Honegger, Ibert Opera Delights In Montreal Release

French composer Arthur Honegger, above, split creative duties with Jacques Ibert on 'L'Aiglon.'
French composer Arthur Honegger, above, split creative duties with Jacques Ibert on ‘L’Aiglon.’

Honegger and Ibert: L’Aiglon: Anne-Catherine Gillet (soprano), Marc Barrard (baritone), Étienne Dupuis (baritone), Phillippe Sly (baritone), Hélène Guilmette (soprano), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto). Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano (conductor). Decca 478 9502, 2 CDs

By Richard Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal shot to world acclaim through a long series of spectacular-sounding Decca recordings in the Charles Dutoit era but has since been appearing only sporadically on Analekta or Sony under current music director Kent Nagano. Now the orchestra has come full circle, re-signing with Decca for a five-year term.

2172493In this era of in-house orchestra labels, such deals are rarely offered anymore. And the initial Montréal release under the new contract is a rather odd duck — the first complete recording of L’Aiglon, a long-forgotten 1937 opera with a score by both Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert.

Based on a play by Edmond Rostand, L’Aiglon — “The Eaglet” — is a fantasy based on the life of Napoleon II (1811-32), the son of Napoleon I and his Austrian second wife Marie-Louise, whom the French conqueror never saw again after his first abdication in 1814. Raised in Austria under the tutelage of Metternich (sung by baritone Étienne Dupuis), Napoleon II — referred to here by his Austrian title, the Duke of Reichstadt — dreams of returning to France with the help of some conspirators to reclaim the mantle of his father. Metternich tries to convince the Duke that he is not the man his father was, but his crisis of self-confidence doesn’t last long. Nevertheless, the plot is discovered, and not long afterwards, the Duke expires from tuberculosis, only 21.

Jacques Ibert, Honegger's 'L'Aiglon' collaborator. (Lipnitzki-Roger Viollet)
Jacques Ibert, ‘L’Aiglon’ collaborator. (Lipnitzki-Roger Viollet)

The Nazis banned the piece when they invaded France in 1940, obviously not willing to put up with its strains of French nationalism; it remained a dead issue for 70 years after the war. Apparently, there is only one previous recording of any of this music, a mono LP set made in 1956 by Pierre Dervaux and the Orchestre radio lyrique de l’ORTF and released by Bourg (BG 3004-5) that didn’t appear in U.S. catalogues. That one was 81 minutes long, while Nagano’s runs 92 1/2 minutes, so it seems that not much, if anything, has been added to make it complete.

Exactly who wrote what is explained to some degree in the booklet notes. Ibert wrote the music for Acts I and V (the first 30 seconds of Act I, though, sound more like Honegger to me) and a ballet for Act III that was inserted after the first performances; Honegger wrote Acts II, III, and IV. The closest thing to a stylistic confrontation comes shortly after the beginning of Act III, when Honegger’s Scene 1 gives way to Ibert’s ballet, handing it off in as light and frilly a manner as he can so that there is barely a trace of a break in style; Honegger re-enters rather gracefully after the ballet.

Kent Nagano conducts the Montreal Symphony.
Kent Nagano conducts the Montreal Symphony.

Ibert is at his best in Act III when coming up with one delicious quasi-Viennese waltz after another — the style that he sent up in his Divertissement a few years before. Honegger, with his thicker, more complex language, does well with some atmospheric scene-setting on the battlefield in Act IV, and he owns the franchise on the marches. Ibert has the last word with an Act V death scene that gently echoes so many others in opera (Traviata and Bohème, in particular, both of whose central figures also die of T.B.) yet seems disconnected from the rest of the piece.

Honegger and Ibert gave the Duke’s part to a soprano (Anne-Catherine Gillet), which lends a touch of poignancy to Napoleon II’s hapless attempts to fill his father’s shoes. Yet ultimately, L’Aiglon doesn’t take full advantage of the subject’s dramatic possibilities, and neither Honegger nor Ibert is working up to his full musical capabilities, either.

Nevertheless, L’Aiglon receives about as idiomatic a first stereo recording as one might want — an excellent Francophone orchestra with an enterprising conductor at the helm, native-speaking singers, and lustrous sound. Whatever differences there may be between these two composers’ styles, Nagano irons them out; as ever, he enforces super-refined surfaces and textures. And the timing was right on the button: the recording was released just as the Montréalers were about to set out on their first U.S. tour under Nagano in March 2016.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.