Viardot-Garcia’s Lost Opera Recovered

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VIARDOT-GARCIA: Le Dernier Sorcier / Trudie Styler, narr; Eric Owens, bs-bar (Krakamiche); Jamie Barton, mez (La Reine);Camille Zamora, sop (Stella); Adriana Zabala, mez (Prince Lelio); Michael Slattery, ten (Perlimpinpin); Sara Brailey, sop (Verveine); Manhattan Girls Chorus; Liana Pailodze Harron, Myra Huang, pno / Bridge BCD 9515

As I mentioned in my article on Pauline Viardot’s compositions, she was an exceptional writer of songs in several languages—French, Spanish, German, Russian—and in those songs she was also, miraculously, able to emulate the compositional style of those countries in addition to setting the texts. But songs are not operas, and in the one Viardot-Garcia opera I’ve previously heard (Cendrillon) I found her music lacking in structure despite some fine moments.

In this little chamber opera from 1867, and I stress the word “little,” she certainly makes no pretensions to competing with Berlioz, Meyerbeer or Wagner, all of whom had successes in France during the 1850s and ‘60s. Although the text is based on the work of the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, who she had met in St. Petersburg where he fell passionately in love with her, it is clear from the score that she probably never intended this to be more than a salon entertainment. As the notes indicate, The Last Sorcerer was only performed once, at Turgenev’s villa in Baden-Baden. Viardot played the piano and the roles were sung by her children and students. Thus we can see that this was never really meant to be taken as a “serious” work to be performed by professionals. Since it was held in a private collection for more than a century, it was virtually unknown, but thankfully the manuscript was recently acquired by Harvard University’s Houghton Library, which gave permission to make this world premiere recording.

The story revolves around Krakamiche, an old sorcerer who misses the power he had in his youth. He has since moved from a palace into a small hut with his daughter Stella, and all he uses his magic wand for is to summon his daily meal. His servant is a former giant named Perlimpinpin who is old and tired and apparently lost both height and power. The forest fairies, which once feared Krakamiche and lost their land to his powers, now taunt and annoy him day and night under the leadership of their Queen and their leader, Verveine. But what would an opera be without a love interest? For this, Turgenev invented a Prince Lelio who lives in a nearby kingdom, falls in love with Stella and wants to marry her, though he has no clue she is the sorcerer’s daughter. The fairy queen, hearing Prince Lelio pine for Stella, makes a deal with him: if he obeys her commands she’ll give him a magic flower than will make him invisible by night. Turgenev somehow managed to contrive a nocturnal love duet between Lelio and Stella, though he is not visible. Apparently she is the only one who can see him or she goes by sound and not by sight. Kneeling before Stella, Lelio drops the magic flower, making him visible; Krakamiche sees him, thinking his own sorcery has made Lelio visible. Angry, he summons a monster to destroy Lelio, but his powers are weaker than he thought. Instead of a monster, all that appears is an old goat. Apparently, his magic wand was in dire need of Viagra.

Krakamiche faints from exhaustion; Stella and Lelio rush to help him, and the fairy queen appears. The old geezer comes to, consents to his daughter’s marriage and decides to leave the forest to live with them and mooch off them forever more, The End.

Needless to say, the vocal lines are simple since they were sung by kids and students—even simpler than in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, originally written for and sung by a women’s private boarding school. And yet you can tell that this is written by a good composer. The overture, in particular, sounds remarkable Russian in style, like something written by Glinka or Rimsky-Korsakov, as does Krakamiche’s “Ah, la sotte existence”—yet in Lelio’s first aria, “Dans le bois frais et sombre” and the Fairy Queen’s “Ramasse cette rose,” her style is that of a French composer. All the songs, choruses and ensembles were written a bit “down” to help her unprofessional cast, yet the music is really quite beautiful with an interesting structure. This opera could easily be scored for a small orchestra and presented in an intimate setting (I’d say no bigger than a school auditorium) but even with piano, as long as the cast was good and involved with the music, it could delight an audience of children even today, particularly if done as a marionette or puppet play where you only see the characters as if in a Mister Rogers Land of Make-Believe and not the actual singers.

Soprano Sara Brailey is superb as Verveine, with a bright, perky, well-controlled voice; bass-baritone Eric Owens has a nice dark tone and just a bit of vocal unsteadiness as Krakamiche; mezzo Adriana Zabala has a much-too-ripe vibrato (but again, a nice dark tone) as Prince Lelio; Jamie Barton has an equally rich voice but a much more controlled vibrato as the Fairy Queen; and Michael Slattery has exactly the right kind of character tenor voice for Perplimpinpin. The only really questionable singer is Camille Zamora as Stella. Though listed as a soprano, to my ears she has a mezzo voice and, in fact, comes to grief in every note above the staff (even cracking badly in her first aria). I wish they could have found a soprano similar to Brailey to sing this role.

Yet it is the charm of Viardot-Garcia’s compositional style that wins you over in the end. She was such a good composer than even a work like this, tossed off more for fun than with an eye on posterity, you can’t help but admire her originality and wit. Indeed, her wit permeates this entire score; she obviously enjoyed putting this together and probably loved performing it, albeit only once.

With the few caveats noted above, I really enjoyed this performance, and am happy that they chose to present the narration in English (it helps!). Recommended.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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