Destouches Sémiramis

Les Ombres directed Sylvain Sartre and Margaux Blanchard
127:38 (2CDs in a card box)

André Cardinal Destouches (1672-1749) was educated by the Jesuits and had a career as a Musketeer before resigning to study music with André Campra. His first ‘hit’ was the pastoral Issé in 1697, which was written for the court but immediately taken up by the Opéra in Paris. He rose to prominent positions in both contexts and Sémiramis was first performed in 1718. Influenced by the Italophile Campra, Destouches abandoned the traditional five-part string scoring of Lully and his followers and created a work that was perhaps too serious for its time: only now are we in a position to recognise his work as an important step along the road from the aesthetic of Lully to that of Rameau.

Not that it is without distinctive characteristics and merits of its own. There is an attractive melodic fluency; the integration of the principal protagonists, the orchestra and the chorus is impressive; and Act V especially has a tremendous dramatic sweep. But I have to say that I found the performance difficult to enjoy. The continuo and percussion sections seem over-staffed to my ears and I strongly suspect that some adjustments/additions have been made to the original scoring. However, it is the singing that I really struggled with and yes, it’s the v-word. The singers are absolutely un-reconstructed modern opera in their approach and simply come from a different sound-world to that of the orchestra. Some of the ornament singing is also very laboured.

The superficially impressive booklet (French, English and German though libretto only French and English) also fails to impress in its detail. Versailles have to get to grips with the quality of their translations. I have commented before on unidiomatic turns of phrase, but here there are mistakes as well.

In brief, this is excellent music disappointingly presented.

David Hansell

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