Mention Albéric Magnard’s name in France and most people will remember him as one of the first world war’s earliest casualties. He is said to have shot at the advancing German army when a detachment trespassed on the grounds of his house in Picardy. They retaliated by burning his property down, with him in it. Numbers of his scores were lost to posterity.
Magnard was a loner who buried himself in the country courtesy of a private income. This inevitably worked against his reputation during his lifetime but interest has perked up in recent decades, particularly for his four symphonies, prime examples of France’s late-19th-century love affair with German, notably Wagnerian, influences.
The operas have fared less well. His first, Yolande, is lost and the second, Guercoeur, has been recorded but not staged in living memory. Bérénice (1911), his masterpiece, was revived in Marseille in 2001 and some inspired soul has posted a recording of that performance on a video-sharing website. Now Tours, a strapped-for-cash regional house but with an enterprising attitude to programming, has taken up the challenge with a new production.
Based on Racine, Magnard’s libretto focuses on the fated relationship between the Judean princess Bérénice and Titus. It is a static narrative but sadly Alain Garichot’s lazy staging makes too much of it look statuesque. His protagonists have two arm movements, up or down, while attempts at motion simply remind us that walking or running convincingly across a stage is always a challenge. Bérénice, like Wagner’s Tristan, may be a vocal symphony at heart, but both gain from confident gesture and good acting.
In the title role, French dramatic soprano Catherine Hunold has the Wagnerian heft and gleaming high notes, settling down after a noisy first act into more sensitive shaping of dynamics. Jean-Sébastien Bou’s Titus has good diction but his unremittingly edgy baritone proves wearying over time. The Marseille cast made it all sound less of a hard slog.
The contribution from the pit is more consistently enjoyable. Jean-Yves Ossonce, intendant and chief conductor, keeps a tight control on thematic structure, highlighting the score’s debt to Tristan and French classical tradition. The gorgeous love duet and poignant break-up owe much to Berlioz (Les Troyens) and establish Magnard’s lineage with Gluck and even Rameau. Bérénice was first given in Paris and it’s time the capital welcomed it back.