Made for a soprano who’s ready to let rip
MASSENET: LA NAVARRAISE
Aleksandra Kurzak, Roberto Alagna, Opera Orchestra of New York, cond. Alberto Veronesi Warner Classics
Commissioned by Covent Garden and given its world premiere there in 1894, Massenet’s thunderous one-act melodrama La Navarraise is an unabashed attempt to cash in on the sensational contemporary success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and its naked depiction of sexual passion and murderous violence. An instant success – Queen Victoria is said to have relished a command performance she ordered at Windsor Castle – it remained popular until the First World War, not least because of the enthralling acting of Emma Calvé, who often played the title role. Today it is neglected, but it remains a terrific vehicle for a soprano ready to let rip, and deserves more frequent revival.
Set during the Third Carlist War in northern Spain, it tells the story of Anita, a poor peasant girl who will go to any lengths to find enough money to marry her soldier lover, Araquil. Bravely but foolishly, she agrees, in return for a bounty, to a secret plan to cross enemy lines and assassinate a hated officer. She succeeds, but Araquil mistakenly believes that her real motivation was to visit a lover: he jealously follows her and is fatally wounded. He curses her as he dies, and Anita goes spectacularly mad as the curtain falls.
It’s a blast of a score that doesn’t waste a second, sometimes brutally violent, sometimes plushly melodic, and peppered with Hispanic colours and rhythms that owe something to Bizet’s Carmen. A delicately atmospheric nocturnal interlude will be familiar to all lovers of Kenneth Macmillan’s ballet Manon.
Two polished previous recordings dating from the Seventies – one with Lucia Popp, the other with Placido Domingo and Marilyn Horne – can still be found. This newcomer to the catalogue is, in comparison, a rather rough and ready affair, made in New York. It features Roberto Alagna and his wife, Aleksandra Kurzak, in the leading roles: as Araquil, Alagna goes at it hammer and tongs, to exciting if erratic effect; Kurzak’s Anita is very touching and convincing.
Despite sloppy conducting by Alberto Veronesi, which does Massenet less than justice, this is a red-blooded performance that offers guilty pleasure for all lovers of French opera.