Literature Meets Biography, in Godard's 'Dante'

woo-1624-dante-v-storyChances are, even die-hard lovers of obscure opera don't know much -- if anything -- about Benjamin Godard.  A few more productions of this week's featured opera, Godard's passionate drama Dante, might just change that.

The most famous tune Godard ever composed is probably the "Berceuse," or "Lullaby," from his opera Jocelyn.  Its familiar melody has been recorded dozens of times, by ensembles ranging from the Royal Philharmonic, to the National Flute Choir, to the 101 Strings Orchestra.  There's even a vintage recording by the unlikely duo of violinist Jascha Heifetz and crooner Bing Crosby.  By comparison, just about everything else by Godard, including his opera Dante, has pretty much fallen by the wayside.

Godard was born in Paris in 1849, and died in 1895. As a child, he was a violin prodigy, but his career was hit and miss. He studied at the Paris Conservatory, but won no prizes. He was also unsuccessful when he submitted compositions for the Prix de Rome. But Godard was determined to earn his living through music, and worked hard at his trade.  By the 1870s he was well known throughout Europe.   

Like much of Godard's music, Dante got mixed reviews. Audiences seemed to enjoy it well enough. Critics at the premiere were less receptive. Some reviewers thought that, in tackling the life and work of Dante Alighieri, Godard had bitten off more than he could chew.  Still, the opera has many, highly-effective moments, and reveals Godard as a thoroughly professional, and at times genuinely inspired composer.     

The opera's libretto was written by the French dramatist Édouard Blau, and tells a loosely biographical story based on the life of the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri -- including dramatic passages evoking the vivid descriptions of Heaven and Hell -- Inferno and Paradiso from Dante's Divine Comedy.

The opera also delves into Dante's deep involvement in Florentine politics, and his official exile from Florence.  That banishment wasn't officially rescinded until 2008, nearly 700 years after the sentence was first handed down!   

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Godard's Dante from the Prince Regent Theater in Munich.  The stars are tenor Edgaras Montvidas in the title role, and soprano Véronique Gens as Dante's lifelong love, Beatrice, in a production led by conductor Ulf Schirmer.