Leoncavallo – La Nuit de mai

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COMPOSERS: Leoncavallo
LABELS: DG
WORKS: La nuit de mai; Aprile!; C’è nel tuo sguardo; Hymne à la lyre; La Chanson des yeux; Barcarola veneziana; Valse mignonne; L’addio
PERFORMER: Plácido Domingo (tenor), Lang Lang (piano); Bologna Community Theatre Orchestra/Alberto Veronesi
CATALOGUE NO: 477 6633

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Despite Pagliacci’s success, Leoncavallo has always seemed rather a hard-luck composer, his initially successful La bohème eclipsed by Puccini’s. Except for the tenor showpiece Mattinata his songs remain almost unknown, the ‘symphonic poem’ Nuit de mai even more so, recorded only once before. It’d be pleasant, especially with such mighty interpreters, to report their triumph here, but that’s not to be.

Nuit de mai isn’t a symphonic poem as the term is generally understood; it’s a large-scale orchestral and vocal setting of a French poem by Alfred de Musset, a stylised dialogue between Poet and Muse in the manner of lovers in the night, the tenor singing both parts.

It’s sensuous, verbose stuff in the French Romantic manner, and Leoncavallo’s music provides appropriate atmosphere, all swooning strings and tingling mandolins and harps. What it doesn’t give us is anything very strong or memorable, melody least of all; the overall impression is Italianate melisma, sweetly insubstantial.

Domingo, still amazingly ringing, sings French more naturally than some languages but still sounds thickly accented; a lighter tenore di grazia might have been more appropriate. And while Lang Lang’s fluent touch makes the piano solos and accompaniments very pleasant, he can’t bring out what isn’t there. Orchestra and conductor are suitably idiomatic.

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Altogether it’s a little puzzling to find such resources brought to bear on charming but ultimately insubstantial stuff. Michael Scott Rohan