The conductor, whose heroic efforts have revivified so many French works, is joined by Karina Gauvin, majestically commanding as another of baroque opera’s vengeful lovesick sorceresses.
San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque had planned to stage Scylla as the major event commemorating Nicholas McGegan’s farewell after decades as music director. The production with the regal Véronique Gens as Circé was to have later moved to the Opéra Royal at Versailles.
I believe it would have been Gens’s first staged opera appearances in the US since 1989 (!) when she performed several small roles in the legendary Les Arts Florissants Atys at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The last time I heard her here in New York was joyously singing Handel with LAF also at BAM way back in 1996.
Of course. the bigger disappointment is that Scylla has been lost, the composer’s only opera and a masterpiece. For me, no other French opera from the first half of the 18th century besides Scylla should be mentioned in the same breath as those of Rameau. Its vividly drawn characters, in particular the fiery Circé, along with its ravishing divertissements conspire to make Leclair’s work an unforgettable tragédie en musique.
Like Rameau’s final miracle Les Boréades, the modern rediscovery of Scylla can be attributed to John Eliot Gardiner who conducted a concert version in the early 1980s with Marie McLaughlin, Jennifer Smith and Jean-Claude Orliac. A broadcast of that performance was my introduction to Leclair’s five-act opera based on a tragic love triangle from Ovid’s Metamorphosis.
During his tenure as music director of the Lyon Opera, Gardiner oversaw Scylla’s first staging since the 18th century and the opera was recorded by Erato. That superb, now out-of-print CD featured Donna Brown, Rachel Yakar and Howard Crook and must be essential listening for anyone interested in the French baroque. A more recent recording under Sébastian d’Hérin is just fine but doesn’t compare with either the Gardiner or today’s excellent 2005 Versailles broadcast.
I must, however, give a shout-out to the always prescient Raymond Leppard, who in the late 1960s recorded a suite of dances from Scylla along with one from Destouches’s Issé, which has been recently revived and recorded; neither Leppard suite though has ever been issued on CD.
I’m unclear why Leclair wrote only one opera—at age 50 in 1746–but otherwise his fame rests as patriarch of the French school of violin playing. His concerti for the instrument, though far less well known than Vivaldi’s, might well be their equal.
Among numerous recordings of them, Simon Standage put out a three-CD set years back on Chandos and it’s a consistent joy.
Though the opera is named after its hapless lovers, the dominating figure is of course Circé. whose thwarted love inspires the opera’s tragic denouement. Smith, Yakar and Gauvin rose to its rewarding dramatic and musical demands and one hopes that Gens might in the near future have her opportunity to pine and rage over the uninterested Glaucus.
A much earlier French treatment of Circé, this one by Henri Desmarest from 1694, was also scheduled to be performed this spring at Versailles. Though that performance was canceled, it has, however, been announced that Circé will be the centerpiece opera at the next Boston Early Music Festival in 2021.
Leclair: Scylla et Glaucus
Opéra Royal, Versailles
27 September 2005
Scylla: Gaëlle Le Roi
Circé: Karina Gauvin
Venus/Dorine/une Sicilienne: Salomé Haller
L’Amour/Témire: Céline Scheen
Glaucus: Robert Getchell
Le chef des peoples/Licas/Hécate: Nicholas Achten
Chœur Les Élémens
Les Talens Lyriques
Conductor — Christophe Rousset
Scylla et Glaucus can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.
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