Mon. Oct 2nd, 2023

César Franck composed four operas. Two of them were early works that remain unpublished, while neither of the others was performed in his lifetime. Hulda, which Franck completed in 1885, was the first to be heard after his death, in a much-pruned version in 1894, but it has remained a rarity, little performed and only recorded complete for the first time in 2019, a performance in Freiburg that was subsequently released by Naxos. This new version is based on concert performances in Belgium and Paris last year, and as ever with Bru Zane, it comes in a superbly furnished package, with informative essays and the complete French libretto and English translation.

Based on a play by the Norwegian Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Hulda is a bloody revenge tragedy, set in medieval times, in which the title character exacts revenge on the Aslaks, the family that has murdered her father and brothers and taken her prisoner. Though the influence of Wagner is certainly clear in the score’s chromatic harmonies, and the two big Tristan-esque love duets that are among its dramatic turning points, the structure of the work, in four acts and an epilogue, follows the pattern of a French grand opera, with set-piece arias, ensembles and choruses, and even a ballet at the beginning of the fourth act.

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For all the grand guignol, though, dramatically it’s unconvincing. Apart from the central role of Hulda herself, who moves from victim to ruthless avenger in the course of the opera, the characters are scarcely credible, despite the best efforts of conductor Gergely Madaras and his cast. As Hulda, Jennifer Holloway copes wonderfully well with what is a fearsomely demanding role of Wagnerian proportions, even if her tone sometimes hardens uncomfortably, while as Eiolf, the opera’s closest thing to a hero, Edgaras Montvidas, certainly brings some charisma. The rest of the cast is very capable, too, while having Véronique Gens as Gudrun, the ruler of the Aslak clan, is a nice touch of luxury casting. Connoisseurs of operatic curios shouldn’t hesitate.

This week’s other pick

Also released recently in Bru Zane’s French opera series is an outstanding version of Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale, the tragédie lyrique, first performed in 1807, that is often cited as the link between the Paris operas of Gluck and the 19th-century developments of Berlioz and Meyerbeer. Christophe Rousset’s thrilling performance with the period instruments of Les Talens Lyriques certainly brings out the richness of Spontini’s score, while as Julia, the vestal virgin of the title, Marina Rebeka’s dramatic commitment seems total.

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