César Franck’s Forgotten Opera

FRANCK: Hulda / Meagan Miller, sop (Hulda); Joshua Kohl, ten (Eiolf); Irina Jae Eun Park, sop (Swanhilde); Anja Jung, alto (Hulda’s Mother); Mateo Peñaloza Cecconi , bar (Gudelik); Katerina Hebelková, mezzo (Gudrun); Jin Seok Lee, bs (Aslak); Opern-und Extrachor des Theater Freiburg; Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg; Fabrice Bollon, cond / Naxos 8.660480-82

If I manage to live a few more years, and I may not (I’m almost 71 and have recently discovered that I have kidney disease), I’m planning to write a sequel to Joseph Kerman’s famous book, Opera as Drama (1956) simply because the Kerman book is woefully incomplete in addition to claiming “great:” drama in such silly works as Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. (Yes, Zauberflöte has some very good dramatic music in it, but let’s not kid ourselves…most of it is silly and fantastic and the Sarastro scenes are quasi-religious and pretentious.) But the short version is that after the 17th century, when most of the best operas were based on Greek and Roman legends, things took a turn for the nonsensical in the 18th century, focusing on love triangles and “dramatic” settings that were more melodrama than real drama, and this trend not only continued but was blown well out of proportion in the 19th and early 20th centuries—with a few notable exceptions.

César Franck’s five-act monstrosity Hulda, which he spent seven years(!!!) writing, is surely one such. Described in the booklet as both “An Attack on Humanity” and “The Life of Hulda Hustawick,” its plot is surely as convoluted as Il Trovatore and Götterdämmerung put together—in fact, if you look at the header you’ll see that Gudrun (Gutrune) comes over from the latter to Hullda’s house to borrow a cup of goat’s blood, and we also get the missing Valkyrie, Swanhilde, as a bonus. Somehow inspired by the Franco-Prussian War, Franck turned to this convoluted and now-dated plot, based on the play Halte-Hulda by the little-known Norwegian playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and kept plugging away at it until it was finished. Then, five years later, without being able to get it performed by any theater, he died.

To quote from Helko Voss’ liner notes,

Bjørnson’s play is set in Norway but its lead character, Hulda, comes from Iceland. (It was common practice to uproot conquered peoples and forcibly resettle them in order to subjugate them fully by breaking them and erasing their identities.) For the subjugated peoples, maintaining native customs and rituals became all the more important. For Hulda, Iceland has long ago ceased to be anything more than the land of her ancestors. She has lost touch with her roots. What happens to her feels like a destructive repetition: a living trophy of war, she is caught up in the violent tribal feuds between the conquered peoples. She is transferred from one tribe to another; her family is killed by Aslak and some of his sons, and she herself is humiliated, raped and coerced into a forced marriage. Hulda’s life story becomes a tragedy.

Hulda immerses herself in the day-to-day life of her conquerors like a parasite, kept alive only by her implacable desire for revenge. Bjørnson further reinforces Hulda’s position as an outsider by giving her a physical handicap: she walks with a limp. At the same time, the author endows the young girl with a preternatural aura by giving her ancestors the power of magic. [Here we go with “magical” bullshit.]  He also gives Hulda the power of beauty. When, as a child, Hulda is crying because she cannot dance with the other children, a witch says to her: “Don’t cry, cripple! Know that by way of compensation you have a face that will kill anyone who gazes on it for any length of time.” [Don’t date this chick. She’ll kill ya.] “She was right,” says Aslak’s sister Halgerde laconically as she concludes her account of the incident.

Gudleik, the man Hulda has been forced to marry against her will, has by this point departed this life. He has been killed by Eiolf Finson, the only ray of light in Hulda’s solitary confinement and a kind of avenging angel who carries out what Hulda herself is not physically capable of. Whether it is mutual sexual desire or some other force that drives their relationship is difficult to tell. Eiolf is from Iceland, and Hulda associates him with an imagined past life that has not been ruined. But Eiolf, too, will disappoint her and go back to his old love, leaving Hulda to finish what she has begun: stirring up her enemies against one another, making them smite, murder and torch. Ultimately, though, it is she who gets burnt. And what are the Norwegians doing while something akin to a civil war rages within their borders? Looking away. They play in their pleasure palaces, they hunt, and they fight wars in distant lands.

If you can follow this nonsense you’re far ahead of me. Too much melodrama for my taste; Antigone or Elektra it isn’t, but to Franck it apparently was, so here we go down Hulda’s rabbit-hole. (“So what is this opera about?” “It’s about three hours long.”)

The music is recognizably Franck, but surprisingly, it also sounds like Sibelius, who didn’t start writing music until several years after Hulda was finished—and the opera was never performed in Franck’s lifetime. Neither our soprano (Meagan Miller) nor alto (Anja Jung) have firm voices; despite singing dramatically; they are riddled with uneven wobbles. In addition, Miller’s voice is exceptionally ugly and abrasive-sounding. By way of compensation, however, Fabrice Bollon is a terrific conductor who brings out the drama of the music perfectly, thus if one can shut the noise of these wobbly ladies out of one’s ears you’ll find this a remarkable piece of dramatic music if not necessarily a workable opera.

I’m sure that my contacts at Naxos will be upset and even angry with my writing the above, but really, folks: if you’re going to spend all this time and money making the first-ever recording of the complete opera, and you hire a world-class conductor, WHY DON’T YOU HIRE THE BEST SINGERS YOU CAN GET? And don’t tell me that Miller was the best soprano they could get for the title role. There are dozens of outstanding sopranos out there who could have sung it better and breathed real life into the role. Even the little-known Alexia Voulgaridu, who sang Amazily in the Dynamic recording of Spontini’s Fernand Cortez, was better than Miller. When the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées staged the complete opera just this past summer, Hulda was sung by the splendid Jennifer Holloway, her mother by the outstanding mezzo Isabelle Druet, and Gudrun by Véronique Gens. That’s what I’m talking about. Real casting, not just, “Who’s cheap and available?” The booklet tells us that “This recording was made possible thanks to generous sponsorship from the Excellence Initiative of the Friends of Freiburg Theatre,” so perhaps we have them to blame. Maybe they weren’t generous enough to hire first-rate female singers.

Happily, the guys are good; both Jin Seok Lee as Aslak and Mateo Peñaloza Cecconi as Gudelik are terrific…but alas, they get bumped off while Hulda and her mom hang on ‘til the end, wobbling their little ol’ voices away. And it’s a shame because the music has far more real drama in it than the plot. This was another feature of 19th-century opera, that the dramatic quality of the music could, and often did, supersede the not-quite-dramatic quality of the libretti (Verdi’s Ernani and Trovatore are good examples).

Like many French operas of the period (e.g., Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila), Hulda doesn’t contain many arias or duets in the conventional sense. Some of the music is strophic sung recitative with orchestral accompaniment, but most of it is quite melodic though seldom coalescing into stock arias. In Act III there’s a beautiful love duet between Hulda and Eiolf (tenor Joshua Kohl, who’s not the best I’ve heard recently but at least pretty good), the drawback of which is that it goes on too long. Yet due to Franck’s driving, exciting rhythms, the opera succeeds in holding one’s attention. I could envision that Hulda would work best as a concert piece and not as a staged work; so long as the audience is made aware that the music is the focus of attention and not the silly, convoluted plot, this could be a very enjoyable evening in the concert hall—provided that the principal soprano and mezzo were first-rate.

Indeed, as the music continued, I found myself zeroing in on the score per se and rather ignoring the two principal female singers as much as possible. (For the record, Jung’s flutter is not as uneven or as annoying as Miller’s.) Yes, there are moments where Franck over-wrote (Act II, band 11 on the first CD), but even here the music has a drive and bite that one rarely associates with him, even in his famous Symphony in D minor. And here, too, there are some remarkable passages of orchestral and choral writing (track 12) that transcend the overly complicated plot.

Thus, from a purely musical perspective, Hulda is a remarkable work, clearly worthy of preservation if not an opera I’d want to see on the stage. It’s just too long and, despite the really dramatic moments, much ado about nothing. Yet the orchestral and choral parts, and even some of the solo vocal writing, are at the very apex of Franck’s powers. It’s music that not only intrigues the ear but moves you emotionally, and from that perspective I really do recommend it. Once the music gets rolling it almost never lets up, and there are far worse operas performed as part of the standard repertoire that have far less to offer than Hulda from a musical standpoint. You’re never bored by a moment of this score, and how many other operas can you say that about? Not many. Even Norma, which was clearly Bellini’s finest dramatic creation, has more “down” moments where the music just sort of doodles along than Hulda. There’s a certain rawness, you might say, in the score that Franck never achieved before or after this work.

But there’s a price to pay for so much hyper music, and that is its length. Two hours and 43 minutes is a long time to listen to primarily uptempo music, no matter how excitingly written; only occasionally does the music suddenly slow down, relax and get into a different mood for a while. Thus I recommend listening to Hulda one act at a time and allowing yourself a few minutes of quietude before putting the next act on. Pretend you’re at a performance and you have intermissions.

So the choice is yours. I’ve given you my absolute best assessment of the opera and its performance on these CDs.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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