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Uncle Dave Lewis, March 2009

Among the foremost advantages of the Naxos recording is its sheer dedication to this material, the passion of Ryan Brown’s advocacy of the Sacchini and the overall sense of balance Opera Lafayette achieves in the performance as a whole. One can easily see what Berlioz found to admire in Oedipe à Colone; its seriousness of purpose and rapid turnover between the galant and more dramatic, Sturm and Dräng elements. Good examples of the latter may be heard both in the overture and in the scene in Act I where the goddesses utilize the High Priest to express their displeasure to the assembled multitude, complete with rattling thunder. At times Oedipe à Colone’s level of dramatic involvement is nearly reminiscent of Berlioz’s own Roméo et Juliette, and the most likely common thread is both composers’ admiration of Gluck. Usually when one considers a classical-period opera on an ancient Greek theme, it immediately brings to mind something specific; a kind of vapid courtly entertainment designed to salve the egos of vain, wealthy kings and aristocrats long gone to their reward. Oedipe à Colone is anything but that; it is an involving and entertaining opera that is nearly as good as the best Mozart did in the genre, but nevertheless is entirely different from Mozart in approach. This is squarely in la manière française, and practically a textbook example of what that meant in the eighteenth century. Opera Lafayette’s Naxos recording of Oedipe à Colone represents one of those relatively rare instances where an “unearthed gem” reveals an opera that once rightfully belonged to the main course, rather than just an interesting side dish.

Brian Robins
Fanfare, April 2007

"Washington-based Opera Layfayette deserves enormous credit for resurrecting this splendid late example of tragédie lyrique....The sound is first-rate. This is a major issue, one that does more than justice to one of the most important neglected operatic works of the 18th century. As such, it is an obligatory addition to the library of anyone interested in the genre."

Universally rated as his masterpiece, Antonio Sacchini's final completed opera Oedipe à Colone has a curiously checkered history. Despite - or, at least in part, because of - the patronage of Marie Antoinette, the period Sacchini spent in Paris (from 1781 until his death in 1786) was for him one of near continuous conflict. Renaud (1783), Sacchini's first commission for Paris became the subject of a bitter political and musical war. Its production was at first stalled by those opposed to Queen Marie Antoinette's support of foreign musicians, and when it did reach the stage it became enmeshed in the infamous squabbles between the followers of Piccini and Gluck, being condemned by the Piccinists for being too influenced by Gluck, and by Gluck's adherents for lacking the dramatic power and originality of their hero's operas. Chimène (Fontainebleau, 1783) achieved greater success, receiving 16 performances when it reached the Paris Opera in February 1784, but Dardanus (Versailles, 1784), Sacchini's first opera to conform to the conventions of tragédie lyrique, also failed to find favor.

Oedipe à Colone was completed in 1785, but the circumstances surrounding its first performance are somewhat confusing. According to the traditional story followed by Naxos's notes, the queen's promise of a premiere at Fontainebleau was withdrawn in the face of the ever-mounting criticism of her support of foreigners. According to this version of events, Sacchini therefore never saw Oedipe; on October 6, 1786, he died, the result, so it was said, of his acute disappointment, although less charitable observers have pointed to a dissolute lifestyle as a more likely cause. Yet authorities, such as Loewenberg's Annals of Opera and New Grove Opera, cite the first performance of Oedipe as having taken place at Versailles on January 4, 1786. Whether or not this was a staged performance is not clear, but in any event, it undermines the romantic story that the composer never heard his greatest opera. What is not in dispute is that Oedipe was eventually given its public premiere at the Opera on February 1, 1787, when it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece.Oedipe would go on to remain in the repertoire of the Opera for more than 40 years, achieving nearly 600 performances, and claiming Berlioz as one of its fervent admirers.

The three-act libretto by Nicolas-François Guillard is loosely based on the second of Sophocles's three Oedipus plays. Polynice, the son of Oedipe, solicits the Athenian ruler Thésée (Theseus) to help him regain the throne of Thebes, which has been usurped by his brother, Etéocle (Eteocles). Thésée promises Polynice not only his full support, but also his daughter Eriphile in marriage. The anger of the gods forces Polynice to reveal that he and his brother were responsible for the exile of their father. Now remorseful, he seeks reconciliation with his father, an objective finally achieved with the assistance of Thésée and Oedipe's daughter, Antigone. The opera has the benefit of a tight framework cast in a form that will be familiar to anyone who knows the so-called "reform" operas of Gluck. The action moves virtually seamlessly through an alternation of recitative, mostly brief airs, ensemble, and chorus, leaving - to an even greater degree than with Gluck ­ little place for orchestral introductions or interpolations other than the obligatory dances. Everything is pared to the bone, resulting in a swiftly moving drama.

If the form recalls Gluck, the music, with the exception of odd moments, does not. For all that he was writing a tragédie lyrique, Sacchini was an Italian composer whose gifts were essentially lyrical. As Berlioz noted, his orchestration is relatively modest, although it does include many felicitous touches and has the benefit of allowing the grateful vocal writing to make its full point. In act I in particular this can lead to a lack of true dramatic intensity, and there are certainly moments where it is difficult to escape the feeling that Sacchini has not risen to the occasion, particularly in the finale, where the priests and populace flee from the wrath of the gods in a scene that bears a strong resemblance to the act II finale of ldomeneo without carrying half the dramatic impact of Mozart's music. At such times, the complaint of the Gluckists that Sacchini' s music lacked "power and originality" carries more than a ring of truth. Acts II and III are far stronger, particularly in the scenes involving Oedipe. His anger toward his sons, and love for the daughter who has cared for him in exile are genuinely moving, surpassed only by the great reconciliation trio in act III, which achieves consummate tender nobility and justly became one of the most admired numbers in the opera.

Washington-based Opera Layfayette deserves enormous credit for resurrecting this splendid late example of tragédie lyrique, although it is not the first with a recording. That honor goes to Camerata de Bourgogne on Dynamic, which issued a set late in 2005, although it has not to date been reviewed in Fanfare. Whatever its merits, it would have to be exceptional to improve on this Naxos, which is dominated by a towering performance of the stricken Oedipe by the veteran baritone François Loup. Extraordinarily, Loup made his international debut as far back as 1974, yet his richly produced and expressive singing here shows few signs of wear to the voice. Better known for comedy roles, Loup here shows himself to be equally a master of tragedy, bitter in his anger toward his sons, truly tender in "Elle m'a prodigué," the affecting air in which he expresses gratitude and love for Antigone, and commandingly fearsome in his initial rejection of reconciliation, a rejection that turns to heart-melting warmth as he finally accepts Polynice with the words "Come to me, I am still your father."

While Loup justly dominates the performance, he be no means outclasses the remainder of a fine cast. Antigone is a wholly sympathetic role, admirably sung and vocally acted by Nathalie Paulin, who finds a Gluckian pathos in the noble act III air, "Dieux! Ce n'est pas pour moi." It sounds like a big voice, but the odd moments of vocal unsteadiness and occasional excessive vibrato are easily forgiven in such a dramatically convincing portrayal. Tenor Robert Getchell is a fine Polynice, suitably heroic in his act I "Le fils des dieux," and convincing in his remorse, while Tony Boutté makes for a suitably authoritative and compassionate Thésée, another tenor role. His daughter Eriphile plays only a minor part in the proceedings, but is prettily sung by Kirsten Blaise. Ryan Brown's direction is excellently paced, allows full reign to Sacchini's lyricism, and whips up considerable dramatic intensity where appropriate. He draws some fine playing from his period-instruments band, and although there are times one wishes he'd been able to more closely approximate the string complement of the Paris Opera at the time Oedipe was composed, that was doubtless a financial exigency.

The French text is provided in the booklet, while an English translation is easily obtained by visiting Naxos's Web site. The sound is first-rate. This is a major issue, one that does more than justice to one of the most important neglected operatic works of the 18th century. As such, it is an obligatory addition to the library of anyone interested in the genre.

In an effort to clear up the confusion surrounding the first performance of Oedipe à Colone , I contacted conductor Ryan Brown, whose helpful reply was received after I completed my review. Following further checks on his part, Brown sent me information trom L'Opera sous Louis XVI by the 19th century French musicologist Adolphe Julien. From this, it appears clear that Oedipe à Colone, was indeed given at Versailles on January 4, 1786, inaugurating the newly built Théâtre d'Hubert Robert. While the opera was received moderately well, the theater was unanimously criticized, leaving Sacchini upset to have had his opera used to test an inadequate new venue. To placate him, the queen promised Sacchini that his opera would be the first to be given during the forthcoming sojourn at the court of Fontainebleau, a promise that, as I explained above, she was unable to honor. It appears that Sacchini unquestionably did hear his greatest opera, albeit apparently not in ideal circumstances.

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, February 2007

You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Antonio Sacchini. Born in Florence, trained in Naples, he specialised in writing opera seria; he spent 10 years in London where his initial success was eventually marred by financial troubles. Fleeing London in 1781 he moved to Paris. There he won the support of Queen Marie Antoinette but got caught up in the warfare between Gluck and Piccini. His opera, Dardanus, was staged by the French court in 1785 and was a success but the Queen failed to get Oedipe a Colonne staged in 1786. This fact is said to have contributed to Sacchini’s death. When Oedipe a Colonne was finally staged in 1787 - at the Paris Opera rather than at the court theatre - it was a great success and was performed regularly there until 1830.

This is not the first recording of the work; that palm goes to Jean-Paul Penin and his Camerata Bourgogne. The Gramophone review of that disc describes the performance as a bit rough and ready and looks forward to one of the major early music groups taking up the work. That has not happened; after all, early music groups are hardly falling over themselves to give us authentic performances of Gluck’s French works, so we can hardly expect to hear many of Sacchini’s. Still, Ryan Brown and group Opera Lafayette have now taken up the challenge.

The story is based on the Sophocles play, but without the really gruesome bits. In the play, blind Oedipus struggles to Colonnus supported by his daughter Antigone. There Theseus, King of Athens agrees to support him against Creon, Jocasta’s brother, who now rules Athens. Oedipus’s son Polynices comes to gain his father’s forgiveness. Oedipus curses Polynices, who is slain by Creon and Oedipus is taken by the Gods.

So much for Sophocles. In Sacchini’s version Oedipe - as he is called in the opera - is still blind and more than a little intemperate but he is eventually reconciled with his son and all ends happily. The opera opens with the planned wedding celebrations for Polynice and Eriphile, Thésée’s daughter. Thésée, King of Athens, is supporting Polynice against his brother Eteocles, who currently rules Thebes. Act 1 is taken up with setting the scene, the wedding preparations (complete with dancing) and finally Thésée and Polynice’s visit to the temple for Polynice’s act of expiation. The act ends with the High Priest announcing that the gods have rejected Polynice’s offerings.

Act 2 starts with Polynice lamenting his lot and deciding that his father, who has cursed him, would surely forgive him. At this moment Oedipe appears with Antigone and Polynice flees. The remainder of the act is concerned with Oedipe’s troubles and concludes with Thésée offering Oedipe his support.

Act 3 covers the attempts of Polynice, Antigone and Thésée to reach a resolution with Oedipe. Though Oedipe calls down curses on Polynice and Eteocles, he is finally reconciled to his children, the High Priest announces that the anger of the gods is calmed and that Polynice and Eriphile may marry.

The construction of the libretto is not ideal. A large chunk of act 1 is concerned with the marriage preparations of Eriphile who barely re-appears in the opera. The two strongest characters, Oedipe and Antigone, do not appear until Act 2.

What struck me, upon listening to the music, was how much like Gluck it sounds, even down to the cast of some of the melodies. Sacchini is very flexible in his use of accompanied recitative, of which there is a great deal in the opera. The overall feel is of freedom and expressive mellifluousness. There are no really great melodies, though some are memorable, more it is the flexibility of the drama and the way the piece flows that stays with you.

A stronger composer could probably have made the extraneous bits - like the dance movements in Act 1 - seem more germane, but Sacchini is never less than poised and charming and sometimes a lot more so.

French baritone Francois Loup plays troubled Oedipe. His voice is a little rough at the edges but he still manages to conjure up the requisite suavity of line and expression. He creates a real character out of Oedipe. The other strong portrayal on the disc is Nathalie Paulin as Antigone. Her voice tends to spread a little under pressure, which is not ideal in this music but she is moving in her expression. She succeeds in bringing warmth to the character of someone who seems annoyingly to like being permanently downtrodden.

This period of French opera comes with its own problems of course, notably the requirement to cast high tenors; in this case both Polynice and Thésée are tenors. Both Robert Getchell and Tony Boutte manage the tessitura well and Getchell impresses in Polynice’s Act 2 aria. Neither tenor is quite ideal in that both are rather too light-voiced, but this is to be preferred to an over-strained tenor voice in these roles.

But this raises a more general issue of style in this period of opera. The singers on this disc are all adept at spinning out Sacchini’s flexible vocal lines and are undoubtedly expressive. But none are quite able to imbue the vocal lines with focused passion; Getchell and Boutte have a tendency to sound a little too light-voiced in their big moments and both Loup and Paulin have voices which spread under pressure.

This is not to deny that this disc has many vocal pleasures, it is just that we seem to have lost the art of combining vocal purity and focused passion. If you listen to singers like Régine Crespin and Diana Montague singing Gluck then you will understand what is needed.

The singers are ably supported by Ryan Brown and his band, the recording is live, so there are the odd smudgy bits, but overall they play with poise. Sacchini’s long lines are given flexibility and generally made to seem suitably effortless. The group don’t quite manage the style of some of the best French groups in music of this period, but they go a long way towards it.

As might be expected from an ensemble that includes French and Canadian singers, the French diction is pretty good and remarkably clear; the chorus also contribute in this respect.

The CD booklet includes a detailed plot summary in English and the complete libretto in French. An English translation of the libretto is available to be downloaded from the Naxos web site.

If you have never heard of Sacchini but enjoy Gluck’s French operas then do try this disc, you will not be disappointed.

Richard Lawrence
Gramophone, December 2006

Two Sacchinis are fighting it out - and a bargain price could prove a knockout

Talk about London buses! Who would have thought that another recording of Sacchini's masterpiece would follow hard on the heels of the account listed above? Oedipe á Colone, a near-failure when first performed at Versailles in 1786, was a triumph when staged at the Paris Opera the following year. It remained in the repertory for decades, and was revived as late as 1843. Sacchini was never to enjoy the work's success, as he died four months before the transfer to the Opera. One of its later admirers was Berlioz, who wrote touchingly in his memoirs about the effect that it had had on him.

There is much fine music here, but the action does hang fire at the start. Polynices, ousted from his share of the throne of Thebes by his brother, is seeking both military help and the hand of his daughter from Theseus, king of Athens. Most of the first act is given over to the wedding celebrations and it's only when the tutelary goddesses of Athens show their displeasure that things liven up. However, the celebrations are gracefully sung and played, and there's a vigorously sung chorus as everyone flees.

The reason for the goddesses' wrath is that the brothers have banished the blinded Oedipus, their father, from Thebes. Oedipus makes his belated appearance in Act 2, supported by his daughter Antigone, when only the timely intervention of Theseus saves him from injury or death at the hands of the people of Colonus. Francois Loup and Nathalie Paulin are tenderness itself, and Loup, abetted by Ryan Brown and his strings, admirably conveys the horror of Oedipus's hallucinations.

In Act 3 there's a duet for the siblings reminiscent of Belmonte and Konstanze in Die Entfuhrung - an opera Sacchini is unlikely to have seen, however - and a noble trio when father and son are finally reconciled. Robert Getchell is sweet-toned and unforced as Polynices, as indeed is the Theseus of Tony Boutte. The recording captures all too well the clattering of a redundant harpsichord. This is worth acquiring, especially as it's at bargain price.

Goran Forsling
MusicWeb International, November 2006

Antonio Sacchini is one of those highly talented musicians who hover at the periphery of music history but were greatly successful in their lifetime. In the case of Sacchini an echo of his fame can be heard through the present work which has some claims to be his masterpiece. It was performed regularly at the Paris Opéra between 1787 and 1830, which is remarkable indeed and then was revived in 1843.

He was born in Florence but was taken to Naples at the age of four where he was admitted to the Conservatorio when he was ten. His teacher was Francesco Durante, who is probably more well-known today. He obviously moved about within Italy and gained recognition both as opera composer and singing teacher. One of his pupils was Nancy Storace, who among other things was Mozart’s first Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro - “The Julie Andrews of the 18th Century” as one source nicely puts it.

He then went to Stuttgart and Munich and came to London in 1772 where he remained for ten years. At first successful, he later ran into financial trouble and moved to Paris in 1781. There he became a favourite with the Queen but met opposition from parts of the musical establishment. His opera Dardanus was staged at Fontainebleau in 1785 but to his grief Œdipe lay unperformed during his lifetime. The disappointment is said to have contributed to his death. In 1787 Œdipe reached the Opéra; too late for the composer.

Listening to this recording it is easy to understand the longevity of the work. It is a highly accomplished piece of music drama, pointing forward beyond Gluck, who is the closest contemporary comparison. In fact there is a Gluckian nobility in the more reflective moments. Sacchini also has a dramatic integrity and power in the long and often intense accompanied recitatives. At his best, as in the long scene with Œdipe and Antigone in act two (CD1 tr. 14-16), he tends to overshadow even Mozart for dramatic acuity, though he can’t compete with the Salzburg master when it comes to musical invention and melodic memorability. Still he writes expressive and grateful music, as for example the singing part for Polynice in the first scene (CD1 tr. 3) and at the beginning of scene 4 (CD1 tr. 10). Antigone’s aria in act three (CD2 tr. 2), is heroic and tragic to match the text. This is a fairly long aria; mostly they are very short but his flexible style allows him to move more or less imperceptibly from recitative to aria with the orchestra a very active part, not just accompanying. In this respect he might almost be likened to late period Verdi. The writing creates a feeling of unity and cohesion, underlined here by Ryan Brown’s eager conducting. Just as in his recording of Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice (see review) he opts for swift tempos and had at least this reviewer sitting on the edge of his chair. There is such vitality and thrust in his reading that the work stands out as perhaps better than it actually is, but for my money this is an opera to set beside Gluck, Haydn and Mozart as a superb example of late 18th century music theatre. Readers should be warned though that, this being a French opera, there are some decorative elements, like scene 3 of the first act with choruses and dances. The whole opera ends in a kind of anti-climax with an eight-minute ballet sequence. All of this is superbly performed; good music but more or less superfluous.

The Opera Lafayette perform with enthusiasm and flair and Brown and producer Max Wilcox have gathered a fine line-up of soloists. Some of the smaller parts are taken by members of the chorus and among the main characters the experienced François Loup is a deeply involved Œdipe, expressive and with a rich pallet of vocal colours. His daughter Antigone is the dramatically vibrant Nathalie Paulin who is also able to express the nobility of her character. The two tenors, Tony Boutté and Robert Getchell, are excellent; especially the latter who is a model of lyric tenor singing of music from this period. He should be a likewise excellent Don Ottavio or Tamino.

The booklet gives, in the usual Naxos manner, all the information one could possibly expect within the space available and besides a good track-related synopsis we also get the French libretto. The English translation can be downloaded.

This is one of the more thrilling “finds” within the operatic genre.

Robert Baxter
Courier-Post, October 2006

For most music lovers, Antonio Sacchini is merely a name in an operatic dictionary.

Naxos lifts the Italian composer from his obscurity with a recording of Oedipe a Colone (Oedipus at Colonus), a work that held the Paris stage for 50 years after its premiere in 1787, a year after Sacchini's death (8.660196-97).

Sacchini's final opera portrays the turmoil that besets Oedipus after the Theban king blinded himself and set off in exile with his daughter, Antigone. Despite the emotional depths of the story, Sacchini composed elegantly refined music that recalls the serene neoclassical sculptures of Antonio Canova.

The emotional spectrum may be limited, but Sacchini's score is filled with graceful music.

Sacchini knows how to compose urgent recitatives and graceful arias. The first act ends with a sublime choral ode.

Ryan Brown leads a well-prepared concert performance of Sacchini's opera featuring the Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus. Aside from Francois Loup in the title role, the cast features unknown singers. All sing stylishly.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group