HÉROLD Le Pré Aux Clercs
Operaphiles are indebted to the likes of Opera Rara and Palazzetto Bru Zane for dredging up long-lost works and reviving them both in performance and on disc. The former specialises in Italian bel canto, while Palazzetto Bru Zane, though based in Venice, is devoted to the rediscovery of French rarities. Ferdinand Hérold is best known now for his infectious ballet La fille mal gardée, but Le Pré aux clercs (‘The Clerks’ Meadow’) was hugely successful in its day, notching up 1600 performances by 1949 at Paris’s Opéra-Comique, where the production associated with this release was mounted in 2015.
The opera revolves around the romantic, political and religious intrigues at the Palais du Louvre and the grounds of the ‘Pré aux clercs’ inn 10 years after the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The king’s sister, Marguerite de Valois, married to the king of Navarre, is being held as a hostage of peace at the Louvre, accompanied by young Countess Isabelle. Navarraise envoy Baron de Mergy, in love with Isabelle, turns up and complications arise, mostly involving the dastardly Comte de Comminge, who desires Isabelle for himself. Lighter, comic elements surround Nicette (Marguerite’s god-daughter) and her wedding to Girot, host at the Pré aux clercs. True love wins the day, the opera ending with Isabelle and Mergy reunited after the latter has dispatched Comminge in a duel. Think of it as Les Huguenots but with laughs.
Hérold’s effervescent music is performed with tremendous charm by Paul McCreesh and the Gulbenkian Orchestra. The best arias go to Isabelle and Nicette. Isabelle’s ‘Jour de mon enfance’, which opens Act 2 in duet with a splendid violin concertante, finds Marie-Ève Munger in exquisite form, coloratura cascading like champagne. Jeanne Crousaud is a spirited Nicette, while mezzo Marie Lenormand is a fine Marguerite. Male roles are dominated by tenors, led by the stylish Michael Spyres as Mergy. Ensembles fizz and it’s a joy to hear the mostly francophone cast in acres of dialogue. As always with Palazzetto Bru Zane, the discs are encased in a lavish hardback book, containing the libretto (bravo to any English translation including the exclamations ‘Gadzooks!’ and ‘Egad!’), a synopsis and a series of essays in both French and English. Chapeau!