Gervais: Hypermnestre

Charles-Hubert Gervais: Hypermnestre
Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, Gyorgy Vashegyi
Glossa GCD924007. 2CDs 74’32+71’27

Hypermnestre is a tragédie en musique by the almost totally forgotten French composer Charles-Hubert Gervais (1671-1744). It was first performed in 1716 at the Paris Opera (the Académie Royale de Musique) and was followed by several revivals. It sets a libretto by Joseph de Lafont based on the myth of Hypermnestra, one of the 50 daughters of Danaüs (Danaus), King of Argos. Danao had been told by an oracle that he will be murdered by one of his nephews. But he had 50 of them, courtesy of his brother, King of Egypt, so decided to marry all 50 of his daughters off to their cousins, with instructions to kill their new husbands on their wedding night. That they do, with the exception of Hypermnestre who refuses to kill Lyncée because he had respected her request to remain a virgin. The plot is similar to Francesco Cavalli’s much earlier Hipermestra, was performed at Glyndebourne in 2017 (review here). 

Gervais was born in the Palais Royal where his father was a valet to Louis XIV’s brother. After a period working as a musician for the future Regent, the Duc d’Orleans, to whom he dedicated Hypermnestre, he was appointed as one of the four sous-maître de musique at the Chapelle Royale. His music forms a link between Lully and Rameau at a time when Parisian opera was changing from the early Lullian style of the tragédie en musique to the newer style of the Opéraballet. It also absorbs the increasing influence of Italian music indicated by les goûts réunis of François Couperin.

The music of Hypermnestre is powerful with some wonderfully dramatic moments. As is usual with French opera, it is structured as a prologue and five acts, with many instrumental contributions, most in the form of dances. The Prologue depicts the Games in honour of the goddess Isis, with a promise from the Nile to keep flowing. The five Acts depict the myth from the pending marriage of Hypermnestre and Lyncée, a marriage that we hear in the Prologue will bring peace between the rival kingdoms. The most dramatic moments come in Act III and IV, with the multiple wedding, the instruction from Hypermnestre’s father followed by the wedding night of the 50 cousins. Gervais’s musical depiction is aided by an excellent libretto and a well-balanced contrast between tragedy and more relaxed moments.

This recording of Hypermnestre is based on many years of research and study to bring about a reconstruction by Julien Dubruque and Thomas Leconte. The CD includes both the original 1716 Act V and the 1717 revision, the former following on from the last track of the latter. They are very different in nature and music, and it was a good choice to include both. Listening to them one after the other is fine, although you can also pre-programme your device to choose your preferred ending.

The leading characters are sung by Katherine Watson (Hypermnestre), Thomas Dolié (Danaüs, her father) and Mathias Vidal (Lyncée, her betrothed) with other roles taken by Juliette Mars, Chantal Santon-Jeffery, Manuel Núñez Camelino and Philippe-Nicolas Martin. Not for the first time in the impressive series of recordings of French opera from György Vashegyi’s Orfeo Orchestra and Purcell Choir, I find the weakest aspect to be the vocal soloists, particularly because of their excessive vibrato. As usual, the soloists are engaged in conjunction with the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. Perhaps they have more information about the use of vocal vibrato in Baroque France than I do, but I do find that vocal vibrato interferes with the natural flow of the melodic lines, particularly with the frequent use of ornaments.

That said, the orchestra and choir adopt the style of the French Baroque with impressive ability. Although the Purcell Choir is large, it maintains excellent cohesion of sound. The Orfeo Orchestra always relish the more outlandish aspects of the French Baroque, making a feature of that specific sound world. On this occasion, we have some lovely contributions from percussionist Zoltán Varga, Vera Balogh and Kapolcs Kovács, flutes and piccolos, and Dóra Király, principal bassoon. The concertmaster is, as usual, Simon Standage, with his vast experience of period performance.

As with his past recording of the French Baroque repertoire, György Vashegyi demonstrates his innate feel for the style and the performance issues. My previous reviews of this combination of conductor, orchestra and choir can be found here. As usual, it was recorded in their home at Müpa the principal concert venue in Budapest.