Gounod Takes on His Own Past, in 'Cinq-Mars''

WOO-1536-CinqMars-250It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that an opera derided as stodgy and out of date nearly 140 years ago might seem fresh and interesting to a modern audience, but that may well be true with this week's featured opera, by Charles Gounod.

            The most famous music Gounod ever composed is almost surely his "Funeral March of a Marionette." He apparently wrote it as a caricature, aimed at a critic he didn't care for, though it's most familiar now as the theme music for the Alfred Hitchcock Show.

            Yet, TV fame aside, Gounod remains best known among music lovers as an opera composer, and that reputation is largely the result of a single drama, his popular take on Goethe's classic, Faust. Gounod's operatic Faust has been an audience favorite ever since its premiere, and it's certainly his most popular opera even today, though he did write one other that's still alive and well in modern theaters, his Romeo and Juliet.

            Gounod completed Faust in 1859. Romeo and Juliet came along about eight years later, with several other operas in between. By that time, Gounod may well have been the leading opera composer in France. So, when his next new opera appeared in 1877, it was a big event, and the piece got a spectacular production at the Opéra Comique in Paris. But it was basically a failure.

            In the nearly two decades since Faust, times -- and music -- had changed. But to the ears of Parisian opera-goers and critics, Gounod had stayed pretty much the same. One prominent critic wrote that the "novelty of yesterday now seems outmoded." Audiences seemed to agree. The opera was called Cinq-Mars, and despite a turbulent story of passion and political intrigue, ticket-buyers were looking for something new and different. By now, of course, music has changed even more. But audiences are different, as well.

            For better or worse, today's classical music lovers tend to shy away from things new and different, perhaps because so much great music from the past can be enjoyed simply by hitting the "Play" button, or by clicking a mouse, or tapping the screen of a handy "device."

            In some ways, that's too bad. One result is that new operas, no matter how worthy, often tend fade away quickly, in favor of familiar blockbusters. But there may also a brighter side to that tendency, to be heard in works such Gounod's Cinq-Mars.

            Parisians in 1877 may well have found it stale and stodgy. But by now, so much has passed under the musical bridge that maybe we can hear the opera with fresh ears -- not looking for something that pushes the stylistic envelope, but simply enjoying the music for all its simple, old-fashioned beauty.

            On World of Opera, Gounod's rarely-performed historical drama Cinq-Mars comes to us from the Prince Regent Theater in Munich. The stars are tenor Mathias Vidal in the title role, and soprano Veronique Gens as Princess Marie, in a production led by conductor Ulf Schirmer.