Salieri’s “Les Horaces” a Little-Known Gem

Les Horaces cover

SALIERI: Les Horaces / Judith van Wanroij, soprano (Camille); Cyrille Dubois, tenor (Curiace); Julien Dran, tenor (the young Horace); Jean-Sébastien Bou, baritone (the older Horace); Philippe-Nicolas Martin, baritone (Oracle/an Albain/Valère/Roman); Andrew Foster-Williams, bass-baritone (High Priest); Eugénie Lefebvre, soprano (Camille’s servant); Les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles; Les Talens Lyriques; Christophe Rousset, conductor / Aparte AP185D (live: Versailles, October 15, 2016)

Following up on my article about the Salieri-Gluck collaboration, Les Dainaïdes, I decided to take a listen to his next opera, Les Horaces, which flopped badly at the Paris Opéra. The reason usually given for its failure is the poor libretto, which caused people to laugh on opening night and afterwards. This may indeed be part of the reason, but I can tell you the real reason it failed. The music is too terse, too dramatic and completely lacking in the kind of qualities that pleased Parisian audiences back then.

As for the story, it comes from a 17th-century play by Pierre Corneille taken from Livy. The story is basically a true one although Corneille invented the character of Sabine. In it, the cities of Rome and Alba are at war, although they were united by ties of patriotism and blood, for Alba is the birthplace of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. They decide to settle their dispute once and for all by each city sending three of its fiercest warriors to battle each other to the death. The catch is that Curiace, the leader of one side and Horace, head warrior of the other, are both brothers-in-law, married to each others’ sisters. The emotional upheavals caused by this conflict of patriotic honor and familial love are the crux of the opera.

Salieri apparently admitted that the libretto was not all that he had wanted it to be, but he pushed forward and wrote what is, in the opinion of many, his finest and most forward-looking score. Breaking free from the grand style of his mentor, Gluck, he presents us here with a fast-paced, almost breathless score that looks forward to the most advanced music of Cherubini or Spontini some 20-odd years in the future. There are no real arias here except Cuirace’s “Victime de l’amour, victimme de l’honneur” in Act II, and even duets are brief and focused on pushing the drama forward rather than stopping the moment and pleasing the ear with lovely melodies and high notes. But for Paris especially, the principal sin was that it had very little ballet music, in the last act instead of the first—even into the late 19th century, every opera presented in Paris had to have a ballet, even Verdi’s Otello. (Verdi wrote a brief ballet for Otello, stuck it in begrudgingly, and then omitted it from his published score of the opera, thank God.) Thus Salieri knowingly committed one artistic sin in the eyes of the Parisians and an incidental sin with no arias to hang on to or hum on their way out of the theatre (the booklet even acknowledges that the chief “flaw” in the libretto is that it had no monologues to be turned into arias). The tenor does have one high C to sing, in the Act II trio “Oui mes enfants partez sur l’heure,” and it comes at the climax of the scene, but the soprano does not go up with him and the moment goes by fairly quickly. But DAMN is it exciting!

In this performance, recorded live in 2016 but just released on CD last year, conductor Christophe Rousset presides over a tight ship that brooks no lingering. This is mostly for the good, although just a little relaxation or rubato here and there would have been welcome. The real problem is his orchestra, Les Talens Lyriques, which takes the false gospel of Straight Tone to extremes. It only affects his phrasing negatively in the most tender legato passages, since straight tone strings sound their whiniest and least attractive in slow numbers, but even in the others the timbre is too weird to sound like a real orchestra and too thin to fully bolster the drama. His strings sound like wan clarinets and the clarinets sound like penny whistles. The whole thing strikes the ear like a MIDI pretending to be an orchestra.

Happily, most of the singing is of such a high quality that it carries the drama. You just have to pretend that the singers are accompanied by a sort of barrel organ and compensate for the lack of a real orchestral sound. Pride of place goes to soprano Judith van Wanroij, a name previously unknown to me, for not only her lovely tone but also her sensitive and dramatic portrayal of Camille, and tenor Cyrille Dubois as Cuirace, although Julien Dran and Philippe-Nicolas Martin are also very good. The only mediocre singer here is bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams as the High Priest; his tone lacks proper support and he has a wobble. This is a shame, as he was a pretty darn good William Tell in the audio recording and video of the opera made for Naxos about a decade ago, but that’s how quickly voices deteriorate nowadays.

Still, this opera is a real butt-kicker and well worth checking out. A shame that this style of operatic writing had to wait another 20 years to be appreciated.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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