October 2019 brought the first performances of Grétry's Richard, Coeur de Lion at Versailles since 1789 (the work was written in 1783); previous to the 2019 Versailles performance, the only Grétry opera I knew was Pierre le Grand, which turned up an Arthaus DVD in 2005 (review). But the Versailles experience was different. Under Hervé Niquet, the music came to life in a totally unexpected way; and here it is, released by the excellent label Château de Versailles Spectacles in luxury packaging (with full libretto and English and German translations).

Born in Liège in 1741, André Ernest Modest Grétry is one of those composers who pretty much slipped under the radar of the 20th century; he composed some 50 operas. He didn't slip under Beethoven's radar, though, as the Great Man wrote a set of variations on an air from this very opéra. Let's hear Brendel early  in his career in that set, on the air "Une fièvre brûlante," WoO 72 (although don't forget it is also on Martino Tirimo's complete Beethoven set that we covered here):

Beethoven Variations on 'Un fièvre brûlante'

Richard is one of the first "rescue" operas, of which the most famous is probably Beethoven's Fidelio, where Leonore, disguised as a man, rescues Florestan (ironically, there is also a character called Florestan in Grétry's Richard, here the governor of a nearby manor). Here, it is Blondel de Nesle, an itinerant musician (trouvère) who has disguised himself as a blind man and is searching for Richard (the Lion Heart: "Coeur de Lion") all over Europe and who he eventually frees. Brilliantly sung here by Rémy Mathieu, he is really a first among equals in a fabulous cast.

The production, by Marshall Pynkoski (co-founder of Canada's Opera Atelier), is pitched perfectly; the music is revelatory, the sense of drama and comedy second to none. That sounds an outrageously  far-fetched claim, perhaps, but let's quote Hervé Niquet in interview (with myself, at his hotel in Versailles): '‘Richard is a musical for Broadway or London. Pynkoski comes from Toronto, and we know that all the people in Toronto want to be New-Yorkaises. So, for me, Marshall is exactly the right person to do this musical because he admires the music of Broadway and so on. We don’t need an intellectual stage director from Germany with black curtains and no light because there is a 'message'." Briliantly put and so true! (The full interview is available at the click of a mouse here.)

Niquet's conducting is spot-on throughout, his orchestra Le Concert spirituel incapable of putting a foot wrong.

You can see an excerpt from the production here:

Look out for the fabulous air "O Richard, O mon roi," possibly the most famous excerpt from the piece, so brilliantly sung in this production by Rémy Mathieu. But given the exploratory bent of this blog, let's hear someone else, a less historically informed  performance, for sure, but a fascinating one nonetheless, from French baritone Martial Singher (1904-1990) on that fascinating series (first available on LP, then CD), "Lebendige Vergangenheit" (Living Past):

Grétry Richard, Coeur de Lion, 'O Richard, O mon roi'

French speakers will doubtless be fascinated by this interview (no subtitles, unfortunately) between Laurent Brunner, the Director of Château de Versailles Spectacles, and Hervé Niquet:

Hervé Niquet in interview with Laurent Brunner (French only)

This is the full opera in Versailles, but minus English subtitles (and the sound on the DVD and CD set from Château de Versailles Spectacles is, of course, better):

... and, for comparison purposes perhaps, a performance of the first act conducted by Edgard Doneux (it boasts Mady Mesplé among the cast):

Something to bear in mind is that Niquet recorded Grétry's Andromache with Le Concert Spirituel previously. It is currently unavailable (hence the lack of Amazon link below), although there is an (expensive) second hand copy available on amazon.fr here.

Not only with the new Château de Versailles Spectacles Richard do you get a compact disc and a DVD of the full opera, live, you get a lavish booklet with full libretto and translations, plus essays. Alternatively, you can  purchase on MP3's for a mere £9.99! Whichever you choose, this is a treasure-trove of delight. Links below: