Destouches: Issé

Van Wanroij, Vidal, Dolié, [Santon-Jeffery, Lefebvre], Les Chantres du CMBV, Ensemble Les Surprises, L.-N. Bestion de Camboulas
120:34 (2 CDs in a card folder)
Ambronay AMY053

This charming pastorale héroique was one of 18th-century France’s greatest operatic hits. First performed in 1697, re-worked in 1708 and 1724 and still in the Versailles repertoire in 1773, it also enjoyed a sustained run in Paris from late 1733 into 1734. The music is lovely – dramatically engaging, melodically inventive and orchestrally colourful – and, even in this five-acts-and-a-prologue form, of manageable length.

I might have loved much of this in a theatre but the repeated listening that a recording gets raises some questions. The rather studious composed orchestral ornaments for e. g., the first section of the overture do sound less likely on each hearing; I doubt that the percussion was specified by the composer; and while theorboes are perfectly reasonable in French opera until about 1730 I’m not convinced by the guitar.

Moreover, the first two-and-a-half minutes raise the fundamental problem of so many performances, particularly of early opera, that one hears. The (brief) overture introduces us to one sound-world after which we are disturbed (not too strong a word) by a voice from another sonic universe – ironically singing about ‘une douceur profonde’. I really did wince. And I think others will also struggle with the un-reconstructed modern singing (including by the chorus) against much beautiful, gentle instrumental sound. But some might not.

The booklet (French & English) offers every help to those wishing to explore. The essay is concise but informative and there is a full libretto with parallel translation. I do wish, however, that the dull artist biographies offered a glimpse of the person behind the lists of prizes, roles and conductors-worked-with.

David Hansell

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