You’d be forgiven for never having heard of Cinq-Mars – either Gounod’s 1877 opera or the historical character who gives the work its title. The 11th rarity to be revived by the Centre de la musique française at Palazzetto Bru Zane, and recorded with their support, it now follows Felicien David’s Herculaneum (staged at Wexford last year) in also receiving a first production since the 19th century. Oper Leipzig, whose Generalmusikdirektor and Intendant, Ulf Schirmer, conducted the recording, has done it proud.  

Mathias Vidal (Cinq-Mars) © Tom Schulze
Mathias Vidal (Cinq-Mars)
© Tom Schulze

And Cinq-Mars? He was a favourite of King Louis XIII in mid 17th-century France who here, in a libretto based on Alfred de Vigny’s historical novel of 1826, gets drawn into a treasonous conspiracy to overthrow the all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu, represented by the unscrupulous Père Joseph. Richelieu also happens to be standing in the way of Cinq-Mars and his beloved, Marie, who is to marry the King of Poland. The conspiracy is discovered though, Cinq-Mars is imprisoned, and then executed before he’s able to escape with Marie. His best friend, the baritone De Thou, stands by him throughout, offering just one of many apparent similarities with Verdi’s Don Carlos.

<i>Cinq-Mars</i> © Tom Schulze
Cinq-Mars
© Tom Schulze

But Gounod’s opera is a very different beast. While the plot might be classic grand opéra, Cinq-Mars was composed (in haste) for Paris’ Opéra-Comique and was originally designed to include yards of dialogue, replaced with recitatives composed for its 1878 transfer to Milan. The score is, accordingly, somewhat sunny in disposition and a little short on character development: we spend as much time on an extended divertissement in Act 2, for example, as we do on the tragic final act. It is full of moments of real dramatic effectiveness, though, and irresistible easy-going lyricism, not least in Marie’s “Nuit resplendissante et silencieuse”, a modest hit in its own right. 

I should admit that I had my doubts about the piece on disc, and some of those doubts remain. But Leipzig’s production so convincingly and compellingly brings Cinq-Mars (billed here as Der Rebell des Königs) to life in the theatre, that those concerns are relegated to mere footnote status. Three hours – including an interval, placed here half-way through the long second act – fly by.

Much of the credit should go to the director Anthony Pilavachi whose belief in the piece is apparent at every turn. He draws excellent performances from the cast in a smart staging that wisely plumps for clarity of action, further elucidated by the judicious use of extras.

Mathias Vidal (Cinq-Mars), Jonathan Michie (de Thou), Fabienne Conrad (Prinzessin Marie de Gonzague) © Tom Schulze
Mathias Vidal (Cinq-Mars), Jonathan Michie (de Thou), Fabienne Conrad (Prinzessin Marie de Gonzague)
© Tom Schulze

Markus Meyer’s designs present lightly ironic historical elegance, the action contained within a pair of concentric gilt frames. He uses striking neo-Baroque flats much of the time, as well as something more lavish wheeled in for the divertissement (wittily choreographed by Julia Grunwald). At moments of heightened passion, he is able to pare it all back to stylish minimalism, helped by clever lighting from Michael Röger. Costumes similarly run the spectrum from pointedly excessive Baroque (shades of Liberace in Cinq-Mars’s outfit for much of the evening) to understated elegance for Marie. 

Mathias Vidal sang the role of Cinq-Mars fabulously here. His pleasing, lyrical tone is allied to elegance of phrasing, and capable of plenty of heroism. He acted with the necessary mixture of naivety and high-minded intensity in a performance that only improved as the evening progressed, reaching a highpoint in an exquisite account of his Act 4 cavatine, one of the score’s highlights.

Fabienne Conrad (Princesse Marie de Gonzague) and Mathias Vidal (Cinq-Mars) © Tom Schulze
Fabienne Conrad (Princesse Marie de Gonzague) and Mathias Vidal (Cinq-Mars)
© Tom Schulze

Fabienne Conrad was a classy, moving Marie, singing with tone that was creamy and rich, if occasionally rather parsimoniously applied. Jonathan Michie gave us a handsomely sung, clean-toned De Thou and Mark Schnaible a resonant, authoritative Père Joseph. There were fine performances, too, from Danae Kontora (Marion) and Sandra Maxheimer (Ninon), as well as from Sébastien Soules as the dandyish Viscomte de Fontrailles.

David Reiland conducted with utter conviction, eliciting playing from the Gewandhaus Orchestra that was superbly stylish and elegant. Whether Cinq-Mars will stage a comeback beyond this production is difficult to say. What is certain, though, is that this production could hardly make a stronger case for it.