Cherubini Les Abencérages Bru Zane BZ1050

Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)
Les Abencérages ou L’Étendard de Grenade 
Opera in 3 acts (premiere Paris 1813)
Anaïs Constans – Noraïme
Edgaras Montvidas – Almanzor 
Thomas Dolié – Alémar 
Artavazd Sargsyan – Gonzalve/Le Troubadour
Philippe-Nicolas Martin – Kaled 
Tomislav Lavoie – Alamir
Douglas Williams – Abdérame
Lóránt Najbauer – Octaïr/Le Héraut d’armes 
Ágnes Pintér – Égilone
Purcell Choir
Orfeo Orchestra/György Vashegyi 
rec. 2022, Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Müpa Budapest, Hungary
‘French Opéra’ CD-book series, Vol. 34
Synopsis & libretto in French & English
Bru Zane BZ1050 [3 CDs: 169]

With this new release of Luigi Cherubini’s opera Les Abencérages ou L’Étendard de Grenade (The Abencerages or The standard of Granada)the Bru Zane label is championing the cause of this frequently overlooked composer. In an up and down career with his operas, Cherubini gained esteem in his lifetime particularly with his sacred choral music.

Although an Italian by birth, from 1788 Cherubini spent most of his career working in Paris where there was an insatiable appetite for opera. From his first Parisian opera Démophoon in 1788 through to Anacréon in 1803, his operas for the Paris stage mainly in the Neapolitan style were largely unsuccessful. There were exceptions; he had his first real taste of success with Lodoïska (1791) and Les deux journées (1800) was widely admired in its day. Written for Vienna in 1806, Faniska was widely praised and notably commended by Haydn and Beethoven, yet its success was short-lived.

In 1809, Cherubini received an unexpected commission from the Prince of Chimay. His response was his great Mass in F major for a church dedication ceremony in Chimay village in the Ardennes region. Its success marked a change of fortune for him and he received a considerable number of commissions for sacred choral works in a similar style, notably Motets, Masses and a pair of remarkable Requiems. It’s with this body of sacred choral works that I first encountered his music.

Cherubini began to achieve success and became a well-connected establishment figure. Under the restored Bourbon Monarchy, he was decorated as Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur (1814), elected as Membre de l’Académie des Beaux-Arts (1815) and awarded a Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur (1841). In 1815 he was appointed to Surintendant de la musique du roi et directeur de la Chapelle royale. In 1816 he became a composition professor at the Conservatoire de Paris and in 1821 was appointed its director, holding the post for twenty years.

It is surprising that Les Abencérages, a substantial pioneering work in the development of French grand opéra, was still to be rediscovered. In 1810 playwright Étienne de Jouy supplied Cherubini with the libretto was based upon Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian’s novel Gonzalve de Cordoue. Cherubini completed the score in 1812 for the opera company Académie Impériale de Musique and the following year the premiere was given at the Théâtre National de la rue de la Loi, Paris with Napoleon in attendance. One of the first French Romantic operas, Les Abencérages received a mixed reaction at its premiere and was performed on fourteen occasions. A revised two act was prepared and received seven performances between 1814-16 after which the work fell into obscurity and has not been staged since in France. A version for Berlin had a run in 1828 and in Italy a production was given in Florence in 1956. In 1975, Peter Maag conducted a live radio broadcast in Milan of what was presumably a cut version of the score; it was approvingly reviewed ( in 2006 by Ian Bailey, but this is the first studio recording. There is also a live performance on the Maggio Musical Fiorentino label of the opera in its Italian guise as Gli Abencerragi, starring Anita Cerquetti.

After two hundred years without performance in France, it was certainly a score ripe for revival This recording is based on the 1813 premiere which uses the ‘composer’s autograph conducting score’ now held in Berlin and ‘the copyists score from the Paris Opéra’. Vashegyi uses all the sung parts and reduces some of the ballet music.   

Les Abencérages is set in the Alhambra, the palace of the Moorish kings in the kingdom of Granada around the middle of the fifteenth century. The reaction to Jouy’s libretto, which concerns disputes between Arab tribes of the Moorish realm the Abencérages and the Zégri, was mixed. In Granada the love story interweaves with political intrigues and warfare. Lovers, warrior hero Almanzor and princess Noraïme are members of the Abencérage tribe. Jeopardising the love of Almanzor and Noraïme is Kaled, chief of the rival Zégri tribe who is also in love with the princess. Almanzor is falsely accused of cowardice by the Zégri and his reputation is restored by the Spanish general Gonzalve of Cordoba.

Edgaras Montvidas has the tenor role of Almanzor the Moorish general of the Abencérage tribe who is in love and betrothed to Noraïme. The Lithuanian-born tenor manages the wide emotional range of the hero splendidly and is not afraid to show aspects of his vulnerability. His Act Two air with chorus Suspendez à ces murs… J’ai vu disparaitre l’espoir, in which the warrior hero realises that without the return of the standard of Granada he will lose Noraïme, face exile or even death, is notable. 

Noraïme the Abencérage princess of royal blood is sung by French soprano Anaïs Constans. It is a demanding role and Constans handles the high tessitura with credit. Standing out is he Act Two air Il est vainqueur!… Ô toi, l’idole de mon cœur where she is both joyous about Almanzor’s victory in battle and anguished at being parted, imploring him to return. Sounding light and buoyant here, Constans’ suitably youthful soprano has a certain purity together with a most appealing tone.

Redoubtable and assured French baritone Thomas Dolié takes the stamina-sapping role of Alémar, the villainous vizier of the Zégri tribe. Conspicuous is his Act Two air Vénérables guerriers – Des cités reine triomphante when he reminds the council of judges, who have the accused hero before them, that all Spain is aware of the proceedings with the preservation of the Kingdom at stake. Dolié really excels in this repertoire; his securely rooted baritone has strength and reasonable weight, effectively adding dark tension to Alémar’s character.

The involvement of Artavazd Sargsyan as Gonzalve /Le Troubadour, Philippe-Nicolas Martin as Kaled and Tomislav Lavoie as Alamir is less than the three major roles but their capability and commitment is never in doubt. Under conductor György Vashegyi the playing of the Orfeo Orchestra, using period instruments, is simply outstanding, with some lovely solos from the section principals. Les Abencérages is an opera with a heavily involved chorus and the Purcell Choir is impeccable throughout.

Recording under studio conditions at the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Budapest, the sound team for Bru Zane achieve clarity with a satisfying balance between the solo singers, choral and orchestral forces. As usual with this Bru Zane ‘French opera’ series CD-book, the documentation here is first-rate, comprising of informative essays and a synopsis and libretto in both French and English. This is one of the finest releases so far in the series and especially valuable.

Michael Cookson

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Book Contents
‘French opera’ series vol. 34 
Alexandre Dratwicki: ‘Italiano, ma non troppo…’
Raúl González Arévalo: ‘The Abencerages: between history and legend’
Jean Mongrédien: ‘Discovering Luigi Cherubini’s Les Abencérages’
Reviews from Le Mercure de France (10 and 17 April 1813)
Synopsis & Libretto in French & English