What with The Musketeers and Versailles on BBC television, 17th-century France is on a roll at the moment. It can only be a matter of time before some producer dusts down Stanley J Weyman’s Under the Red Robe. And here, the latest in the Palazzetto Bru Zane’s enterprising series of little-known French operas, is Gounod’s Cinq-Mars. It is based on the novel by Alfred de Vigny, published in 1826. Cardinal Richelieu doesn’t appear in the opera, as he does in the book, but Père Joseph, the original éminence grise, has an important role. There are other historical characters whom one could imagine in a Hollywood epic but who are, sad to say, absent from the opera: for instance the execution of Cinq-Mars is described in a letter that Corneille reads to Milton, both men having appeared earlier in the company of Descartes.
The story of the opera revolves round the Marquis de Cinq-Mars and his fellow conspirators, who plot to rid France of the over-powerful Richelieu. Cinq-Mars is spurred on to rebellion when he is informed by Père Joseph that, despite having the king’s blessing on his proposed marriage, he is to yield the princess Marie de Gonzague to the king of Poland. Ignoring the warning of his friend de Thou, Cinq-Mars organises an alliance with Spain and is condemned to death for treason. Père Joseph tricks Marie into accepting the king of Poland in order to obtain a pardon; but Cinq-Mars and de Thou are executed anyway, Marie’s rescue attempt coming too late.
When Léon Carvalho took over the direction of the Opéra-Comique, he lost no time in commissioning an opera from Gounod. Cinq-Mars was premiered on April 5, 1877, fully 10 years after the composer’s previous opera, Roméo et Juliette. The staging was lavish, the reception respectful, but despite clocking up around 60 performances in 10 months the opera soon disappeared. The judgement of the critics of the day was that, partaking of both genres, the piece fell between the stools of grand opéra and opéra comique.
The critics were right; to which one might add, adapting Boulez on Shostakovich vis-à-vis Mahler, that some of the music is ‘a second, or even third pressing’ of Faust and Roméo et Juliette and that there’s more than a touch of Verdi’s Carlos and Rodrigue in the friendship between Cinq-Mars and de Thou. But there are vigorous choruses, including a Weberish hunting number, a charming divertissement and a fine, chromatically inflected air for the implacable Père Joseph. And it’s extremely well performed by Ulf Schirmer and his Bavarian forces. The Cinq-Mars and Marie are both French. Mathias Vidal has an ideal voice for this repertoire: slightly reedy, with a pleasing fast vibrato. Véronique Gens finds all the gentleness and anxiety in her cantilène, ‘Nuit resplendissante’, and is splendidly spirited later on. Tassis Christoyannis and Andrew Foster-Williams are perfect as devoted friend and scheming priest respectively, and Norma Nahoun makes an enchanting courtesan. Full texts and translations in the familiar book-cum-disc format.