It isn’t quite true, as this premiere recording claims, that Gwendoline is “Chabrier’s only work to reveal the influence of Wagner” – only a year ago a disc appeared of Briseis (Hyperion, 8/95), which is in similar vein; but certainly it presents Chabrier in a very different light from his scintillating comic operas, which have afforded such pleasure. The librettist for Gwendoline, as for Briseis, was Catulle Mendes, as fervent a Wagnerian as Chabrier himself, and the subject has Wagnerian overtones. A marauding Viking, Harald, falls instantly in love with the daughter of the Saxon chief he has overrun and is about to kill, and demands to marry her: Armel, her father, is forced to agree but plans to have Gwendoline assassinate the invader on her bridal night. She however, improbably equally infatuated, refuses to do the deed, and during the wedding feast Armel himself stabs Harald: Gwendoline in despair kills herself, though not without the lovers singing a lengthy duet.
Mendes’s dramaturgy is not only painfully thin but takes a long time to get under way; nevertheless Chabrier made the most of his opportunities. The rhythmic patterns at the start of the overture (which ends in grandiose fashion) stimulatingly presage the coming tensions; but the opening scene is of peaceful happiness. Chabrier clearly enjoyed writing the battle music, particularly that for the final attack on the Danes, but equally he brings charm to Gwendoline’s air on the way to make bouquets and to the epithalamium in Act 2. Other highlights are her spinning song (when she cajoles the rough hirsute Viking into trying his hand at the spinning-wheel), and the passionate love duet in Act 2. Chabrier’s scoring is often unnecessarily heavy, as for example in Gwendoline’s Act 1 air “Ils sont rudes... ”: Wagnerism is to be seen in the harmonic complexity and in the employment of leitmotiv technique, though Chabrier disclaims Wagner’s through-composed style in favour of separate numbers.
The orchestra here, with their full-blooded playing, are probably the heroes of the hour. Kohutkova, as the 16-year-old heroine, is efficient (especially on her top notes) but remorselessly bright-voiced, with little variation of colour, and with a tendency to shrillness; Didier Henry disappoints by showing a heavy vibrato throughout; Gerard Garino is an acceptable singer but doesn’t suggest a 60-year-old character; and the enthusiastic choruses’ words are almost completely indistinguishable.
The opera was much praised in its time for its strength and vigour; its premiere in 1886 in Brussels was a signal success and the work was taken up elsewhere; and Ravel went so far as to call it “more important for posterity than The Ring”. Well, I wonder.'