Luigi Cherubini - Koukourgi
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Thanks to the new Cherubini Edition, the composer's unknown comic opera Koukourgi was staged for the first time in celebration of his 250th anniversary 2010. The premiere production of Luigi Cherubini's opera Koukourgi at the Klagenfurt Stadttheater revealed a work that combines a tale from ancient China with the sensibility of the French Revolutionary times of its composition. The three act opera sees a young Chinese man battling for the hand of his sweetheart against the Tartar mandarin Koukourgi, the not unlikeable anti-hero described as a large pumpkin. The turmoil in Paris led to Cherubini's librettist Honoré-Nicolas-Marie Duveyrier being imprisoned in the Bastille and fleeing to Denmark. The opera was left with the finale incomplete and has remained unperformed for over two centuries. Koukourgi's finale was completed by Heiko Cullman and the new performing edition has allowed the opera to reclaim its rightful place on the stage.
''Now the musical world knows that with Koukourgi Cherubini composed a work anticipating Offenbachiana. It is the comic situations here which give occasion for clever, pointed, amusing music ... running along with lively tempi, snappy numbers, rousing marching rhythms, with tone painting effects (the storm music), experimental ensembles and a novel simultaneous triple dream sequence...'' --Salzburger Nachrichten
Peter Marschik leads a well-balanced performance, with springy rhythms or bold orchestral sound as necessary in Cherubini's varied instrumentation. --John T. Hughes, International Record Review
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There is a perception that Cherubini's music is a little bit academic and conventional, with an impeccable sense of melody, counterpoint and situation every bit as delightful as Haydn, but without the spark of genius or originality of Mozart. There's some degree of truth in that, but at the same time Cherubini is certainly worthy of being considered alongside these two more famous near-contemporary composers. Koukourgi is indeed a little bit dry and academic in places - a comedy-romance drama set against the backdrop of warring factions - with familiar character types and situations, the obligatory thunderstorm and a spectacular march of soldiers, but it has no great narrative drive that inspires any impressive musical or singing feats. In its own way however, Koukourgi is a lovely little example of its type, as light and entertaining as a Haydn opera, but with a modest French buffo character that avoids the excesses of the usually more florid Italian singing.
That character is maintained in the Klagenfurt production, delicately played by the Kärtner Sinfonieorchester as conducted by Peter Marschik, which sets the tone by having Koukourgi play the part of narrator. It is unlikely that the character would have performed this role in the original spoken dialogue for the work, but it works effectively in the context here, making asides and confidences to the audience about the opera itself as well as about his own indolent nature, inviting them to laugh along with him at the rather more serious attitude adopted by the other characters in what doesn't really amount to a great deal. As is often the case with this type of work then, a lot depends on the charm and the delivery of the performers. Daniel Prohaska has a great deal of fun as the irreverent Koukourgi, but finds suitable companions for his cowardly nature in Daniel Belcher's Sécuro and Peter Edlemann's Phaor. Cigdem Soyarslan's Zulma and Johannes Chum's Amazan meanwhile play the romantic drama wonderfully straight, Amazan ready to fly off to brave all the Tartar attacks without a moment's pause for reflection.
Koukourgi is by no means a major discovery, but it's entertaining in its own right, delightfully staged and performed, and with the scarcity of Cherubini operas available in any form, this is a true rarity that does indeed throw new light on the variety and quality of the composer's work. It's only available on DVD - no Blu-ray release - but the specifications are excellent, with a clean, sharp widescreen transfer and good audio mixes in PCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1. The disc is Region-free, NTSC format, with subtitles in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.
However, "Koukourgi" never influenced anything simply because it was never staged. This DVD captures its world premiere of 2010 from the Stadttheater of Klagenfurt, Austria. The opera was probably finished, but no explanation for its non-performance has been discovered. The spoken dialogue portions of the libretto are lost. The modern reconstructions of them are assigned to the smug glutton princeling Koukourgi, who speaks directly to the audience in German while all the singing is in French. Koukourgi is properly the main character of the drama, the focus of the satire and the source of nearly all the humor. The French Revolution is long past, though its ideals have still to triumph in many societies, and this modern reconstruction of Cherubini's political opera aims chiefly for entertainment. The DVD is witty and colorful, and the music is well worth hearing more than once or twice.
Cherubini and Wolfgang Mozart were born a mere four years apart, the former in 1760 and the latter in 1756. Mozart's first opera was staged in 1767; Cherubini's first in 1773. Mozart composed twenty-three operas and Cherubini thirty-six, but up until Mozart's death in 1791 the two composers kept pace. Cherubini was well aware of the music of Joseph Haydn, his most prominent influence, but it's unlikely that he'd heard any of Mozart's operas before 1791. Only a rash reviewer would deny that Mozart was the greater musical genius of the two, but from the prospective of 1791, the future belonged to Cherubini for at least the next half-century. For all his creative genius, Mozart remained solidly an 18th C composer ... dare I say a Baroque composer? ... who structured his operas as recitativos and da capo arias. One can hardly hear "Koukourgi" (in this production anyway) without hearing the future of French opera and operetta, particularly 'opéra-comique.' Cherubini in 1791 sounded more like Meyerbeer than like Mozart. And Cherubini lived long enough to collaborate with the next generation in the person of Daniel Auber, with whom he composed "La Marquise de Brinvilliers" in 1831. Meyerbeer, Auber, Halévy, and Offenbach were all effectively disciples of Cherubini in the art of musical comedy. If you've heard Cherubini's "Medée" of 1797 -- the only other work of his currently available on DVD -- you can perhaps extrapolate for yourself the degree to which Cherubini more than Mozart foreshadowed the future of tragic opera. It's worth noting that Cherubini's earliest operas were settings of librettos by Zeno and Metastasio, the masters of the Baroque, while his latest pieces were based on dramas by Eugene Scribe, the librettist of works by Donizetti and Verdi.
Critics of his era and musicologists today have maintained that Cherubini's greatest operas were Lodoiska, Les deux journées, and Ladiska, none of which I've had the pleasure of hearing and none of which are available on DVD. I wonder how long we'll have to wait ...