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L'Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal’s Kent Nagano.

Marco Campanozzi

L'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal made some 80 recordings with Decca before the lights started going out in the recording industry. The renown that came with that prolific output became a point of civic pride during the 1980s and 90s, making the end of that era – which roughly coincided with the departure of Charles Dutoit as music director in 2000 – all the more hard to take.

Relief came a year ago, when Decca and the OSM signed a new five-year deal for an unspecified number of projects. The first of those came out earlier this month, in a recording of an obscure but fascinating opera that had never been fully explored on disc.

The piece is l'Aiglon, an historical opera jointly written by French composers Jacques Ibert and Arthur Honegger, and premiered in 1937. It tells of the imperial ambitions of Napoleon's only son, who spent most of his short life in Austria, waiting in vain for a chance to succeed to his father's throne.

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The theme must have seemed an odd choice in Europe in the mid-1930s, with dictators on the rise and monarchy at a low ebb. Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary had all lost their crowned heads after the First World War, and Edward VIII had abdicated the previous year.

Odder still was the decision by two composers to collaborate on a five-act opera. When asked which parts had been written by whom, the friends replied only: "One of us wrote the sharps, the other wrote the flats."

The piece was apparently successful at its first performances, but was soon shelved as the European crisis developed into war. This may be surprising, given Hitler's personal interest in the real-life l'Aiglon (which means the Eaglet), whose remains he ordered removed from Vienna in 1940 and reinterred in Napoleon's crypt in Paris.

"Both Honegger and Ibert had a strong concept of theatre, and an uncanny talent for setting French texts to music," said OSM music director Kent Nagano, who led live performances of the opera last year at Montreal's Maison symphonique, where the piece was also recorded. "I find it remarkable how integrated the work is. It's not a potpourri. It's very refined and totally thought-out, with motifs that come back in ever more sophisticated forms."

Musically, the piece veers from the operetta-like waltzes of the opening scenes to a darker and more dramatic idiom as we go deeper into the psyches of the main characters. The minimal plot has to do with a botched attempt to spirit the young pretender back to France. But the real action of the opera happens at the level of the prince's waking dreams, and those of his protector and tormentor, the Austrian Prince Metternich. Both are obsessed with the dead Napoleon, who haunts the work in much the way that Agamemnon does in Richard Strauss's Elektra.

In real life, l'Aiglon was an enthusiastic militarist, who pranced about in uniforms as a boy and became an Austrian cadet at the age of 12. In the opera, based on Edmond Rostand's play, the emperor-in-waiting still treasures his toy soldiers, and is easily deflated by suggestions that he might not be a natural-born conqueror. "I can only weep. I need a shoulder," he sings at one point.

The first great scene comes when Metternich sees one of Napoleon's hats lying on a table, and begins a scornful address to the chapeau that becomes a nightmarish vision of what Bonapartism meant and could mean again. The character frightens himself with his own imaginings, and the orchestra's growing agitation makes us feel what he sees. Metternich then takes his revenge on the son, taunting him with the madness of some of his Hapsburg ancestors. He terrifies the boy with the spectre of genetic taint – a very topical theme in 1937 – and again the orchestra gives audible form to the fear.

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The opera's big coup de théâtre comes after the plotters' scheme has unravelled, and l'Aiglon stands on the field of a famous Napoleonic victory, fantasizing about past glory and imagining that the victorious dead have risen. A male chorus creeps in, gradually becoming more present in patriotic song, till the Marseillaise appears in three-layer counterpoint with the chorus and soloist. The anthem finally bursts out in full force, and the dream becomes vividly real – till an Austrian officer reminds l'Aiglon that the regiment he wants to mow down single-handed is actually his own, come to escort him back to his toy soldiers.

L'Aiglon is a remarkably sophisticated piece of work, which really should be heard and probably seen. The OSM's recording features a mostly Canadian cast, including baritones Étienne Dupuis (Mettenrich), Philippe Sly (Maréchal Marmont) and Tyler Duncan (Chevalier de Prokesch-Osten), contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Marie-Louise) and sopranos Kimy McLaren (Comtesse Camerata) and Hélène Guilmette (Thérèse de Lorget). The star of the piece is Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet, who sings the title role.

The pretender fades out of life in the final scene with a childlike resignation and a type of musical transparency that may recall Debussy's music for the death of Mélisande. L'Aiglon achieved nothing in life, but the opera's portrayal is ultimately sympathetic; for who has never been infected with an impossible dream?

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