SALIERI Les Danaïdes
Written for Paris in 1784, Les Danaïdes was Salieri’s first French opera and the work that eventually sealed his international reputation. It was initially ascribed, wrongly, to Gluck, who passed the original commission on to his protégé when illness prevented him from fulfilling it, only stating he was not its actual composer when its success was assured. His reasons for doing so remain obscure, though it is likely his aim was to shield Salieri from the notorious Parisian press should the work fail.
Its first audiences found the subject extreme. The Danaids of classical mythology were the daughters of King Danaus of Egypt, whose throne was usurped by his brother Aegyptus. Danaus took revenge by marrying his daughters to Aegyptus’s sons, then forcing them, under oath, to murder their husbands on their wedding nights. Only Hypermnestra refused to be complicit, thereby saving her husband Lyncaeus. The remaining Danaids were dispatched to Hades, where they were assigned the task of filling a bottomless tub with water, though the libretto changes their punishment to a rain of hellfire, in which Danaus is also chained, Prometheus-like, to a rock, where a vulture feeds on his guts. There were initial complaints of excess, though the opera held the stage for some 50 years. The role of Hypermnestra attracted the great sopranos of its day, and has sporadically done so since: Montserrat Caballé sang it in Perugia in 1983. Christophe Rousset’s new recording is the second in modern times, and is, for the most part, preferable to its predecessor, conducted by Michael Hofstetter on Oehms.
Hearing it, you’re left wondering why its first listeners so readily accepted Gluck’s supposed authorship. Salieri subscribed to his mentor’s ideas of ‘reform’ opera, though his style is very different. Gluck deals in slow-moving gradations of psychological development and mood. Les Danaïdes gives the impression of hurtling momentum and heated emotion, even when the dramatic action pauses. It suits Rousset’s urgent conducting style uncommonly well. The fever-pitch atmosphere is wonderfully maintained. Les Talens Lyriques sound dark, baleful and at times startlingly, if appropriately raw, and the choral singing is thrillingly committed and focused. Hofstetter seems genteel in comparison.
One wishes, however, that one could combine both casts. Rousset has the better Hypermnestre and Lyncée in Judith van Wanroij and Philippe Talbot. Van Wanroij is vulnerable yet tough in her delineation of Hypemnestre’s moral and emotional anguish. Talbot registers Lyncée’s growing bewilderment at her distress with exquisite tone and restrained passion. Tassis Christoyannis’s Danaüs, however, is curiously detached, never fully capturing the sinister authority of a man who will plan mass murder and force his daughters to carry it out. Hofstetter’s implacable Danaüs, Hans Christoph Bergemann, is preferable, though Rousset’s is by far the finer achievement of the two.