franck hulda bru zane

César Franck (1822-1890)
Hulda, Opera in Five Acts (Original Version 1879-85)
Libretto by Charles Jean Grandmougin after a play by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
Jennifer Holloway: Hulda (soprano)
Edgaras Montvidas: Eiolf (tenor) 
Judith van Wanroij: Swannhilde (soprano). 
Marie Gautrot: Hulda’s mother (contralto) 
Véronique Gens: Gudrun (mezzo-soprano) 
Orchestra Philharmonique Royal de Liège, Chœur de Chambre de Namur/Gergely Madaras Chorus Master: Thibaut Lenaerts
rec. 2022, Namur Concert Hall and Salle Philharmonique de Liège, Belgium
Sung in French. French text and English translation included 
Bru Zane BZ1052 [3 CDs: 158]

Even Franck’s greatest admirers were hardly aware that he had written operas, or assumed that they were without interest as they are hardly ever mentioned, let alone performed. Actually, he wrote four of them, two in his youth, Stradella (review) and Le valet de ferme (so far unrecorded) but the other two date from his maturity: Hulda, which we have here, and Ghiselle, of which he did not live to finish the orchestration, which was completed by his pupils. His great disciple Vincent d’Indy showed no interest in Franck’s operas, being concerned to write his own, and they have been only rarely looked at until recently.

Last year I reviewed a recording of Hulda, taken from a stage production and conducted by Fabrice Bollon (review). I was pleased to welcome this but noted that Palazetto Bru Zane had a production in preparation which might well be preferable. Here it is, and it outclasses Bollon’s estimable version in every way: it is better sung, better played, better recorded and comes with a full libretto and translation. Furthermore, the booklet tells us that it opens out some cuts in the Bollon version and adopts a variant text in some places – I don’t have the details. I must add that in this version Hulda comes across as being of the same standard as Franck’s best works, in other words a masterpiece, while the dramaturgy is no worse than that of many operas which hold the stage.

Franck wrote when Wagner was a dominating influence, and Hulda belongs with other French operas which were strongly influenced by Wagner. These include Chabrier’s Gwendoline and his unfinished Briseïs, Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus and d’Indy’s Fervaal and L’étranger, to mention only some. Wagner’s influence is apparent in Hulda in the story, which is a bloodthirsty tale of revenge, which has something in common with Die Walküre and more with Wagner’s source, the Volsunga-saga, also in the fact that it is through composed, in some of the harmonic language, where the influence of Tristan is very apparent in the love duet in the third act and in the often forceful orchestral writing. There is also a curse, vengeance quartet and a kind of love-death. The orchestra is larger than I had realised in reviewing the earlier version: there is quadruple woodwind and brass, and a quartet of saxophones, though the string section is slighter smaller than usual. However, the music is generally faster moving than Wagner, and lighter and brighter in texture: I was several times reminded of Berlioz.

The story is a grim one. The setting is in Norway, but the story is original with Bjørnson and does not derive from the sagas. At the beginning Hulda is expecting the return of her father and brothers, but their enemies the Aslaks have killed them and come and capture Hulda. She curses them and promises to avenge her family. Two years later the Aslaks want her to marry Gudleik, son of Aslak. However, she prefers Eiolf, who has abandoned his former love Swanhilde. Hulda sets up a duel between Gudleik and Eiolf, which Eiolf wins and kills Gudleik. Eiolf and Hulda have a rapturous duet. Aslak wants to kill Eiolf but by mistake kills Arne, another of his sons. There is an allegorical ballet celebrating the triumph of Spring over Winter. Swanhilde laments Eiolf’s betrayal but he returns and they are reunited. Hulda overhears this and sets up the Aslaks to kill Eiolf in revenge for Gudleik’s death. This happens and then Hulda, considering herself avenged, throws herself into the sea. 

Franck was an experienced writer for voices, having written several oratorios, and he gives opportunities not only for the principals but also for several fine choruses. Hulda has two long arias as well as the love scene with Eiolf and there are good, though smaller parts for Gudrun, Aslak’s wife, Swanhilde and Eiolf. The action moves rapidly, apart from the central ballet, which, however, is a welcome relief from the grimness of the main action.

The cast is a strong one. The title role is taken by the American soprano Jennifer Holloway. She has sung Sieglinde and Salome as well as several French roles. She dominates the action and she has taken care with her French. Of the rest of the cast I want to single out Véronique Gens as Gudron, Judith van Wanroij as Swanhilde and Edgaras Montvidas as Eiolf. The orchestra and chorus deserve special praise for the commitment with which they perform this rare work and Gergely Madaras clearly knows this score inside out and presents it with conviction.

The recording is based on three live concert performances and sounds excellent. Applause has been edited out. The three discs are presented, not in the usual jewel case, but, as I understand is standard with Palazetto Bru Zane issues, in a smart hardback book, with the discs tucked into flaps. The book contains the complete libretto in French with a facing English translation as well as several essays in French and English, numerous photographs and lists of all members of the chorus and orchestra. It does not, however, have biographies of the singers or conductor. So you cannot put this set with your CD collection but it will go nicely with your books. 

This is not a curiosity but a really worthwhile and impressive work. It is also a limited edition. Franckists should not hesitate to snap it up, and I would like to see opera directors exploring it too. Now please can we have Ghiselle?

Stephen Barber

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Other cast members
Christian Helmer: Aslak (bass)
Matthieu Toulouse: Arne (bass) 
Artavazd Sargsyan: Eyric (tenor)
Sébastien Droy: Eynar (tenor)
Guilhem Worms: Thrond (baritone) 
François Rougier: Gunnar (baritone) 
Marie Gautrot: Halgerde (mezzo-soprano) 
Matthieu Toulouse: Herald (baritone) 
Matthieu Lécroart: Gudleik (baritone) 
Ludivine Gombert: Thordis (soprano)