French opera during the Napoleonic period was seemingly something of a hotbed of proto-Romantic innovation, with experiments in orchestration, harmony and other aspects of opera that were to become commonplace (the widespread use of the reminiscence theme, for example) during the Romantic era; it was to French opera of this period that Weber looked for inspiration in his aim to create a distinctively German national opera, reflected in his warmly appreciative critical writing about the music of Mehul, Dalayrac and Cherubini, amongst others, and he backed up this interest by introducing their operas to the German stage. One would scarcely credit the historical importance or the imaginative fertility of French opera during this period from a glance at the record catalogues or current theatre repertoires, however, and the output of even the two most famous practitioners of Parisian opera - Cherubini and Mehul - are barely represented on disc nowadays: aside from umpteen recordings of the former's `Médée' (usually in the later, inauthentic Italian version), there have only been a few of their other works recorded and some of those are atypical or predate the period in question.
This new recording of Catel's `Sémiramis' is thus a very welcome one and proves to be so not just in terms of historical interest but in musical distinction too; indeed, it is a remarkably accomplished piece of musical drama, I think, and its quality all the more remarkable when one learns that it was the young composer's first opera. All the principal characters are accorded arias, most very fine, Catel's attractive way with melody reinforced by his harmonic sense* and his instinct (and imagination) for pointedly coloured orchestration. His ability to create a character musically is apparent from the appearance of Sémiramis in the first act - her "guilt" aria is a very fine piece but his dramatic accompanied recitatives are just as instrumental in completing his portrayal of the tormented queen.
Catel proves himself a master of the ensemble and obviously knew his Gluck and his Mozart. These extended scenes really propel the action forward and there is no sense of lingering over musical delights at the expense of the drama; no doubt his librettist's paring down of Voltaire's original play to its essentials was an aid to Catel in this his first theatrical work but I do think his own instincts for combining music and drama merit recognition as well. According to the fine booklet essay, contemporary critics found the opera to be too weighed down with tragedy, at the expense of other elements: though I doubt that would trouble many present day listeners, I also don't think it is the quite the full story either - there are some lovely duets for Arsaces and Azema, and the balance between drama and lyricism seems to me to be handled quite well; certainly, it doesn't have the same concentrated and unrelenting air of calamity that so colours Cherubini's `Médée' from the eponymous heroine's first appearance; the first act concludes with a pair of dances, the second "African" dance piquant and vivacious in a tradition derived from Rameau perhaps, an element that would be completely incongruous in `Médée' and while the final curtain can hardly be said to fall on a happy ending there is musically and dramatically a sense of order being restored.
The `African' dance mentioned above provides an obvious opportunity for orchestral colour but his use of his instrumental forces is imaginative and apposite throughout; the hieratic pronouncements from the trombones at key points to underline the dictates and warnings of the High Priest or to evoke a sense of fear are very effective if not, perhaps, remarkably original but other passages are more innovative - the striking and ominous conclusion of the otherwise conventional overture, for instance, or the fluid use of the bassoon to create an atmosphere of mysterious anticipation. Albeit not strictly "orchestral" colour, his setting of the ghost's words for male chorus is also notable and deserves mention, though the actual brief appearance of the spectre struck me as the one dip in dramatic inspiration in the score and is a little understated in comparison to the rest of the work.
The performances are excellent all round, without a single weak link in the cast, and with sharply detailed and vital playing and singing from the chorus and orchestra of Le Concert Spirituel under Hervé Niquet. Mathias Vidal is a light-toned tenor, ideally suited I think to the part of Arsaces - he makes the most of the more dramatic aspects of his part but he also blends his voice beautifully with Gabrielle Philiponet (as Azema) in their duets. Maria Riccarda Wesseling is splendid as the ill-fated Sémiramis, passionate and sympathetic.
All in all, this is a highly recommendable set, the production values of which match the excellence of the music and performances; anyone particularly interested in the music of this period should snap it up immediately, of course, lest it disappear from the listings (rare repertoire so often seems to have a short shelf life in the catalogues, unfortunately) but I think there is much here to interest the casual listener also or, indeed, anyone curious about the influences on Weber, who was to learn so much from the music of Catel and his peers. This is a five star release without a doubt and leaves me hoping that we get to hear his later operas, such as `Les Bayadères' or the opéra héroïque `Wallace ou Le Ménestrel écossais', sooner rather than later.
* Catel had in fact published a treatise on harmony just prior to writing `Sémiramis'