Mondonville: Isbé

Mondonville: Isbé
Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, György Vashegyi
Glossa GCD 924001. 3 CDs: 61’25+48’55+63’04

For many years the only way to hear French Baroque music performed with any degree of authenticity was by listening to French performers. Although that is still the case to an extent, the level of understanding of French performing techniques has become far better known throughout the world. One example is the series of recordings from Budapest from the Orfeo Orchestra and Purcell Choir under their founder and director György Vashegyi. I reviewed their CD of Mondonville’s Grands Motets here, and their performance of Rameau’s Naïs in Budapest here, and now turn to their more recent recording of his opera Isbé. 

Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-1772) was born in south-west France, moving to Paris in 1733. He came under the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, joining the Concert Spirituel and the Chapelle Royale as a violinist, later becoming director of the Concert Spirituel and Maître de musique de la Chapelle and a well-known composer of opera and sacred music. Although never quite reaching the musical heights of his predecessors Lully and Rameau, his compositions reflect the changing mood in the middle third of 18th century France.

Isbé is in the form or a pastorale héroïque in 5 acts and a prologue. It was his first stage work, and was not a success at its premiere in Paris in 1742, partly because it was staged just after one of the most famous pastorales of the period, Destouches’s Issé. The rest of the planned run was cancelled in favour of another work by Destouches. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear now that Mondonville was pushing the style of French opera beyond that of his famed predecessors, and his style had simply not been understood, notably the incorporated Italian elements. His advances include the use of instrumental colour and texture, notably in the recitatives, which were more formally structured than hitherto, elements later adopted by Gluck. He had a top-notch cast of singers, and showcased their abilities in some spectacular arias.

The plot is based on the chief Druid, Adamas’s passion for the shepherdess Isbé, who is secretly in love with Coridon, who also loves her, but rather less secretly. The story moves towards its inevitable conclusion via a delightful sequence of dramatic moments enlivened by frequent dance and other instrumental sequences. Mondonville’s use of orchestral colour is particularly impressive, notably in some very striking writing for flutes and bassoons, and in such scenes as the Act 5 Tonnerre with is exciting depiction of a thunder-storm. It is a delightful work, and well worth repeated listening.

György Vashegyi and the Orfeo Orchestra and Purcell Choir are excellent interpreters of this complex music, thoroughly absorbing the elegance of French style. But I am less sure about the vocal soloists, many of whom display excessive and unremitting vibrato, of the sort that creates havoc with the intimacy and sensitivity of French Baroque ornamentation. Interestingly, considering my opening comments, most of the soloists are in fact French, and were recommended by the involvement of the cooperating partner, the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. The haute contre Reinoud Van Mechelen has the most impressive, and most stable, voice, singing Coridon.

The recording was made in the acoustically impressive Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, using Müpa Budapest’s own recording facilities. The dates given are 6-8 March, which seems a very short time for a studio recording of an opera, so I assume that most of it was recorded live, although there is no evidence of audience noise and no applause to disturb the gentle ending. The CD production is excellent, with detailed programme notes and a full text with English translation.

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