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SALIERI: Les Danaïdes

CD Button Van Wanroij, Velletaz; Talbot, Christoyannis, Dolié; Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Les Talens Lyriques, Rousset. Ediciones Singulares ES1019 (2)

Recordings Les Danaides Cover 216
Critics Choice Button 1015 

CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK suffered a stroke that prevented him from making much progress on Les Danaïdes. He offered the five-act tragédie lyrique to Antonio Salieri, who triumphed with it at the Paris Opéra in April 1784. Salieri received only partial credit until after the premiere, when a public letter from Gluck revealed that Les Danaïdes was entirely Salieri’s work.

Devotees of Greek mythology will recognize the opera’s dramatic content. Intent on avenging wrongs committed against him by his now-dead brother Aegyptus, Danaus marries off his fifty daughters (the Danaids of the title) to Aegyptus’s sons. One of the latter, Lynceus, loves Danaus’s eldest daughter,  Hypermnestra. Danaus instructs each Danaid to kill her husband on their wedding night. When Hypermnestra refuses, Danaus reminds her of an oracle’s prophecy: one of his sons-in-law will kill him if Hypermnestra lets Lynceus live. Having managed to escape, Lynceus leads an attack on Danaus’s palace. Pelagus, Lynceus’s companion, kills Danaus. Lynceus flees with Hypermnestra once he’s killed the other Danaids, who suffer eternal torment—as does their father—in the underworld. 

Salieri’s score offers undeniable vigor, grace and, in the festive passages of Act III, considerable instrumental virtuosity. Lynceus’s lovely “Rends-moi ton coeur” is impressive, as is Hypermnestra’s monologue. Alas, the extensive episodes of recitativo accompagnato fail to illuminate character sufficiently (listen to any scene of Gluck’s supremely eloquent Iphigénie en Tauride to hear what’s missing). Finally, in Act V, the piece turns riveting in Hypermnestra’s dramatic final aria, the Danaids’ chorus and the musically grand-scale underworld finale.

This performance benefits significantly from the intelligent textual projection of the three principal singers. The velvet of Tassis Christoyannis’s baritone actually gets in the way; he sounds too nice for the unpleasant Danaus. Soprano Judith van Wanroij (Hypermnestra) and tenor Philippe Talbot (Lynceus), both narrow-timbred, float soft phrases admirably, and van Wanroij proves surprisingly fearless above the staff. Singing smaller roles are soubrette soprano Katia Velletaz (seriously insecure above the staff) and baritone Thomas Dolié, with his darkly imposing instrument. (He probably would have been a better match than Christoyannis for Danaus’s music.) Portraying all those daughters and sons, the chorus of Versailles’s Baroque Academy offers light, clear, suitably youthful sound.

On the podium, Christophe Rousset draws remarkably cohesive expressiveness from his own peerless original-instrument ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques. The players’ wonted stylistic authority is enhanced by astounding precision, no matter how fleet the tempos. The set’s supporting material (a 135-page book, everything printed in both French and English) includes the complete libretto and four fabulously informative essays. The latter, plus Rousset and his orchestra, make this Danaïdes a valuable acquisition for anyone interested in getting to know a real rarity of eighteenth-century French repertoire.  —Roger Pines 

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