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A huge achievement for Vietnam

Bradley Winterton
Monday,  Oct 16,2017,20:18 (GMT+7)
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A huge achievement for Vietnam

Bradley Winterton

The opera Fredegonde is in every way an astonishing event. It has not been performed anywhere else in the world for 122 years, since its premiere in Paris in 1895. But rather than being revived in a major operatic center such as France or Italy, it is being staged here, because Vietnam is where the composer, Camille Saint-Saens, finished writing it. A chorus of Korean children is even being taught to sing in French.

The entire international opera world will be aware of this brave and pioneering occasion. It is, by any standards, a huge achievement for Vietnam.

Back in the sixth century the country we now know as France was divided into several different states. Two of the most important were Austrasie and Neustrie. At the time in which Saint-Saens’ opera Fredegonde is set, Hilperick was the king of Neustrie. Fredegonde is his Queen, but she is not his first wife. From his first marriage he has a son, Merowig, and Fredegonde, who had master-minded the death of Merowig’s mother, is doing everything in her power to see to it that her own children, not Merowig, become the dominant powers in Neustrie.

Meanwhile the Queen of Austrasie is Brunhilda, sister of Hilperick’s murdered first wife. Before the opera begins she has taken the King and Queen of Neustrie, Hilperick and Fredegonde, prisoner, and is holding them in Flanders (modern Belgium). But as Act One concludes they are freed and take over Paris.

Hilperick then asks his son, Merowig, to put Brunhilda, now his prisoner, into a convent. Act Two is almost entirely a long scene between Merowig and Brunhilda during which Merowig, who’s supposed to be Brunhilda’s captor, effectively becomes her lover.

Merowig and Brunhilda then raise an army against Hilperick, Merowig’s father. Hilperick wins the ensuing battle, however, and the defeated couple, who have in the interim been married by the Bishop Pretextat, flee to a convent which is a sanctuary. While they are there they cannot be arrested by Hilperick.

Hilperick, meanwhile, hopes to have some sort of reconciliation with his son, but his wife Fredegonde plots behind his back and pays some bishops, who are presiding over the trial of Merowig, to find him guilty. Merowig knows who is responsible for his fate, however, and kills himself.

The gist of this plot was given to me by the singer taking the role of Hilperick, the baritone Matthieu Lecroart. He went on to say that a simplistic view of the story would see Brunhilda as saintly and Fredegonde as villainous. But the two characters were more complex than that, he said. Nevertheless, it’s thought by some that Shakespeare got the idea for Lady Macbeth at least in part from the reputed character of Fredegonde, he added.

I met Matthieu Lecroart at a rehearsal in which the director, Caroline Blanpied, was taking the soloists singing Brunhilda (Valeria Altaver) and Merowig (Florian Cafiero) through their paces. It was essentially a rehearsal of Act Two (Fredegonde has five acts), and the only other singer involved was the Vietnamese bass Dao Mac, who made a brief appearance as Landeric, another of Hilperick’s sons. He told me afterwards that his role was a very small one.

Camille Saint-Saens only composed the second half of Fredegonde. The first half was the work of a fellow composer, Ernest Guiraud, but he died before he could complete it. The text is by Louis Gallet, who apparently took some liberties with the historical facts.

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