August 08, 2013
(++++) BIG AND SMALL AND VERY FRENCH
Auber: La Muette de Portici. Oscar de la Torre, Angelina Ruzzafante, Angus Wood, Ulf Paulsen, Anne Weinkauf, Diego Torre, Gabriella Gilardi, Wiard Witholt, Kostadin Arguirov, Stephan Biener; Opernchor des Anhaltischen Theaters and Anhaltische Philharmonie conducted by Antony Hermus. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Bizet: Le Docteur Miracle. Marie-Bénédicte Souquet, Isabelle Druet, Jérôme Billy, Pierre-Yves Pruvot; Orchestre Lyrique de Région Avignon Provence conducted by Samuel Jean. Timpani. $18.99.
How many music lovers today, how many opera lovers, realize that Daniel-François-Esprit Auber – not Giacomo Meyerbeer – created French grand opera? How many realize that Auber wrote no fewer than 48 operas? How many know that Georges Bizet wrote 14 operas besides Carmen and was beholden to Offenbach for his first modest success? New and very well-sung releases of La Muette de Portici and Le Docteur Miracle provide a wonderful opportunity to consider, or reconsider, some byways of opera history – and hear some unjustly neglected music.
La Muette de Portici, first performed in 1828, was filled with “firsts,” including its grand five-act format, its interplay of personal circumstances with large-scale history, and its use of mime and gesture as integral parts of the plot – since the title character is indeed mute. The libretto was co-written by Germain Delavigne and Eugène Scribe, and while Scribe had previously worked with Auber on eight other operas, it was La Muette de Portici that set the librettist on the road to renown for his work on Meyerbeer's Robert le diable (1831) and Les Huguenots (1836) and Halévy’s La Juive (1835). La Muette de Portici was also the first of four operas written by Auber in this large-scale form, the others being Le Dieu et la bayadère (1830), Gustave III (1833) and Le lac des fées (1839). La Muette de Portici was directly responsible for a revolution, too – not the one portrayed in the opera itself but the 1830 one that brought about Belgian independence, which began after a riot broke out in the wake of Auber’s patriotic/revolutionary duet, Amour sacré de la patrie. None other than Wagner later observed, “Seldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event.” And Wagner’s own Rienzi (1842) has more than a little in common with Auber’s opera, not only in scale, format and overall approach – all of which were by 1842 rather standardized – but also because of eerie historical parallels between the behavior of the fisherman/revolutionary Masaniello in Auber’s work and that of the title character in Wagner’s, set 300 years earlier.
The story of La Muette de Portici interweaves the tale of the mute Fenella, seduced and abandoned by Alphonse, with the story of Naples’ rebellion against Spanish rule in 1647 – led by Masaniello, Fenella’s brother. The opera is by and large through-composed – Wagner noted with approval that it contains only a single prima donna aria, in Act I and written for Elvire, Alphonse’s designated bride and therefore Fenella’s rival. Exceedingly popular for some time, Auber’s opera was eclipsed by later and better-formed works, but its place in musical history, if not on the stage, is quite secure. The performance under Antony Hermus is a very fine one, although the seams of plot and music do, inevitably, show. The key role of Fenella is impossible to capture on CD (it was often handled by a dancer or actress, including Harriet Smithson, who was later to become the subject of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique and subsequently his wife), but the key singing roles are all well-handled here: Oscar de la Torre as Alphonse, Angelina Ruzzafante as Elvire, and Diego Torre as Masaniello are all well-suited to their roles and clearly involved in the story. The booklet photos of the 2011 stage production from which the CPO recording is taken show an all too typical modern-dress updating that looks distinctly peculiar in several ways, but the music is what matters for listeners, and although it is at times pedestrian, it has many intense and effective moments – not only Amour sacré de la patrie in Act II but also the choral marches in the third and fourth acts and, indeed, the choral passages throughout. This is a stirring and effective opera, and it is easy to see why it was so popular in its time, even though it now pales somewhat when compared with later works in the genre that it created. CPO helpfully provides the entire libretto – something it does not always do, and a decision for which it is to be commended – but the words are given only in French, so English speakers will have to seek a translation.
Both libretto and translation are provided by the Timpani label for the much lighter and less consequential work, Le Docteur Miracle. This is the sort of short, light, thoroughly unbelievable comedy – with only four characters, as required by the licensing rules of the time – in which Offenbach excelled. It was early in Offenbach’s own career that he came up with the idea of creating a competition for a one-act operetta, eventually giving six composers the same libretto – by Léon Battu and Ludovic Halévy, the latter becoming not only Offenbach’s primary collaborator but also, eventually, coauthor of the libretto of Carmen. Again, the music history here is fascinating, but the music itself is what listeners will find genuinely enjoyable. Bizet shared the prize in the competition with Charles Lecocq, who was six years older and more comfortable in the operetta realm. Bizet himself was just 18 when he wrote Le Docteur Miracle, his second attempt at an opera (the first, La maison du docteur, was never performed). Despite some awkwardness, Le Docteur Miracle is a generally effervescent and effective work, although Lecocq grouchily commented that Bizet “messed up almost all the little couplets,” which despite Lecocq’s obvious self-interest is apparently not entirely untrue, since Offenbach had Bizet rework them before the piece’s first performance. However, Bizet created one piece in Le Docteur Miracle that stands the test of time very well indeed: the “Omelette Quartet,” encored at the opera’s première, in which all the singers praise a yet-to-be-tasted omelette that turns out to be truly awful – and central to the eventual happy ending of the plot. The plot itself is one of those “love conquers all” ones familiar to lovers of comedy, musical and otherwise: the young officer Silvio dons several disguises, including that of the title character, to woo the daughter of the crotchety mayor, who eventually gives his consent to the marriage after the supposed “doctor” cures him of poisoning-by-omelette that is itself a ruse. It is a silly story, intentionally so, and although Bizet’s musical treatment of it does not have the verve and spirit that Offenbach himself brought to many equally frothy tales, the pastiche elements of the scene that includes the “Omelette Quartet” remain quite apt and funny: the scene parodies precisely the sort of grand opera that La Muette de Portici created. Samuel Jean leads the orchestra with a fine light touch in this recording, and all four singers play their stylized roles quite well: gruff mayor (Pierre-Yves Pruvot), his helpful-to-the-young-lovers wife (Isabelle Druet), and of course the lovers themselves (Jérôme Billy and Marie-Bénédicte Souquet). For those two, in their roles as Silvio and Laurette, there is a particularly felicitous duet near the end in which Laurette eventually recognizes Silvio, who is in the mayor’s house in one of his several disguises under the name Pasquin. This is not grand opera and is not intended to be, and it is not mature Bizet, much less anything approaching Carmen. But Le Docteur Miracle is a pleasant, well-composed, nicely turned work with plenty of spirit and an effective handling of operetta conventions that did not, in truth, come particularly naturally to Bizet. Like Auber’s La Muette de Portici, this is a work that earned a place in history because of later musical developments – in this case, in Bizet’s life and Offenbach’s. But also like Auber’s large opera, Bizet’s small one is of more than retrospective interest: both these stage works have a great deal to recommend them simply on the basis of their compositional merits.