Made for a so­prano who’s ready to let rip

MASSENET: LA NAVARRAISE

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - THE CRITICAL LIST - By Ru­pert Chris­tiansen

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.

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