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Unknown Operas and a French Operetta Series to Lighten the Mood

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 19 July 2002

Pacini: Carlo di Borgogna
Elizabeth Futral (Leonora); Jennifer Larmore (Estella); Helen Williams (Amelia); Bruce Ford (Carlo); Roberto Frontali (Arnoldo); Dominic Natoli (Lord Athol); Garry Magee (Guglielmo); Geoffrey Mitchell Choir; Academy of St Martin in the Fields; David Parry (conductor)
Opera Rara ORC 21 (3 CDs; texts and translations in English and Italian)

Pacini:  Carlo di Borgogna

Once again Opera Rara has come to the rescue, allowing us further material to evaluate the work of one of the most prolific composers of 19th century Italian opera. Totally unsuccessful in its time, the reception of Carlo di Borgogna pushed Pacini into a temporary retirement that lasted five years. This should not lead one to think that Carlo is a dud, far from it. The music is exciting, full of dramatic confrontations, so that the duets are paramount. The singers are all up to the not inconsiderable demands of the work, with special praise for Bruce Ford in the title role and Jennifer Larmore as the wronged damsel. Elizabeth Futral is excellent as the other wronged lady, though the role may be one size to large for her resources. If you are familiar with other operas by Pacini, or if the non-RBDV repertoire of Italian repertory of the first half of the 19th century calls out to your intellectual curiosity, you will not be disappointed.

Cherubini: Les deux journées
Mireille Delunsch (Constance); Olga Pasichnyk (Marcelina); Vera Schoenenberg (Angelina); Yann Beuron (Armand); Etienne Lescroart (Antonio); Andreas Schmidt (Mikeli); Kwangchul Youn (Daniel); Miljenko Turk (Semos); Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester; Christoph Spering (conductor)
Opus 111 OP 30306 (texts and translations in English, French and German; libretto in French and English)

As with its earlier release of Schubert's Hausliche Krieg, Opus 111 has chosen to eliminate the dialogue so that the music can easily fit onto a single CD. And what music it is. Cherubini often suffers from the label of "academicism", but it is one that he can often surmount. We also tend to forget that most of his operas were written in French, and the presence of a predominantly Francophone cast is of great benefit to the work. The bleating sound of Etienne Lescroart and the F-D imitation offered by Andreas Schmidt notwithstanding, it is the performance of Mireille Delunsch as the heroine and the conducting of Christoph Spering that make this a noteworthy release. Spering has gone back to the manuscript, and his Neue Orchester brings to life all the composer's indications. It is only unfortunate that the accompanying booklet does not include the original dialogue, as the summary between the musical numbers is occasionally confusing.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Anne Sofie von Otter (Mélisande); Hanna Schaer (Geneviève); Florence Couderc (Yniold); Wolfgang Holzmair (Pelléas); Laurent Naouri (Golaud); Alain Vernhes (Arkel); Jérôme Varnier (Berger, Médecin); Chœur de Radio France; Orchestre National de France; Bernard Haitink (conductor)
Naïve V 4923 (3 cds; texts and translations in French and English)

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

It is not as if we needed another version of Debussy's opera, but the concerts from which this recording was drawn were deemed exceptional by those in attendance, so that the French classical music station decided it was a worthy choice to launch a new series of "historic" broadcasts, with the assistance of Naïve. Purists might wonder at the singers chosen for the protagonists, but both have lengthy credentials in the French repertoire and are no strangers to the French language, a major aspect in performing the work. One might say that the color of a soprano voice is more appropriate to Mélisande than the earthier sound of a mezzo, but Anne Sofie von Otter's chameleon qualities allow us to be persuaded. Holzmair strains a little bit, but no more than any other baritone Pelléas, while the basic timbre is attractive. Laurence Naouri's tormented Golaud, his first I believe, is already exceptional, the dark sound of his voice strongly contrasted with that of Holzmair. Hanna Schaer's dignified Geneviève is a plus, as is Alain Vernhes's Arkel, even though the latter sounds too much like Naouri. It is Bernard Haitink, however, who is the glory of this performance, the tension never sagging yet never specifically drawing attention to himself as other conductors have done in the past.

Gounod : La Reine de Saba
Francesca Scaini (Balkis); Anna Lucia Alessio (Bénoni); Annalisa Carbonara (Sarahil); Jeon-Won Lee (Adoniram); Luca Grassi (Soliman); Salvatore Cordella (Amrou); Jean Vendassi (Phanor); Pietro Naviglio (Méthousaël); Volodymyr Deyneka (Sadoc); Bratislava Chamber Choir; Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia; Manlio Benzi (conductor)
Dynamic CDS 387/1-2 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English, French, German and Italian; libretto in French and English)

Dynamic once again comes to the rescue with the first widely-distributed recording of a hitherto neglected opera by one of the most successful French composers of the 19th century. While it is true that in only three of his major works (Faust, Roméo et Juliette, Mireille) did Gounod achieve a synthesis that makes them still viable (his comic operas await re-evaluation, but there is no doubt that Le Médecin malgré lui is a masterpiece), La Reine de Saba contains sufficient moments of beauty to make the work of interest today. The solos for the three main characters, especially that of the soprano (popular through recordings by Régine Crespin and Françoise Pollet), and a number of the smaller ensembles compensate for the empty pomposity of the full-stage events. The lesser role of Bénoni (as Stéphano or Siébel) is granted a solo of great charm, unfortunately sung with acid and wavering tone by Anna Lucia Alessio. Francesca Scaini in the title role possesses a certain sweep, while Luca Grassi's eloquent baritone is just right for the role of Soliman. Jeon-Won Lee's rough and ready approach to the role of Adoniram may not be ideal, but he does get the notes. Only Grassi, however, is able to sing French without constantly mispronouncing it. Manlio Benzi's Italianate approach may not be to everyone's taste, but he does hold his disparate forces together. This is a live performance, as the stage noises make clear, and while far from ideal as a performance, a large gap is now filled.

[For those in the area, the Esplanade Saint Etienne will be presenting La Reine de Saba in the same production (31 January, 2 and 4 February 2003) but with Jia Lin Zhang in the title role and Marcel Vanaud as Soliman. Ms. Zhang has already been praised for her portrayal of Louise, while she has a predilection for the French repertoire.]

Lully: Persée
Anna Maria Panzarella (Andromède); Salomé Haller (Mérope/La Fortune); Monique Simon (Cassiopée/Imène); Béatrice Mayo Felip (La Vertu/Vénus); Paul Agnew (Persée); Jérôme Corréas (Phinée); Vincent Billier (Céphée); Robert Getchell (Mercure/Mégathyme); Laurent Slaars (Méduse/Phronime); Cyril Auvity (Euryale/Corite); Bruno Rostand (Sténone); Les Chantres de la Chapelle; Les Talens Lyriques; Christophe Rousset (conductor)
Astrée Naïve E 8874 (3 cds; texts and translations in French and English)

Lully: Persée

Christophe Rousset's first Lullian adventure shows him to be a worthy addition to the ranks alongside Marc Minkowski and William Christie. The performance avoids the besetting sin of lethargy, performers alert to nuance even though one might, for example, find Jérome Corréas insufficiently solid in the lower bass reaches or Paul Agnew not up to his usual high standard. But the others are exceptional, from Anna Maria Panzarella and her female colleagues to the pathetic Médusa of Laurent Slaars. Orchestra and chorus contribute to the drama while not neglecting musical values. A worthy addition to the contemporary re-evaluation of a composer whose image has perhaps been a bit tarnished by a recent film, Le Roi Danse.

Scarlatti : Sedecia
Virginie Pochon (Anna); Philippe Jaroussky (Ismaele); Gérard Lesne (Sedecia); Mark Padmore (Nadabbe); Peter Harvey (Nabucco); Il Seminario Musicale; Gérard Lesne (conductor)
Virgin Veritas 7243 5 45452 2 1 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English, French and German)

Scarlatti: Sedecia

Alessandro Scarlatti seems to have fallen by the wayside in our admiration for his contemporaries: Bach, Handel, Rameau. We can only hope that this recording will help restore his lost reputation. For those with some biblical knowledge, Sedecia is Zedekiah, if that is any help, and the story is that of Nebuchadnezzar's brutal conquest of Jerusalem. Each of the five characters has several arias, only those of Nadabbe suffering from more conventional texts. Those for the other roles show some wonderful ideas, such as Anna's advice to her son Ismaele on how to behave towards the invaders, the instruments falling silent before the singer ends, repeated when the advice is taken in the second part of the oratorio. Sedecia's heart-breaking farewell is also noteworthy. The extremely close miking in a reverberant environment gives all the singers a heroic quality, not always noticeable in public, but one must single out Gérard Lesne himself, the young sopranist Philippe Jaroussky and bass Peter Harvey for their alliance of drama and vocalism.

Richard Strauss: Friedenstag
Deborah Voigt (Maria); Albert Dohmen (Kommandant); Alfred Reiter (Wachtmeister); Tom Martinsen (Schütze); Jochen Kupfer (Konstabel); Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Offizier); Johan Botha (Piemonteser); Attila Jun (Holsteiner); Jon Villars (Bürgermiester); Staatsopernchor Dresden; Staatskapelle Dresden; Giuseppe Sinopoli (conductor)
DGG 463 494-2 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Richard Strauss: Friedenstag

Friedenstag has the advantage of fitting neatly on a single CD, but this is only its fourth recording. The prevailing darkness of the work has perhaps worked against its popularity, but the spectacular role for the soprano should offer a sufficient counterweight. This is the last operatic release of a studio recording by the late Giuseppe Sinopoli, and once again we witness how aptly he reacts to Strauss's work. Deborah Voigt sails through the demanding score, pouring out floods of tone, while Albert Dohmen's authoritative Kommandant remains dour to the end. Johan Botha, Jon Villars and Attila Jun make the most of their interventions, the others as well in their few lines each.

French operettas reissued by EMI

Ganne: Les Saltimbanques
Mady Mesplé, Eliane Lublin, Claude Calès, Raymond Amade, Jean-Christophe Benoit, Lamoureux Orchestre, Jean-Pierre Marty (conductor)
EMI 5 74079 2

Lecocq: La Fille de Madame Angot
Mady Mesplé, Christiane Stutzmann, Bernard Sinclair, Charles Burles, Michel Roux, Paris Opera Chorus, Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique, Jean Doussard (conductor)
EMI 5 74082 2
Lecocq: La Fille de Madame Angot

Messager: Véronique
Mady Mesplé, Andrea Guiot, Michel Dens, Jean-Christophe Benoit, Lamoureux Orchestre, Jean-Claude Hartemann (conductor)
EMI 5 74073 2
Messager: Véronique

Offenbach: La Périchole
Suzanne Lafaye, Raymond Amade, Louis Noguera, Jean-Christophe Benoit, Lamoureux Orchestre, Igor Markevitch (conductor)
EMI - 5 74088 2
Offenbach: La Périchole

Planquette: Les Cloches de Corneville
Mady Mesplé, Christiane Stutzmann, Bernard Sinclair, Charles Burles, Jean-Christophe Benoit, Paris Opera Chorus, Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique, Jean Doussard (conductor)
Robert Planquette: Les Cloches de Corneville

Varney: Les Mousquetaires au couvent
Mady Mesplé, Michèle Command, Charles Burles, Jules Bastin, Michel Trempont, Orchestre Symphonique et Choeurs de la RTBF, Edgard Doneux (conductor)
EMI 5 74076 2
Louis Varney : Les Mousquetaires au couvent

EMI had the wonderful idea of delving into its archives for several recordings that have been languishing for some time. Those under review vary in time from 1959 (Périchole) to 1979 (Mousquetaires), while the other six recordings are from roughly the same era. I chose these six because Strauss and Léhar in French struck me as odd, while the new Belle Hélène is a better choice than this budget offering, and I already owned Le Postillon de Longjumeau, definitely worth acquiring. Mady Mesplé is the heroine of this collection, her sense of style compensating for what some would consider her vocal qualities. The remaining performers are equally in command stylistically, and it is a pleasure to hear the clear soprano of Christiane Stutzmann (mother of Nathalie). La Périchole is somewhat disfigured by the presence of a Narrator, but the infectious verve of Igor Markevitch communicates to a cast more remarkable for personality than voice. Messager's most famous work is probably Véronique, its period charm brought to life by the composer's harmonic tanginess (let us not forget his championship of Wagner and also Pelléas et Mélisande). Ganne, Lecocq, Planquette and Varney are less well-known to non-French audiences, but one should not miss the opportunity to become acquainted with these French equivalents of Gilbert & Sullivan at EMI's bargain price. The only problem is the absence of texts or translations.

.Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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