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Gens, Fuchs, Azzaretti, Borghi; Foster-Williams, Gonzalez Toro, Crossley-Mercer, Buet, Champion; Les Talens Lyriques, Rousset. French text and English translation. Aparte APO42 (2)
The delights in a new live recording of Antoine Dauvergne's Hercule Mourant (The Dying Hercules) lie more in the elegant and stylish performance from Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques than in the strengths of the opera itself. Dauvergne (1713–97) was a pupil of Rameau and aimed to carry on the older composer's cultivation of tragédie lyrique in the lineage of Lully, even as lighter comic operas were appealing more and more to the public's taste.
For Hercule Mourant, Dauvergne turned to librettist J.-F. Marmontel, who had worked with Rameau, but not in this genre. And his inexperience shows. The libretto is based on Sophocles, like Thomas Broughton's for the musical drama on the same subject set by Handel as Hercules, but also draws from a 1634 French play on the same story — the death of Hercules at the hand of his jealous wife, tricked into presenting the hero with a magic cloak that turns out to be deadly.
Stuffed with dances, fanfares, danced wrestling matches, processions and choral tributes, the opera's actual vocal moments are not so much dramatic episodes as lovely tableaux, commentary and reflection rather than theatrical journeys. Too often a charged confrontation dissolves weakly into a conventional dance or yet another choral tribute.
Like Handel's heroine, Dauvergne's Déjanire is far more interesting than the cardboard hero, even if he is the son of Jupiter. Véronique Gens brings nobility and grace, as well as a warm, mature sound to the role. From Déjanire's opening description of the labors of Hercules to her formal and generous discourse with Iole, the young captive princess who has turned Hercules's head, through her anger at the fatal deception, to her final plea to her son and to the universe, Gens's command of language and style help to portray the hero's loving wife with sureness and emotional truth.
As the innocent Iole, soprano Julie Fuchs's sweet, clear and open sound pairs well with the youthful and heroic Hilus of tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, and their Act II love duet is charming. Gonzalez Toro turns up the heat vocally and dramatically in his description of the tormented, burning death of his father Hercules.
In the title role, bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams shouts a bit while warming up, and his sound never entirely relaxes, but he sings with verve and linguistic point and brings powerful dramatic presence to the final act's mythological conclusion. Edwin Crossley-Mercer's warmer voice lends sympathy to the role of Philoctête. Soprano Jaël Azzaretti sings three roles with a plush sound, in spite of an ill-advised stab at a top D in the Thessalian woman's aria, and Alain Buet brings a suitably nasty edge to the bass role of Jealousy.
Descriptive and imaginative orchestral writing highlights several numbers, and there are attractive musical moments. For example, the entrance of the goddess Juno presents a startling key shift, but Jennifer Borghi's voice sounds harsh and unsteady. "Chantons Alcide et ses combats" finds the two bass voices of Hercules and Philoctête riding thrillingly over the massed choral sound, and "Amour, amour, vole," sung by a promising unnamed tenor, is a charming coloratura aria with added chorus.
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