LALO/ COQUARD La Jacquerie
First performed in Monte Carlo in 1895, La Jacquerie is almost invariably described as Lalo’s last opera, though the bulk of it is by Arthur Coquard (1846-1910), who undertook to finish the score at the request of Lalo’s family after he died suddenly in 1892, leaving only the first act complete.
Intended as an expression of Lalo’s fiercely republican sympathies, the opera deals with the historical Jacquerie – a 14th-century peasant revolt against aristocratic oppression, during which the rebels proudly called themselves ‘the Jacques’, a term derived from the epithet ‘Jacques Bonhomme’ used as an expression of contempt towards the peasantry by their feudal overlords. The narrative examines the morality and psychology of revolution through the character of the ideologue Robert and his relationships with three people who influence his career: his mother Jeanne, who lives in terror that his beliefs will eventually bring about his death; the nihilist Guillaume, who advocates a politics of revenge rather than social justice; and Blanche, the convent-educated daughter of the Comte de Sainte-Croix, who, unaware of Robert’s identity, falls in love with him while nursing him back to health after he is injured in a street fight. Early critics were quick to point out overtones of Le prophète in the central mother-son relationship, and of Tristan in the lovers’ back-story.
Lalo’s first act is characterised by the streamlined, expressive conciseness familiar from Le roi d’Ys, though it also redeploys material from his earlier opera Fiesque (1867), which remained unperformed in his lifetime. Coquard’s completion forms a successful musico-dramatic unit, yet one notices divergences from as well as similarities to Lalo’s compositional method. The second act, containing Robert’s rabble-rousing aria with chorus and a powerful duet with his mother, replicates Lalo’s no-note-wasted style. Thereafter, Coquard becomes more spacious, as echoes of post-Meyerbeerian grand opera creep in.
Both the Act 3 ballet and the subsequent duet between Blanche and her father feel lengthy after all that has gone before, and Act 4 is dominated by two expansive set pieces, a beautiful scene for Blanche and Jeanne, now allies as the revolution collapses, followed by the lovers’ long-delayed duet, which builds slowly and ecstatically as the pair await the final catastrophe. Throughout Coquard deploys the Wagnerian touches that Lalo introduces at the start – Nibelung-type rhythms to underpin Guillaume’s utterances, a Tristan-esque cor anglais solo that accompanies moments of exhausted stasis. His choral writing, one notices, is considerably more contrapuntal than Lalo’s.
The opera was a succès d’estime in its day, with productions in Lyon and Paris following on from its premiere. Thereafter it sank into obscurity until its revival last year in concert by Radio France, under the auspices of Palazetto Bru Zane, in Paris and Montpellier, where this live recording was made. Conducted by Patrick Davin, it has a restless energy that draws you in and keeps you engaged throughout. The playing is richly detailed, the choral singing fiercely committed and there are some fine central performances. Charles Castronovo’s Robert is all persuasive elegance and ringing high notes: you believe in him as a charismatic revolutionary, and he brings real passion to his scenes with Véronique Gens’s smoky toned Blanche, who is equally convincing as a refined aristocrat, questioning her own moral values as her world slowly crumbles around her. Nora Gubisch’s Jeanne makes up in intensity for what she sometimes lacks in steadiness, and the two baritones are nicely contrasted: Boris Pinkhasovich’s Guillaume sounds very baleful and obsessive; Jean-Sébastien Bou’s Comte gradually strips back the layers of hauteur to reveal the man’s essential vulnerability. The recording itself is scrupulously balanced, with only the final applause to remind us it was made live. A fascinating work, superbly done.