Not one, but two new pairs of trousers

Not one, but two new pairs of trousers

Antonio Caldara: La Conversione di Clodoveo, Rè di Francia (1715). Libretto Sigismondo Capece. Performed by Le Nouvel Opéra. Direction, harpsichord, organ: Alexander Weimann. Allyson McHardy, mezzo-soprano (Clovis, King of the Francs), Nathalie Paulin, soprano (Clotilda, his royal consort), Suzie LeBlanc, soprano (St Remigius, the bishop of Rheims), Matthew White, counter-tenor (Uberto, captain). Double CD by ATMA Classique 2011. Samples and the-making-of video here.

[I plan to continue to explore some of the recent releases by the smaller labels, stopping at ATMA for a couple of CDs and then moving on to boutique labels like Glossa.]

The Conversion of Clovis, a very operatic baroque oratorio in Italian, dramatises one of the founding myths of France, the conversion to Christianity and baptism of the King Clovis of the Francs, the event that indeed took place, historians tell us, following a key military victory in 496.

The soprano consort of the pagan mezzo king is already Christian, and pleads with her husband to turn to one true God before his big battle. Her ally is the archbishop San Remigio, interestingly also a soprano. The battle doesn’t go too well for the King, and amidst plans of withdrawal he abandons Mars and turns to the Christian God, which in turn changes the outcome of the battle in his favour. The King comes home converted, and the rest of the Act 2 are arias of acceptance of the one true faith, celebration of the victory, renewal of marital love and loyalty to the One Church.

Musically, it’s a more intricate affair. The riches are achieved with nominally very little: a super-thin orchestra and only four voices, and all four relatively high, but how very different in colour. The da capos are the expected virtuosic exercises with embellishments on the second go, but not predictable at all. The recitativi are even more expressive than the da capo arias – or they are rendered such by these highly drama-literate singers. Occasionally and unexpectedly, the solo organ becomes the only musical accompaniment in statements of particular monotheistic fervour. About the entire second half of the last act becomes a singspiel competition in God-worship and contrition among the characters.

Allyson McHardy is a mezzo on the make getting press and contracts left, right and centre, and now that I finally heard her I understand why. Her darkish timbre and her coloratura agility remind in all the right ways of the young Marilyn Horne, and in this oratorio she is given a considerable gamut. The early arias she gets are guerriere and the latter ones are umili, with many amorous exchanges with the spouse in between. She will sing Dejanira with Tafelmusik’s concert Hercules at the Koerner Hall in a couple of months, which should be interesting to hear.

She has a good match in Nathalie Paulin as her spouse Clotilda, whose substantial and expressive soprano made the character of the wife sound (fortunately) not too youthful but more of a wise woman. The archbishop is also a soprano, and with Suzie LeBlanc it is an angelic-sounding immaculate girl of a bishop that very productively undermines our gender expectations. The bishop sings almost exclusively in allegories and is prone to stratospherically high and light fiorituras. Imagine a figure like the Grand Inquisitor from Don Carlo being given a score along the lines of the novice Constance in the Dialogues des Carmelites and you’ll get the picture.

Before being recorded, this Clodoveo was staged some years back as a Canadian-German co-production and travelled to Vancouver, Montreal and Berlin. Its director in both versions is Alexander Weimann, a Munich-born keyboard instrumentalist of wide interests (from Bach recitatives to medieval Latin to jazz piano) who recorded noted Scarlatti and Buxtehude CDs.

Clodoveo is a keeper.

PS: The lovely Suzie LeBlanc (picture above) played a role in the remarkable and remarkably difficult film 2008 film, The Lost Song. It’s how cross-over is done. She who dares, wins.

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6 thoughts on “Not one, but two new pairs of trousers

  1. Oh wow. I am so happy that one of my favorite examples of “crazy stuff going on in the early middle ages! we barely know what IS actually going on!” is an opera with mezzos in trouser roles and a coloratura bishop. So happy. Now, if this were a meta-production with Gregory of Tours as a silent role somewhere, that would possibly make it Even Better.

    Also: why are there not more people in my life whose interests include Bach recitatives, medieval Latin, and jazz piano?

  2. I know! His thesis was on “recitatives in Bach”. This may in part explain why the recitatives are so carefully done on this CD. The staging in that video, on the other hand… was like something from Ubu Roi. One of those occasions you’re thankful there is no DVD.

    In the meantime, I popped over to Wiki-land to inquire about the historical Clovis… So, he could have equally gone another Christian way, the way of Arian Christianity (whatever the heck that was…) instead of Catholicism. And the mention of Mars in the opera is probably not too far-fetched, since the kind of paganism that Clovis must have practised adopted the gods from the Roman mythology.

    1. Awesome. And… oh dear. The narrative of Clovis’ conversion is handed down by the sixth-century bishop Gregory of Tours, who of course wants to present it as a sort of collective destiny for the region, because Arianism is still kicking around (Arianism held that there was a hierarchy within the persons of the Trinity.) So Gregory has this neat story patterned on Eusebius’ account of Constantine’s conversion, but with the addition of Clothilde’s persuasion, and bothered Clovis all the time and got their sons baptized. I’m interested in what you say about Remigius being a Grand-Inquisitor-like figure, because he’s a bit of a cipher–a bishop whom the king humbly submits to because that’s the way Gregory wants political/religious authority to work–in the chronicle.

      …Er… end rambling anecdote about medieval history. Oops.

    2. That’s good to know. I hadn’t a clue how powerful the historical Remigius was. Was looking for an “important church official” in opera to compare this character with, so the Inquisitor came to mind first.

      The fact that the bishop of the opera sounds like a “little girl” may mean that Caldara and Capece knew about his relative unimportance — but probably that wasn’t the idea because the association of the deep voice with power and wisdom came later in the opera history.

      Of course, to keep in mind was that this oratorio was written and premiered in Rome in the early eighteenth, so it repurposed Remigius for its audience.

      But I didn’t know that the unacknowledged “librettists” here are Gregory of Tours and even Eusebius.

      So interesting, grazie Lucia.

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