French Romantic Cantatas – works by Catel, Boisselot, Hérold & Cherubini / Karine Deshayes, mezzo; Opera Fuoco

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The concert going public of 19th-century France was consumed by opera. While composers kept opera stages humming, it wasn't quite enough and a new genre evolved, one which allowed audiences to get an operatic shot in the concert hall. The scene lyrique, in its ultimate form, was a series of alternating recitatives and arias for a single voice and orchestra. The French record label Zig-Zag Territoires has produced a unique program entitled French Romantic Cantatas which provides an interesting overview of this genre. In addition to a pair of overtures, it includes four scenes lyrique by Cherubini, Boisselot, Hérold and Catel. The vocal numbers are beautifully sung by French mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes who is accompanied David Stern conducting the excellent orchestra Opera Fuoco, an ensemble formed explicitly to perform this repertoire.

The scene lyrique itself was of limited longstanding success, but at a time, so popular had it become that it was introduced as a test piece for composers at the Prix de Rome. As such, the genre became tightly confined by formal requirements, some of which tended to interrupt the dramatic flow. The recitatives are central to these works; it is here the dramatic action of the narrative is played out, setting up for the following aria where the soloist reflects on what transpired in the recitative. The result is a little recitative-heavy for my taste, but the arias are well worth waiting for, given the crackerjack performances by Ms. Deshayes and Opera Fuoco.

The program begins and ends with the music of Luigi Cherubini. The overture to his opéra-comique, Médée opens the program. You can hear the first three or so minutes of it on the video in the sidebar. A second overture is to the tragédie lyrique Sémiramis by Charles-Simon Catel (1773-1830). The cantata Velléda by Xavier Boisselot (1811-1893), is an exceptional work; we have about four minutes of the opening of Velléda as the second album sample where you can enjoy Ms. Deshayes' glorious singing. The final work on the program, and perhaps the most dramatically gripping of the lot, is Luigi Cherubini's cantata Circé.

The rich and silvery tone of mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes' voice suits this repertoire ideally and conductor David Stern leads his orchestra in vigorous and impeccably played performances. Anyone who appreciates the vocal music of Berlioz, or operas coming from the time of Meyerbeer and Weber should not delay in getting a copy of this exceptional album.

French Romantic Cantatas - Opera Fuoco