Benjamin Godard's opera Dante rarely heard but causing quite a sensation. In January this year, it was heard at the Prinzregententheater, Munich, and later at the Opéra Royal de Versailles, Paris, and broadcast throughout Europe. What a delight! This was the first performance odf a modern edition of the orchestral score, produced by the Palazetto Bru Zane.
Dante (1890) is lyrical drama in the French tradition, a fin de siècle descendant of Massenet, Thomas and Gounod, though not a precursor of Debussy, whose Pelléas et Mélisande was to premiere only seven years after Godard's early death 12 years later. Dante and The Divine Comedy are so well known, there's no point rehashing them here. Godard's Dante , though, is also interesting because it suggests a connection between Dante and Goethe's Faust. In this Dante we can hear echoes of Gounod's Faust, of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust and even of Boito's Mefistofele: All are part of an interest in the Gothic Imagination and its fascination for the demonic and macabre beneath-surface lushness. One might also consider Baudelaire Les Fleurs du Mal and the etchings of Gustav Doré, which I've used here.
While Godard certainly can whip up a beautiful storm, helped by the exceptionally good performance, Véronique Gens is easily the finest specialist in late French Romantic repertoire,and brings the very tricky role of Béatrice to life with the lustrous timbre of her voice, and the poise with which she negotiates the range in the part. No wonder Dante would go through hell for her! Béatrice (and Gens) so dominate this opera that it would be hard to imagine a performance without the beauty of Gens's singing. The rest of the cast is superb too. Edgaras Montvidas sings Dante, Rachel Frankel sings Gemma (Béatrice's friend), and Andrew Foster Williams sings the Shade of Virgil. Ulf Schirmer conducts the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. All too often rarities like Dante are spoiled by mediocre, lacklustre performances by conductors who rely on the fact that audiences don't have a point of reference, and fall for the safe and bland, which doesn't do the music justice. Godard isn't a genius, which is all the more why this performance is so good. Ulf Schirmer isn't the kind of conductor who gets away with things because he has no competition. Everything I've heard him conduct is geared towards the specifics that make a composer individual. Not all that many condutors have that gift. Palazzetto Bru Zane is to be congratulated on going for the best, without compromise. This Godard Dante is being released on CD, An essential purchase, I think.
Please read the notes prepared by the Palazzetto Bru Zane, HERE. probably the best source so far on the composer and on the opera. I quote "Godard’s opera, composed in 1890, skilfully juxtaposes political developments – crowd scenes in Florence and the feud between Guelphs and Ghibellines – and the expression of medieval courtly love. In the opera Gemma, a young girl married to the protagonist out of duty and then abandoned, becomes the close friend of the beloved woman, Beatrice, of whom she is also the secret rival. The most remarkable aspect of this opera, though, is the insertion of a ‘Vision’, a kind of synthesis of the Divine Comedy set to music. Act three thus ranges between an imaginary Hell and Paradise, with sections bearing titles such as Apparition de Virgile Chœur des Damnés, Tourbillon infernal, Divine Clarté, and Apothéose de Béatrice . Godard here appears at the peak of his melodic inspiration and his overall compositional mastery, in a style that swings between Gounod and Massenet. The vocal quintet called for in the opera perfectly captures all the heroic and expressive potential of singers well-versed in Wagner and Verdi."