CAMPRA: Tancrède
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CAMPRA: Tancrède

CD Button Santon, Druet; Arnould, Buet, Martin-Bonnet. Les Temps Présents et les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Schneebeli. Alpha 958 (3)

Recordings Tancrede Cover 216

IT TAKES TIME FOR THE PLOT to unfold in French Baroque opera. First, representations of Peace, Glory or branches of government must officially praise the monarch, the state, the arts and the enterprise itself in an extended prologue of solo songs, duets, dances and choruses. Then friends or family of the principal characters sing obliquely about the conflicts or obstacles the plot will explore. Followers of these characters sing and dance in an even more generalized manner about these points. Nymphs, shepherdesses, or aquatic creatures have extended vignettes of song and dance, rarely related to the plot or to the main characters. Embedded in this intricate five-act-cum-prologue structure are moments of genuine emotion expressed by the leading characters. But then they, one of their followers or a random nymph will put this charged moment into perspective with a moralizing comment or observation.

The composer André Campra provides a link between Lully’s formal tragédies en musique and Rameau’s innovative and integrated operas in Tancrède, the crusader-era story drawn from Tasso and better known in Monteverdi’s chamber theater version, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Campra’s work, first heard in Paris in 1702, remained in the repertoire until the 1760s, even though it includes the customary off-plot divertissements. The opera’s stark and bleak ending is a novel contrast with the usual celebratory solo-dance-choral chaconne finale. Here Tancrède, having accidentally slain his beloved Clorinde, draws his sword to kill himself, singing despairingly to his comrades in melodic lines befitting a chivalric hero and ending in a major key.

The French also loved bass voices, and were proud that this distinguished them from Italian opera. Here three bass-baritones take leading roles (the bass duets were much admired at the work’s premiere), with the high tenor haute-contre voice nearly absent, giving Tancrède a dark and somber tone. Heading the cast is Benoît Arnould, who brings vocal authority to Tancrède’s music, particularly the tender air “Si ma victoire les enchaîne” and the mad scene, “Voicy de l’Enchanteur la fatale retraite.” Alain Buet sings with a snarly rage that suits the role of the Saracen warrior Argant, but it’s Éric Martin-Bonnet’s Isménor, a magician who gets some of the most inventive music, whose vocal and linguistic point sparks Campra’s brilliant Act IV scene in which Vengeance, Hatred and their followers prepare to kill the bewitched captive Tancrède. 

The women are less satisfyingly cast, with intrusive vibratos in puzzling contrast to the pristine tuning and phrasing of the instrumental ensemble. Isabelle Druet oversings unsteadily, and mars her tender Act IV scene with Arnould’s stylish Tancrède, but she is touching in Clorinde’s dying moments. Chantal Santon’s Herminie, a love rival, gets a superb Act V monologue with trumpet interruptions, but the dramatic scene for the two women that ends Act III sounds like a yelling match.

The instrumental ensemble is superb, with delightful percussion effects, and choral moments are especially energetic, the bright voices and crisp diction highlighting the revelry, anger or celebration of ensemble scenes. Listeners would be helped by a brief synopsis for each act, along with character attributions in the cast list (i.e. Clorinde, Saracen princess). —Judith Malafronte 

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