OP0609. MONTSÉGUR (Marcel Landowski), Live Performance, 1987, l'Opéra, Paris, w.Michel Plasson Cond. l'Opéra Ensemble; Karan Armstrong, Gino Quilico, Michel Sénéchal, Remy Corazza, etc. [Recorded 'live' in Paris, in 1987, this fascinating opera features the great singing-actress Karan Armstrong in an extraordinary tour-de-force] (France) 2-Cybelia CY 850/51, w.43pp Libretto-Brochure in French, German & English. Very long out-of-print, Final Copy!
When a name becomes music, the results can be intriguing. Marcel Landowski's name can be found in all reference works devoted to 20th-century French music, but seldom in programs outside France.
Born in Brittany in 1915, Mr. Landowski is the son of the sculptor Paul Landowski and, on his mother's side, a direct descendant of the 19th-century French composer Henri Vieuxtemps. Even as a student at the Paris Conservatory, he attracted the attention of the conductor Pierre Monteux, who introduced his orchestral works to Parisian audiences. After World War II, he embarked on a distinguished career in the French musical bureaucracy, eventually overseeing the nation's music education. He was active in the revamping of French musical life that led to the development of many excellent regional orchestras as well as the Orchestre de Paris.
In view of the willingness of the French Government to promote its composers, and Mr. Landowski's access to its higher echelons, his obscurity on the international scene is a bit of a mystery. It is not due to lack of talent, as a recording of his recent opera MONTSÉGUR (Cybelia CY 850/851) attests. This rare opportunity to hear a major Landowski work proves him a composer of significant gifts.
The Opera is based on a novel by the Duc de Levis-Mirepoix, which, set in heresy-ridden Provence in 1240, deals with the tense period after Roman Catholic invaders from northern France defeated the Cathars, a dissident sect, during the Albigensian crusades. The operatic argument is simple: A young woman, Jordane, daughter of a Catholic father and a Cathar mother, inherits a fief in which Montsegur Castle is the stronghold. She loves a Catholic warrior, Gautier, but is secretly devoted to protecting the remaining Cathars. Eventually, Jordane, the Cathars, and Montsegur itself are destroyed by crusader forces led by Gautier.
The libretto alternates between scenes of operatic realism (Jordane's assumption of her inheritance, her meetings with Cathar leaders, a love scene with Gautier), Jordane's visions (she leads Gautier through mystic landscapes containing images through which he gleans,to his horror, that she is a heretic) and Gautier's flashbacks concerning the destruction of the castle. It should make for highly effective theater, and offers a composer challenges that Mr. Landowski meets forcefully.
His musical style is rooted in that of the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, to whom he was devoted, but with full cognizance and an easy assimilation of recent developments. The music in this opera is mellifluous, but not melodic in the traditional sense of offering memorable tunes. The vocal writing contains the wide intervals common to most contemporary music, but shaped in a way that carries an emotional message audiences can readily respond to. Mr. Landowski creates a fine musical distinction between the human and the mythic treatment of the same characters. His handling of dramatic timing through changing orchestral colors is excellent.
The recording is culled from several performances during the work's first production, at the Paris Opéra in 1987. The performers are excellent. Karan Armstrong is a strong Jordane, although (perhaps because of the recording's live provenance) the hysteria of her characterization occasionally creeps into her upper register. Gino Quilico sings Gautier superbly, almost as if the role had been created with his voice in mind, and the subsidiary parts are well handled.
Mr. Landowski once said that mysticism and love are the two themes of music. How close this seems to the attitude of another contemporary French composer, Olivier Messaien. In fact, there are parallels between MONTSÉGUR and Mr. Messaien's opera ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI. Both are based on historical fact and deal with religious history, symbolism and belief. Both contain music of an elegiac character. There is no doubt that Mr. Messaien is the more important musical figure; his musical ideas are more original, more striking and even more splendidly decked out orchestrally. In fact, one hears his influence in the opening bars of MONTSÉGUR.
But if one considers the two works simply as stage vehicles, Mr. Landowski has produced the more viable opera. For all its sheer beauty, Mr. Messiaen's work has little sense of action. The music is repetitious, surely by intent; but to an ear unwilling to suspend musical judgment, it is overrepetitious. The dramatic effect of what one hears lessens by degrees. Mr. Landowski, at half the length, provides infinitely more contrast.
Mention of Mr. Messaien is not incidental to a consideration of MONTSÉGUR since Mr. Landowski's opera was produced in a musical atmosphere overwhelmed by the massive (and well-deserved) 80th birthday festivities accorded Mr. Messaien, and may have suffered accordingly. There is considerably more to success in music than meets the ear. At least Cybelia's release offers a chance for dissemination of MONTSÉGUR to a wider audience. Mr. Landowski, who has written symphonies, ballets and much other music, seems to merit a broader representation on recordings than he has received.
- Paul Turok, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 13 Aug., 1989