Gounod is rightly viewed as the apostle of a lyrical, sensual and seductive Romanticism. From the wonder of Marguerite admiring herself in the ‘Jewel Song’ from Faust to the pastoral ingenuousness of Mireille, by way of the voluptuous delight of the Garden Scene from Roméo et Juliette, the composer exhibited his ability to grasp and transcribe the palpitations of the human heart when it falls victim to love, overwhelming or frustrated. But he was not only the eulogist of desire, and the objective of the cycle devoted to him by the Palazzetto Bru Zane is precisely to show the artist in all his facets. That is why rare and specialist repertory (the Concerto for pedal piano, the transcription of Mozart for a cappella chorus) will appear side by side with genuine events (the modern premiere of his last opera, Le Tribut de Zamora), while new light will be shed on better-known pieces, notably the first version of Faust (with spoken dialogue), performed on period instruments.
‘His music is as divine
as his person is noble
Gounod has an immense
future ahead of him.’ (Pauline Viardot)
‘God created three beautiful things:
music, flowers and women.
It is of them that I have always sung.’ Charles Gounod, «Mémoires d’un artiste»
The man of the theatre
Gounod’s mother had had the discernment to place Gérard de Nerval’s translation of Goethe’s Faust in the luggage of the young man as he set out for Rome. Later on, Le Médecin malgré lui, his opéra-comique of 1858, responded to a concern she had expressed as soon as her son came home from the Villa Medici: that he should not restrict himself to the serious genre. We see that, in the domain of opera as in so many others, Gounod once again owed a great deal to his mother. Although it was accused of academicism by the champions of unbridled modernity, his operatic output testifies to two qualities essential in a great composer: the unity of a personal stylistic signature and the variety of a man who understood the specificities of each of his librettos. If his melodic and harmonic hallmarks are present in abundance, the way Gounod lays out his arias, ensembles and finales surprises us every time. Generous with reprises and ambitious developments in his grands opéras, he is economical and parsimonious in the demi-caractère genre (as in Cinq-Mars and Philémon et Baucis), with a fondness for introducing salon romances (Siebel’s ‘Si le bonheur’ in Faust) and orchestrated mélodies (Sapho’s ‘Ô ma lyre immortelle’ or Marie de Gonzague’s ‘Nuit resplendissante’). He wrote gratefully for all voice types, but always favoured the ‘fort ténor’ of opéra-comique (Roméo, Vincent, Faust, Cinq-Mars) and the affecting tones of the lyric soprano (Mireille, Marguerite, Juliette), the latter type of role being conceived for the divine Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, wife of the director of the Théâtre-Lyrique.
‘France possesses an immensely
valuable repertory of dramatic music,
which it is very far from appreciating
at its true worth.’ Hector Berlioz