Fervaal is an opera by Vincent D’Indy (1851-1931). First performed in Brussels in 1898, it had a few performances after the premiere, but has largely been ignored over the past century save for an occasional concert presentation. It’s based in part on the lyric poem Axel by the Swedish author Esaias Tegnér. D’Indy was largely under the spell of Richard Wagner only without the genius part. The tedium and Wagnerian length are there though. The work takes about three and a half hours to perform.
For some obscure reason tenor Michael Spyres is drawn to obscure operas. If he was looking for a buried masterpiece he was 50% successful. The work is so neglected that the Viking Opera Guide doesn’t have an entry for it. It hadn’t been staged since the Palais Garnier mounted it in the season of 1912-13. But last July the Montpellier Opera staged a production featuring Spyres along with mezzo Gaëlle Arquez and baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou. The full cast is below. Here is a synopsis of the plot, taken from the Wikipedia – apparently nothing is too obscure for that organ.
In the prologue, Saracen bandits ambush the Gauls Fervaal and Arfagard, leaving them injured. Guilhen, daughter of the Saracen emir and a sorceress, saves them from death. Guilhen has immediately fallen in love with Fervaal, and offers to cure him. The prologue ends with Fervaal being carried to the palace of Guilhen.
In Act I, Arfagard explains to Fervaal the boy’s history and upbringing. Fervaal is the son of a Celtic king, from the land of Cravann, and is destined as the last advocate of the old gods (the “Nuées). He is charged with the mission of saving his homeland from invasion and pillage, but must renounce love to fulfill his duty. Upon Guilhen’s return, Fervaal returns her love. However, Arfagard calls for Fervaal to leave her and fulfill his mission. After he finally does take leave of Guilhen, she calls forth a mob of her fellow Saracens to revenge her abandonment by invading Cravann.
In Act II, Arfagard and Fervaal have returned to Cravann. They consult the goddess Kaito in the mountains, where she delivers this prophecy:
“Si le Serment est violé, si la Loi antique est brisée, si l’Amour règne sur le monde, le cycle d’Esus est fermé.
Seule la Mort, l’injurieuse Mort, appellera la Vie. La nouvelle Vie naîtra de la Mort.”
“If the oath is violated, if the ancient law is broken, if love reigns over the world, the cycle of Esus is closed.
Only death, injurious death, will call forth life. From death, new life will be born.”
Arfagard does not understand the meaning of the prophecy. Fervaal understands that the violation refers to his own breaking of the oath renouncing love, and that the redemptive death will be his in the end. Arfagard introduces Fervaal to the Cravann chiefs, and they hail him as their new commander, or “Brenn”. Fervaal anticipates that he will fail as leader and thus as his land’s saviour, but he feels that he can achieve his redemptive death in battle as military commander. Fervaal tries to explain this situation to Arfagard, who becomes fearful for his people’s future.
In Act III, the Cravann army has lost in battle, and Fervaal remains alive, in spite of seeking death in the conflict. He then asks Arfagard to kill him as a sacrifice to fulfill his duty. However, Guilhen appears, which reawakens Fervaal’s love and causes him to change his mind. Arfagard tries to kill Fervaal, but Fervaal instead cuts down Arfagard. Fervaal takes Guilhen away from the battlefield and they begin to ascend a mountain. Exhausted, Guilhen dies in Fervaal’s arms. Fervaal laments the deaths of both Guilhen and Arfagard. He then hears the wordless chorus singing the “Pange, lingua” melody. Fervaal carries the body of Guilhen up the mountain, as he realizes that the reign of the “new God” is forthcoming. As he disappears from the scene, an “ideal sun” begins to shine.
The title character is a tenor. His music lies mainly in the very lowest part of the tenor range, but every so often it jumps to the stratosphere. The part is a real killer. Spyres voice is so deep in his chest register that I suspect he had to wear a truss to get through each show. For the most part he’s using his Otello voice – Verdi’s not Rossini’s, though I suspect he could sing both. He’s darkened his voice so much that it’s hard to recognize. He’s remarkable for the different vocal colors and registers that he employs. If he keeps on singing roles like this one, I fear for his survival.
To give you a sense of what the tenor who portrays Fervaal is up against listen to the monologue that comes near the end of Act 2. It’s one of the more lively parts of the opera which consists virtually entirely of declamation and recitatives. If you’ve heard D’Indy’s best known work, Symphony on a French Mountain Air, you’ll have a good idea what the orchestral writing for this opera is like.
There is no commercial recording of this opera. There is a 1962 broadcast available, but it’s heavily cut . The Montpellier performance is, as far as I know, the other complete reading of the work available anywhere. The company does a fine job with the long and complex score. But I think it’s only for the most determined and devoted lover of French opera. Listening to it is like climbing K2. If you’ve done it, you’re probably glad you did, but you wouldn’t want to do it again. The link below will allow you to listen to or download the opera.
Fervaal de Vincent d’Indy à Montpellier sous la direction de Michael Schønwandt
Enregistré le 24/07/2019 à l’ Opéra Berlioz, Le Corum, Montpellier
Vincent D`Indy – Fervaal, Action musicale en 3 actes et prologue, op. 40
Michael Spyres, tenor, Fervaal
Gaëlle Arquez, mezzo-soprano, Guilhen
Jean-Sébastien Bou, baritone, Arfagard
Elisabeth Jansson, mezzo-soprano, Kaïto
Nicolas Legoux, bass, Grympuig
Rémy Mathieu, tenor, Ferkemnat – Moussah
Eric Huchet, tenor, Lennsmor
Matthieu Lécroart, baritone, Geywihr – 5th Farmer
Eric Martin-Bonnet, bass, penwald – Buduann
Pierre Doyen, baritone, Messenger – 3rd Farmer – 2nd Farmer
Jérôme Boutillier, baritone, 1st Farmer – Gwellkingubar
Anas Seguin, bass, Berddret
Guilhem Worms, bass-baritone, Helwrig
François Rougier, tenor, 2nd Farmer – Shepherd – Bard
Latvian Radio Choir – Montpellier Occitanie National Opera Chorus
Montpellier Occitanie National Opera Orchestra
Michael Schønwandt à la direction