André Messager - Fortunio
Opéra Comique, Paris - 2019
Louis Langrée, Denis Podalydès, Cyrille Dubois, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Franck Leguérinel, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Philippe-Nicholas Martin, Pierre Derhet, Thomas Dear, Aliénor Feix, Luc Bertin-Hugault, Geoffroy Buffière, Sarah Jouffroy, Laurent Podalydès
Naxos - Blu-ray
I don't think that André Messager is going to make a big comeback in popularity outside of France any time soon, but fortunately they look after the legacy of their opera history at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Like some recent revivals of Messager's French contemporaries and teachers, Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré, his 1907 opera Fortunio proves to be a pleasant surprise, even if it remains very much of its time. Which is nonetheless a time that still saw some major works and significant developments in the world of opera.
Messager's contribution to early 20th century music is perhaps more for his fame as the conductor of the world premiere of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and for his work in the promoting the Wagnerian repertoire in France. His own compositions may not be quite as groundbreaking in the world of opera as those two composers but when considered alongside the likes of Massenet or even Puccini, who was also composing his greatest works around the same period, Messager's operas are very much in the running in terms of melody, drama and intensity of deep romantic feelings.
While he made a significant contribution to the French opera world then in terms of his conducting and in his appointment as director of the Paris Opera, it doesn't appear that Messager had any great ambitions to progress the world of opera through his own compositions. His was the world of the light comic operetta, but in Fortunio he brings a deceptive lightness of touch to the more through-composed form of the opera-lyrique, with a traditional subject based on Alfred de Musset's 1835 comedy 'Le Chandelier', a work that was guaranteed to delight French audiences of the period.
Directed by Denis Podalydès, the Opéra Comique production very much aligned to a period style and tradition that will bring the best out of the work. In subject and treatment it often reminded me of elements Massenet's Manon and Werther. Fortunio is a naive country boy who has fallen hopelessly in love with Jacqueline, the coquettish wife of his employer, the notary Maître André. She uses his innocent devotion as a way to distract her husband from a much more serious affair that she is carrying on with her lover, the womanising Captain Clavaroche. Even though he becomes aware that he is being misused, Fortunio only grows even more devoted in the hope that his desires and faithfulness might be rewarded, despairing at the same time that he is surely unworthy of such love, a love so consuming that he could die of it or die for it.
Messager's skill is that he pours these sentiments into the most beautiful heartfelt arias, the music soaring in accompaniments as these feelings grow in intensity. Like Werther, if you have singers that can deliver on that the work itself will soar, and that's very much the case here. Cyrille Dubois is wonderful as Fortunio with a gorgeous lyrical range that brings the drama and the opera fully to life. Anne-Catherine Gillet's Jacqueline is also excellent in a tricky role that challenges ones sympathy with her coquettishness being indulged, a plaything for all three men, but there are indications that she doubts her own intentions and feelings, and Gillet captures that ambiguity and uncertainty well. Maître André and Clavaroche are much more caricatures, the foolish cuckolded husband and the womaniser, and both played to the hilt, as they should be in the context by Franck Leguérinel and Jean-Sébastien Bou.
The Opéra Comique of Paris are unparalleled at putting on French light opera of this period and the production here is outstanding, well up to their usual high standards. The musical direction by Louis Langrée is superb, putting a spring in the music, which is full of verve and emotion, and even shows important influences with some Debussy-like impressionistic and atmospheric touches. Eric Ruf's set designs are traditional and period with no ironic subtexts or winks to the audience. It's played for what it is. Although Messager is not a composer I'm at all familiar with, this production and performance here makes a strong case for this opera being worthy of sitting alongside more famous works in the repertoire.
The Blu-ray edition of Fortunio from Naxos is very nice. The High Definition image is clear with a touch of warmth and softness that captures the qualities of the theatrical lighting. The music is likewise warm and detailed, soaring in both Hi-Res LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio surround mixes. There are no extra features on the disc, but there's a full tracklist, commentary on the work and a synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The BD50 is all-region, with subtitles in French, English, German, Japanese and Korean.
Links: Opéra Comique