The only opera you're ever likely to encounter by Fromental Halévy is La Juive, which probably qualifies the composer as a “one hit wonder”. But Halévy wrote around 40 operas, from L'Artisan (1827) to Noé (unfinished at his death in 1862, completed by his son-in-law, Bizet). About halfway down the list is La Reine de Chypre (The Queen of Cyprus), premiered at the Salle Le Peletier in 1841. Richard Wagner, reviewing for the Dresden Abend-Zeitung, praised Halévy's score as “noble, feeling and even new and elevating”, concluding that La Reine de Chypre was “decidedly the best that has appeared on the Opéra's boards since Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots”. We didn't get to see La Reine de Chypre tread the boards at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées last night, but the audience was treated to a concert performance, the opening salvo of the fifth Palazzetto Bru Zane Paris festival dedicated to rare French operas.

Hervé Niquet and cast at the TCE © Gaëlle Astier-Perret
Hervé Niquet and cast at the TCE
© Gaëlle Astier-Perret

It's impossible not to agree with Wagner. This is a wonderful French grand opera, very much in the Meyerbeer mould. The action is split between Venice and Cyprus and the plot may be familiar if you've ever heard Donizetti's Catarina Cornaro, composed a few years later and based on the same libretto. Catarina, daughter of a nobleman, is about to marry Gérard de Courcy when the Council of Ten intervenes in the form of slippery senator, Mocénigo, preferring to marry her off for political reasons to the King of Cyprus. Various machinations result in Catarina being whisked off to Cyprus by Mocénigo, Gérard in hot pursuit. On the island, assassins are sent to track down Gérard, who is rescued by Lusignan and they swear eternal brotherhood. Lusignan, however, turns out to be... quelle surprise !, the King of Cyprus in disguise, which rather ruins Gérard's crashing of the wedding to murder the bridegroom! Events are resolved when, two years later, the king is struck down with a mystery illness, a Venetian invasion is repelled, and the dying king hands his crown to Catarina.

Hervé Niquet conducted with his usual theatrical flair, bobbing and thrusting, throwing some dramatic shapes. The Orchestre de Chambre de Paris responded with vigour, revelling in the pomp and exotic colour of the Cypriot acts, in particular, even if they weren't always together. Halévy keeps the chorus busy, and the Flemish Radio Choir (just 34 strong) sang magnificently, banked up along the sides of the orchestra rather than being lost at the back of the acoustically tricky TCE stage.

Véronique Gens © Franck Juery
Véronique Gens
© Franck Juery

There is only woman in the cast of La Reine de Chypre, a deliberate decision on the part of the Opéra to isolate Rosine Stoltz, notorious for getting herself tangled in disputes with other female singers. One simply cannot imagine Véronique Gens acting in such a diva-ish manner. The French soprano is the epitome of grace and good taste, singing the role of Catarina beautifully. After a prelude of church bells and sinuous woodwinds, Act 2 opens with a long scena in which, in lilting barcarolle fashion, Catarina asks the gondoliers to pray for her. Gens was mesmerising here, darkening her voice to dramatic effect as the scene turns to a heartfelt plea. After the interval, she tired somewhat, but was never less than sincere.

Of the other singers, Étienne Dupuis very nearly stole the show as Lusignan, his biting baritone (not unlike Ludovic Tézier's in its tonal beauty) lavished on a stonking Act 5 aria for the king, probably the score's finest moment. He also shared a stirring friendship duet with Gérard, a forerunner of that for Don Carlos and Posa decades later. Christophoros Stamboglis' stentorian bass made a big impression as Catarina's father, while Eric Huchet was a demonstrative Mocénigo, scheming and plotting with glee.

The star tenor at the première was the great Gilbert Duprez, pioneer of singing top Cs from the chest (rather than using “head voice”). Sadly, there were no thrilling chest voice top Cs here, as La Reine de Chypre claimed not one, but three tenor victims. Marc Laho, who impressed so much at Liège a few months ago, fell ill and had to withdraw. Cyrille Dubois stepped in to learn (and record) the role in recent days, but he too had to pull out of the performance. In bravely entered Sébastien Droy to learn the role on the day, spending, I'm told, six hours singing through the unfamiliar score. Unfortunately, after his first scene – where he already sounded quite throaty – it became apparent that his voice, too, had given way and he was forced to continue singing with half-voice, at best, ducking out of ensembles completely. Worse things happen at sea, as they say, but it certainly put a dampener on the evening. Make no mistake though, La Reine de Chypre is a very fine opera and I hope some enterprising opera house stages it soon.  

 

Mark's press trip to Paris was sponosored by Palazzetto Bru Zane