Luigi Cherubini - Koukourgi
Stadttheater Klagenfurt, 2010
Peter Marschik, Josef E. Köpplinger, Daniel Prohaska, Çiğdem Soyarslan, Johannes Chum, Daniel Belcher, Peter Edlemann, Leonardo Galeazzi, Stefan Cerny, Alexander Puhrer, Kap-Sung Ahn
Luigi Cherubini is one of the great neglected composers of the Classical age, known now, if at all, for his formal but dramatically near-operatic compositions of Requiems and Coronation Masses as Court Composer during the times of Revolutionary France, but his twenty-five actual operas are mostly unheard of and only a few of them are on rare occasions performed. There is a perception that Cherubini’s music is a little bit academic and conventional, with an impeccable sense of melody, counterpoint and situation every bit as delightful as Haydn, but without the spark of genius or originality of Mozart. There’s some degree of truth in that perception, but at the same time Cherubini is certainly worthy of being considered alongside these two more famous near-contemporary composers, and one need only look to the only one of his operas that is regularly performed, Medea, to see Cherubini’s qualities as an opera composer of genuine merit.
Whether his other works match up to Medea - which is only well-known now because of Maria Callas and for the dramatic opportunities in the singing range that it offers a leading soprano - is rather more difficult to judge due to the rarity of ever seeing one of his operas actually performed. An opéra-comique, Koukourgi is probably not the most representative of Cherubini’s dramatic and classical-based works, but it is certainly one of the rarest. Composed around 1792, Koukourgi - for reasons unknown - was left unfinished and, up until its premiere here at the Stadttheater Klagenfurt in 2010, had never been previously staged. The spoken dialogues are lost, but are not difficult to determine from the progression of the plot and have been rendered in German here for the Klagenfurt audience, although almost certainly not in the form they take here. The overture is taken from Cherubini’s Ifigenia in Aulide (1788) and the finale ‘Viva Amore‘ was an insert composed by Cherubini for a French production of a Paisiello opera.
As for the opera itself, it does tend to confirm the idea of Cherubini’s work being written to suit the conventions of the opéra-comique. It’s a little bit dry and academic in places, with familiar character types and situations, the obligatory thunderstorm and a spectacular march of soldiers, but with no great narrative drive that inspires any impressive musical or singing feats. In its own way however, Koukourgi is a lovely little example of its type, as light and entertaining as a Haydn opera, but with a modest French buffo character that avoids the excesses of the more florid Italian singing. That character is maintained in the Klagenfurt production, delicately played by the Kärtner Sinfonieorchester as conducted by Peter Marschik, which sets the tone by having Koukourgi play the part of narrator. It is unlikely that the character would have performed this role in the original spoken dialogue for the work, but it works effectively in the context here, making asides and confidences to the audience about the opera itself as well as about his own indolent nature, inviting them to laugh along with him at the rather more serious attitude adopted by the other characters in what doesn’t really amount to a great deal.
Although it is set in China, where the ruler Fohi comes under assault from the invading masses of the Tartars, Koukourgi could be seen as a reflection of the character and spirit of the times in revolutionary France. Set against this backdrop of the struggles of the royals to regain control, there is a romance that could also be seen as a reflection of the differences in class and attitudes. The great warrior Amazan is an orphan who has grown up in the castle and is in love with Zulma, but the ruler Fohi doesn’t consider him an acceptable match for his daughter, preferring Koukourgi, the son of his General Zamti. As the Tartar’s invade, are repulsed and invade again, it’s the Amazan who bravely launches himself into the fray, while the commander of the troops, Koukourgi, refuses to get involved, preferring to eat well, drink and attempt to seduce the repulsed Zulma, giving Amazan only his weakest troops in the hope that he might end up getting killed. Against the odds however, Amazan succeeds and wins the love of Zulma, courage is rewarded, indolence leads to nothing, and love conquers all.
The tone of the production and stage setting is also well fitted to the drama, not striving for any realism or strictly period setting, but being a thoroughly theatrical construct. All the chorus and extras wear grotesque masks, leaving the focus on the main characters with their face-painted Asian designs, but masks also play a part in the backgrounds. The back and forth nature of the off-stage attacks leads to a good running joke has one of the principal troops arrive on the stage at regular intervals with an arrow in his back announcing that the Tartars are invading again, before expiring with a trumpet call. It’s funnier than anything else that is in the actual libretto, but, as is often the case with this type of work, a lot depends on the charm and the delivery of the performers. Daniel Prohaska has a great deal of fun as the irreverent Koukourgi, but finds suitable companions for his cowardly nature in Daniel Belcher’s Sécuro and Peter Edlemann’s Phaor. Çiğdem Soyarslan’s Zulma and Johannes Chum’s Amazan meanwhile play the romantic drama wonderfully straight, Amazan ready to fly off to brave all the Tartar attacks without a moment’s cause for reflection.
Koukourgi is by no means a major discovery, but it’s entertaining in its own right, delightfully staged and performed, and with the scarcity of Cherubini operas available in any form, this is a true rarity that does indeed throw new light on the variety and quality of the composer’s work. It’s only available on DVD - no Blu-ray release - but the specifications are excellent, with a clean, sharp widescreen transfer and good audio mixes in PCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1. The disc is Region-free, NTSC format, with subtitles in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.