Gaul in Three (Very Long) Parts
Updated: Jan 15, 2021
I wonder how many other people fortified themselves against the baleful final afternoon of 2020 by listening to all three and a half hours of Vincent D'Indy's 1897 opera, Fervaal? And, of the handful of us who presumably did, how many, I wonder, thought it time well spent? I suppose I did, since I have long harboured a vague curiosity about this work (not, so far as I am aware, ever available in an adequate commercial recording) which is now now, thanks to Radio 3, mightily assuaged. The fruit of much solid musicianship, and even more dogged ambition, it is the magnum-opus of a composer who wanted to see himself as both prime protector and heroic extender of the Wagnerian tradition, and it is not hard to see how he might have thought himself up to the job. Confidently bolstered by ironclad contrapuntal and orchestral technique, the music is never feeble and sometimes striking. Yet the overall effect is mainly monstrous. When Debussy (with whom D'Indy's relations were at least initially cordial) described Wagner's music as "a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn" I suspect it was things like Fervaal that were buging him.
In many ways a typical product of the French Second Empire, D'Indy is a perplexing figure. A fierce monarchist, a fervent Catholic and an outspoken anti-Dreyfusard (though perfectly courteous to Jews of his own acquaintance), his brief combat experience during the Franco-Prussian War left him with an abiding hatred of Germany, though not of all things German. Indeed, he regarded the noble achievements of Bach, Beethoven and Wagner as shamingly superior to what he saw as his own country's decorative and emasculated musical heritage. As an academic, he did pioneering work editing early music and founded his own private music school - the Schola Cantorum - as a stern antidote to the established Paris Conservatoire. (It produced a few notable alumni, including the dilettante millionaire Cole Porter, but it's high fees and arid curriculum limited its appeal and influence.) A man of stiff military bearing and forbidding demeanour, he was a prominent, influential and (sometimes grudgingly) respected figure in French artistic life. Unfortunately, he appears to have had few close friends and none capable of protecting him from rapidly acquiring the posthumous reputation of a boring reactionary. Overall, Fervaal itself suggests that only half this label is fully justified, though I'm afraid, the first half.
By the time of D'Indy's death in 1931, Parisian audiences had become accustomed to the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel and other modernists whose innovations made him seem very much a relic of the previous century but, in the 1890s, Fervaal would have impressed it's early listeners as the work of a progressive. D'Indy would certainly not be the last composer to enter middle age confident that he was at the forefront of fashionable attention, only to look around in his fifties and realise he was suddenly regarded as quaint and fusty. Elgar, Richard Strauss, Rachmaninov, all suffered a critical eclipse of this kind, as later would Hindemith, Walton and, at least in some quarters, Britten. Yet the arts are not a stylistic race - well, not entirely. Where time can be cruelly dismissive of most talents, it can grant some a handsome reprieve from irrelevance. Elgar, Strauss, Rachmaninov, Walton and Britten all have a grateful audience, whilst Hindemith, though to my mind underappreciated, just about survives on the fringe of the extended canon. D'Indy, sadly, is beyond the fringe; the musical equivalent, perhaps, of those millions of potential exhibits (many no doubt interesting) confined to the store rooms of the world's great galleries and museums and it would be surprising if the admirable (indeed, largely magnificent) concert performance of Fervaal from the 2019 Montpellier Festival broadcast on British airwaves last month did anything to change that.
The most obvious problems with the opera is its obtuse long-windedness, combined with D'Indy's seeming conviction that technique will help him out where invention is not forthcoming. On a smaller scale, it might have done but, as it is, Fervaal's genuine sparks of inspiration tend to drown in a tideless sea of highly efficient, but unengaging, bombast. Partly this is a consequence of the composer's own libretto, which is probably offensively chauvinistic, but certainly stilted and absurd. Wagner's self-penned libretti, whatever their sometimes poisonous eccentricities, come across as altogether more skillful, involving and professional - the work of a man who loved and understood the theatre. The text of Fervaal , by comparison, is the work of a man who loved and thought he understood Wagner - not quite the same thing. Of course, too many 19th Century operas, including many with decent music, suffer from libretti towards which their composers appear to have been indifferent or unsympathetic. The operas of Saint-Saens, for instance (at least the ones I've heard), are pretty much of this type - curiously, in view of Saint-Saens' sharp intelligence and literary gifts. One can applaud D'Indy's post-Wagnerian ambition to rid French opera of triviality and make it about something. At the same time, one can only deplore the ineptitude with which he pursued it.
Set some time in the remote past, Fervaal tells of the titular Celtic chieftain's self-denying love for the alluring Saracen princess, Guilhen. (Exactly what time in the remote past pagan Gauls and Muslim Saracens were in conflict with each other I couldn't say.) In a desert-set Prologue that promises more by way of dramatic action than we are ever actually treated to, Guilhen rescues Fervaal's party from a group of bandits. By the end of the 80 minute First Act, however, she has launched a full scale invasion of his homeland, Cravann (presumably the Cevennes) on the mistaken grounds that the ungrateful wretch doesn't fancy her. Of course, he does massively but, as his druidic side-kick, Arfagard, interminably explains to whomever might care to listen, Fervaal is a man with a long-foretold destiny to protect the worship of the Old Celtic Gods, a destiny which apparently requires him to remain chaste.
This jumble of Wagnerian tropes - Gods at twilight, renunciation of love et al. - is exposited at stupefying length. It soon becomes apparent that this is going to be an opera where the characters sing at each other with minimal dueting. A Wagnerian characteristic, to be sure, but Wagner is far better at providing controlled dramatic and musical variety. D'Indy handicaps himself by effectively limiting the action to three characters and then failing to characterise them sufficiently. As far as I could make out, Fervaal is onstage for the entire opera and Arfagard for a good 80% of it. The former makes for a surprisingly wooden, passive hero and the latter merely prophesys and pontificates endlessly to the accompaniment of various oddly unmemorable and undifferentiated leitmotifs.
The two D'Indy works that get the very occasional concert airing, the ingeniously monothematic Symphony on a French Mountain Song and the orchestral tone poem Istar, may provide a key as to what could have gone wrong here, both suggesting that his natural instinct was for compression and variation, rather than expansion and development. Both are effectively exercises in reverse variation. The folk song upon which the Symphony is based moves steadily closer to its original form. Istar, inspired by an ancient Sumerian myth, is also revealing (if that isn't an indelicate word to use) of an unexpected limitation. The goddess Istar descends into the underworld, shedding a garment at each portal she encounters until she is left naked. Correspondingly, D'Indy's theme is heard "naked" in a simple unison just before the piece's end. The combination of chromatic yearning and formal rigour results in something guardedly beautiful, but if D'Indy was attracted to the Istar story by its eroticism, it doesn't really show. The work's dynamics are restrained, it's orchestral and harmonic colours subdued. This is an altogether more buttoned-up world than that of, say, Strauss' Salome, or Ravel's Sheherazade. In fact, like Fervaal, Istar vaguely recalls the humourless, high-minded Strauss of Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration, or Electra - but trapped within a constricting greatcoat of formality. This is a composer reluctant to do sexy and, in the opera, the character of Guilhen is greatly diminished by his inability (or perhaps refusal) to envelop her in an appropriately sensual soundworld.
Still, let's return to Fervaal and Arfagard, who open Act Two home in Cravanne, where they climb a mountain to consult a sky Goddess (presumably the celestial manifestation of Wagner's Erda). This act contains by far the best music, even though dramatically it could be sacrificed in its entirety without anyone noticing. The Goddess, Kaito, makes - you've guessed it! - a prophecy, but at least a short one (in fact, a cryptic version of what Arfagard spouted in Act One). The slow scalic ascent to her eyrie draws forth bold and powerful sounds from D'Indy's expanded wind forces, with 8 saxhorns standing in for Wagner-tubas and, at the summit, slithering bass clarinets, weird saxophones and tuned gongs. Not unimpressive. After much mulling over of prophecy, our intrepid duo descend and various Gaulish chiefs pile in for a conference. They are all named, but none emerges with any individuality. Nor can they deter Arfagard from coming up with some more prophecy. It's all much less fun than Gauls have in Asterix but does gradually develop into a rousing, if insanely overextended, choral finale.
Act Three starts with Gaulish and Saracen armies having clashed in apocalyptic battle. Dismayingly, only Fervaal, Guilhen, and Arfagard are still alive, Arfagard still making prophecies and warning Fervaal to keep his trousers zipped. Finally losing his cool, Fervaal kills him. It could be that this is intended to echo Siegfried's slaying of Mime but, If so, the echo is dull. Grotesque and scheming though he is, Mime is a creation whose slaughter is a startling, morally disturbing act. The overdue despatching of Arfagard simply provokes a weary cheer. Pity our hero dosen't get to sing the deathless line "Won't you just shut up, man?" as he does it. Before consummation can take place, Guilhen also dies (of a chill - something one might have expected her alleged magic powers to vaccinate against). Carrying her corpse in his arms, Fervaal staggers further up into the mountain mists, as a plainchant-infused chorus proclaims the passing of Paganism and the triumph of a God of Love.
So, I can cross Fervaal off my "to hear" list and doubt I'll be revisiting it, but I hope I haven't put you off entirely. Certainly, no stronger case could be made for it than in the Montpellier performance. Michael Schonwandt conducted the score as though from long experience, the Montpellier Occitanie National Opera Orchestra - proud Cravannites to a man and woman - playing with sonorous ensemble and utter conviction. The Chorus, augmented by the off-stage atmospherics of the splendid Latvian Radio Choir, were often thrilling. As Kaito, Elisabeth Jansson seized her brief opportunity with burnished contralto tone and exemplary intonation, whilst Gaelle Arquez and Jean-Sebastien Bou, as Guilhen and Arfagard respectively, did everything possible with taxing, ultimately thankless-seeming parts. As for Michael Spyers in the lead, I can only assume it is his American nationality that denied him the Legion D'Honneur, the Croix de Guerre and presidency of the Academie Francaise for his heroic realisation of what must be the most punishing tenor role ever created - Siegfried included. The ecstatic melismas to which he made his exit may have lacked that last degree of radiance but, frankly, it's amazing he had any voice left at all.
Surely all this effort must have been in the service of something worthwhile. It may well be that D'Indy's work will yield up richer rewards on deeper acquaintance. As implied, the piece does have its moments - especially choral and orchestral ones. Act Two was actually pretty good. And parts of the First Act not bad. But maybe I'd better stop, before I am tempted to reach for the i-player and subject myself to the whole blasted thing again...