council of Ten. A former lover, political machinations and a slow poisoning add to a torrid tale well worth the telling. Musically there is much lyrical gold to be savoured, even if Halévy has an odd tic of composing each aria with the same formulaic melodic and rhythmic pattern. The music shared by Catarina and her beloved Gérard, and between Gérard and the French King, are full of earworms. The ceremonial choral scenes are sufficiently sumptuous.
The French orchestra and Flemish choir under Hervé Niquet are realistically caught with some spectacular brass and wind playing. Véronique Gens is perfect as the passionate and conflicted Caterina with Cyrille Dubois, a real French lyric tenor, as Gérard. Later on, he’s well partnered by the splendid Étienne Dupuis (Mr Nicole Car) as a virile-voiced Lusignan – their duet, Triste exilé, is a standout. A curiosity worth reviving.