Kent Nagano / Anne-Catherine Gillet / Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal

Honegger & Ibert: L'Aiglon

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The notes to this Decca release offer various theories for the almost total disappearance of this hugely listenable 1937 opera, beginning with the fact that its nationalistic French theme made it unperformable for several years soon after its premier. Here's one more theory: classical music listeners are invested in the idea of the solitary composer offering an individual creation to the world, and collaborative works, few and very far between, somehow do not compute. L'Aiglon (the "little eagle" was the ill-fated Napoleon II, son of Napoleon Bonaparte) was written by Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert, with roughly equal proportions contributed by each composer and close collaboration on the dynamic third act. Part of the appeal of the score is that it places the breezy, melodic content of French neoclassicism in a larger stylistic context, and does so in a convincing way. The opera is based on a play by none other than Edmond Rostand of Cyrano de Bergerac fame, and it has one of the most convincing libretti of any opera of the 20th century. The action takes place as the young Napoleon, who grew up in Austria and was influenced by his surroundings there, becomes the point man in a conspiracy to restore him to power in France after Bonaparte's defeat. The plot unfolds against the splendor of life at a Habsburg court, and Ibert is deployed in the waltzes and the other lighter music (sample the opening scenes of Act III, the first tracks on the second CD), while the more Wagnerian Honegger takes the meatier dramatic content such as the remarkable dreamlike fourth act as the young Aiglon recalls Bonaparte's exploits at the Battle of Wagram in 1809. No other work has been shaped in exactly this way, and the results are compelling. So too are the performances here. The role of L'Aiglon is given to a soprano, perhaps in recognition of the fact that the role was played by Sarah Bernhardt in the stage production, and Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet and the rest of the partly French-Canadian cast in this live Montreal performance excel and throw themselves into the action. But the star of the show is the conductor Kent Nagano, not French at all but resident in Montreal long enough to have shaped the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal into his own instrument. The score has a real lightness in his hands, and it moves. Highly recommended, and a real find for lovers of French opera.

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