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Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, August 2012

Divided into a prologue and three parts, or scenes, [Aucassin and Nicolette]’s scored for five soloists, chorus and an orchestra consisting of strings, harp, piano and organ. Generally speaking, the melodic ideas are reserved for the orchestra and serve to introduce recitative-like lines for the soloists and chorus, which are always sung separately. A sprinkling of leitmotifs bond the music to Le Flem’s immaculate libretto…

The curtain goes up with the orchestra playing a commanding pentatonic motif (CP) [track-1, 00:02], which will become a unifying idée fixe throughout the opera. It’s followed by an introduction for chorus and narrator, where the latter is a mezzo-soprano who sings instead of speaking her role, and is usually linked with a reference to CP.

They set the scene in the land of Beaucaire, France, and tell of the love between handsome Aucassin and the beautiful captive Saracen maiden Nicolette. He’s the son of Garin the Count of Beaucaire, who wants him to marry a count or king’s daughter, and won’t tolerate the idea of his being with Nicolette!

This sets the wheels in motion for the first part [track-2] of a novel stage work that begins with Aucassin refusing to defend his father’s territories. And in an amusing aria with some curious Chinese accompaniment [02:56], he goes on to tell Count Garin how he prefers hell to paradise, and must have the heathen Nicolette even if it means his damnation! His father then orders one of his viscounts to send her away, and imprisons his son so he can’t go after her.

However, the viscount locks her in the tower of his nearby palace, from which she soon makes a Hollywood escape by climbing down some bedsheets tied end to end. She then sneaks into Garin’s castle and comforts Aucassin in his cell. But armed men are on the prowl looking for her, and the first scene ends as the Narrator sings an aria with hints of CP [11:38], telling of her fortuitous escape from them.

The second part [track-3] begins with a lovely pastoral prelude [00:01]. The Narrator next describes a country scene with shepherds and the arrival of Nicolette, who’s fled there to hide from Count Garin. She has a lyrical exchange with the shepherds [01:17], after which she goes into the adjoining forest to build a bower and wait for Aucassin, who’s since been freed.

While out riding, he runs into the shepherds who tell him of her whereabouts. The scene then ends in a fetching sequence for the Narrator and reunited lovers, followed by an amorous orchestral nocturne [11:05] worthy of Debussy at his most intimate.

The legend tells us the happy couple then decide to leave Beaucaire. Accordingly the concluding part [track-4] opens with hints of CP [00:01] and the Narrator explaining they’ve been at sea for three days when Saracen pirate galleys appear on the horizon. The chorus then asks God in a reverent choral-like invocation [01:28] to save the lovers from the pagans.

But to no avail, as the Narrator returns [02:18] with more CP asides [03:43] informing us of their capture and separation. Nicolette is sent to Carthage, where she recalls she was once a king’s daughter. Aucassin winds up back in Beaucaire, and the chorus tells [04:46] of his grief-stricken withdrawal from society.

The Narrator next announces [05:47] with a CP postscript [06:08] the arrival of a girl minstrel from distant lands. And yes, it’s Nicolette in disguise, who eventually reveals herself to Aucassin. This tiny idyllic operatic gem then concludes with everyone extolling the happiness of love, a final modal reference to CP [11:02], and presumably everyone living happily ever after.

The soloists include sopranos Mélanie Boisvert (Nicolette) and Katia Velletaz (A little Shepherd), mezzo-soprano Delphine Haidan (Narrator), tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Aucassin), and baritone Armand Arapian (Garin). All of them are in fine voice…They receive superb support from the Lyon - Bernard Tétu Soloists Chorus, and Pays de Savoie Orchestra under Nicolas Chavlin, who give totally committed highly sensitive performances of this rarely heard delicate stage work. © 2012 Classical Lost and Found

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