Gounod’s Philémon et Baucis in Tours

Gounod’s Philémon et Baucis is an enjoyable comic opera featuring the encounters between a Darby and Joan aged couple and Jupiter. While he is out to punish mortals for their bad behaviour he is treated by the couple with warm hospitality and as a reward restores their youth. Of course, the wife (Baucis) then turns out to be most desirable and he attempts to seduce her, to the chagrin of her husband Philémon. Initially flattered by the god’s attention, she comes to realise that she is better off with her own grey hairs and a devoted, if decrepit, mate. The libretto by Barbier and Carré may be overly sentimental when expounding marital bliss but, especially when satirising life on Olympia, is also witty. Gounod’s music is gracefully melodic and engaging.

The performance at the Opéra de Tours nearly didn’t happen. The orchestral musicians had a dispute with the management and were threatening to strike. A last-minute intervention by the city mayor happily enabled the piece to start, though with an hour’s delay. Conductor Benjamin Pionnier appeared to be none too pleased with his players but nevertheless obtained from them a sensitive, idiomatic rendering of the score. In the only vocally demanding role (it was written for Caroline Miolan-Carvalho who created Marguerite in Faust) Norma Nahoun chirruped gamely as Baucis but did not quite have the necessary poise and precision. As her husband tenor Sébastien Droy sang mellifluously and, when old, staggered around convincingly in his zimmer frame. Alexandre Duhamel was a bouncy, amiable and amorous Jupiter and, as his side-kick Vulcan, Érich Martin-Bonnet was suitably morose and sarcastic, deploying his dark-toned bass effectively.

Julien Ostini’s production captured the light-hearted flavour of the work and the characters of the protagonists were strongly delineated. However, more could have been made of the denouement: potentially it is of some poignancy (particularly for those us in the autumn of our lives) to savour relationships which prosper with maturity. Bruno de Lavenère’s decors contained some good ideas, (torn ship sails for the couple’s lodging; stylised pillars when it becomes a palace) but became too fussy when accommodating stage movement.

A largely successful presentation of a piece well worth reviving.