musica Dei donum
Rodolphe KREUTZER (1766 - 1831): La mort d'Abel
Katia Velletaz (Méala), Yumiko Tanimura (Tirsa), soprano;
Jennifer Borghi (Ève), mezzo-soprano;
Sébastien Droy (Abel), tenor;
Jean-Sébastien Bou (Caïn), baritone;
Pierre-Yves Pruvot (Adam), Alain Buet (Anamalech), bass
Choeur de Chambre de Namur; Les Agrémens
Dir: Guy Van Waas
rec: Nov 8 - 14, 2010, Liège, Salle Philharmonique
Ediciones Singulares - ES 1008 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (1.31'15")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list
The title of this piece suggests that what we have here is an oratorio. However, it is called a tragédie lyrique in the list of Kreutzer's works in New Grove. The book which accompanies the two discs includes a chapter about the reception of this work in the press, and one of the paragraphs bears the title "An ambiguous libretto, between opera and oratorio". That sums it up pretty well.
Let us first turn to the composer who is not a very household name and whose works don't belong to the standard repertoire today. Kreutzer's father was from Breslau (today Wroclaw) and came to France to play in the newly formed Swiss Guards of the Duke of Choiseul. He also performed in Versailles as a violinist. Rodolphe received his first music education from him. In 1778 he became a pupil of Anton Stamitz. Rodolphe was a prodigy: he played in public at an early age and when 13 he performed a violin concerto by his teacher at the Concert Spirituel. At the end of the 18th century Kreutzer was one of the main violin virtuosos in France.
However, Kreutzer had also strong ambitions in the field of music for the stage. From 1790 onwards he regularly composed operas. His ballet-pantomime Paul et Virginie (1791) was probably his first successful composition for the theatre. In the article on Kreutzer in New Grove David Charlton writes: "His harmonic language is not without variety, but too often his musical thinking does not progress beyond simple melody and accompaniment (...)". This could be explained by his lack of formal training in this department. The 19th-century music historian François-Joseph Fétis stated that "Kreutzer owed everything to his natural instinct, and nothing to academic training". Earlier he wrote that "all notions of harmony were still alien to him. His custom, while composing, was to walk about his room, singing his melodies, and playing on his violin, until he found an accompaniment which pleased him".
La mort d'Abel is an opera on a sacred subject, and it was not the only one in this genre. The first version dates from 1810 and at that time various works of this kind were being written. There was a direct reason for that: the first performance of Haydn's oratorio Die Schöpfung in France in 1800 with a French text under the title La Création du monde. It was performed in an adaption by Daniel Steibelt which wasn't received all that well by the press, but the performance - with a huge orchestra of more than 160 players - made a great and lasting impression. It raised interest in sacred music and inspired several composers to create works for the stage on a biblical subject.
There was no real tradition of oratorios in France. At the end of the 17th century Charpentier had composed such works under the influence of the oratorios of Carissimi, but the performances took place in private surroundings and no tradition took root. Charpentier also created an opéra sacrée: David et Jonathas, but this form was hardly copied in the next decades. During the 18th century some dramatic works with a sacred subject were written, but they met with strong rejection from the ecclesiastical authorities as they considered sacred history not a fit subject for secular entertainment. At the end of the century the general interest in sacred music waned, in the wake of the French Revolution.
Ironically, Napoleon Bonaparte shared the view of the church. "Generally speaking, I do not approve of the performances of any work based on the Holy Scripture; such subjects are to be left to the Church". However, the preparations for the performance of La mort d'Abel in the Opéra were at such a stage that he couldn't or didn't want to head it off. The subject of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain had been treated in the past. Today two oratorios on this subject are fairly well-known: Caino e Abele by Bernardo Pasquini and especially Il primo omicidio by Alessandro Scarlatti.
The first act of La mort d'Abel recounts that Cain hates his brother Abel and resists the attempts of his parents Adam and Eve to reconcile them. After a while he relents and Cain and Abel promise "lasting peace". Suddenly a voice from Hell is heard: "Peace? Never! No, never!". It is the voice of the fiend Anamalech, representing Satan. When the two brothers make offerings to God, Abel's are accepted and Cain's rejected. Cain gets angry and leaves his family. In the second act he falls asleep and in his sleep Anamalech shows him the misery which awaits his descendants and the happiness of Abel's heirs. He then urges Cain to wake as his brother is coming and he gives him an iron club. Abel tries to calm Cain down and seeks reconciliation. In his fury, driven by Satan, Cain uses the club to kill Abel. He then flees. After a while Adam and Eve arrive and they realise that Abel is dead. "God's decree has been accomplished. This is death, as the Angel predicted". Cain returns and confesses his crime. He decides to leave his relatives for good, only followed - against his wishes - by his wife and children. A choir of angels then brings Abel into heaven.
Originally this opera had three acts. The second was situated in Hell, and it was much criticised, not so much for religious as for dramatic reasons. Le Publiciste wrote that the authors "had not taken into account the fact that the lack of contrasts within the act itself would be wearisome to the audience. A whole act of barbaric music is more than the ear can stand". Another paper emphasized that it was the librettist who was to blame "for not providing him [Kreutzer] with the slightest opportunity for variety in an act in which there are only demons thirsting for blood". In the second version of 1825 which is recorded here the whole second act was cut. This performance won lavish praise from none other than Hector Berlioz.
La mort d'Abel is a most interesting and intriguing work which shows some features of French opera tradition and modern traits. The sleeping aria in the second act combines the two. It refers to the air de sommeil which was frequently included in the tragédies lyriques of Lully, for instance, whereas the subject - the infernal vision instigated by Satan - points in the direction of romantic opera. The orchestra has an illustrative role: the overture creates the atmosphere of the scenes which are to come, and that is also the case with the short introduction to the second act. The 18th-century texture of a sequence of recitatives and arias has gone. The opera comprises mostly longer scenes which now and then include an aria which one could probably compare with an 18th century arioso: they are often quite long and there is hardly any repetition. The content is connected in such a way to the story that it is impossible to isolate the arias from their context.
Guy Van Waas is an expert in the French repertoire from the decades around 1800. This part of music history has been more or less neglected for a long time. It is therefore praiseworthy that he has performed and recorded a considerable number of forgotten compositions. It seems that there is a general trend towards taking this episode in history more seriously as the likes of Hervé Niquet and Christophe Rousset are also exploring the dramatic repertoire from this period. The cast is generally very good. The main roles are those of Adam, Abel and Cain. Pierre-Yves Pruvot sings the role of Adam with much authority but also with sensitivity in those episodes where that is required, for instance when he tries to reconcile his sons. Sébastien Droy does well in the role of Abel, but I would have preferred a nicer voice. That is a matter of taste, but I feel that his voice just has too many sharp edges and isn't smooth enough for this role. Jean-Sébastien Bou is probably the most convincing interpreter who does the right things in the role of Cain which is quite differentiated. Cain is torn between various emotions and that comes off convincingly. Bou gives his role much credibility and doesn't push Cain's anger too far. Alain Buet is good as Anamalech: he focuses on the text and the colouring of his voice rather than the volume of his singing. The smaller roles are all well done. That said, I don't like the fluttering of the voices. It is not a very fast heavy vibrato but rather a consistent variation in pitch. After a while I got used to it, and it didn't spoil my enjoyment. Even so, it should not be there and I can't figure out why it has been adopted here.
These discs come with a book of 144 pages in French and English, with various essays on the opera and how it was received, the tradition of the oratorio and sacred opera in France and a biography of Kreutzer by Fétis. Moreover, we get a synopsis and the lyrics with an English translation. It is presented as a "limited and numbered edition of 3000". I wonder whether this is a commercial ploy. I don't know how many copies are made of a common classical disc, but I doubt that it is many more than 3,000. This production may be less 'unique' than the producers probably want to suggest. Moreover, if there were a realistic danger of this production being sold out very quickly, what would be the point of a review?
Johan van Veen (© 2013)
Choeur de Chambre de Namur