August 27, 2020


Offenbach: Pomme d’Api; Sur un volcan. Magali Léger, soprano; Florian Laconi, tenor; Marc Barrard, baritone; Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. CPO. $16.99.

Auber: Overtures—Le Maçon, Le Timide, Leicester, Le Séjour militaire, Emma, La Neige, Le Testament et les Billets doux, Le Bergère châtelaine. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $11.99.

     For years, Jacques Offenbach had a business problem that he solved with remarkable musical skill. His theater, the Bouffes-Parisiens, was licensed to bring audiences "harlequinades, pantomimes, comic scenes, conjuring tricks, dances, shadow shows, puppet plays and songs" – but was limited by the licensing authorities to a maximum of three singers or actors. Furthermore, Offenbach initially had available only an orchestra of 16 players, because of the small size of his theater’s orchestra pit. So he composed for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, cornet, trombone, timpani and percussion, plus a mere seven strings. In fact, even when Offenbach moved to a larger venue, the orchestra numbered only 30. Thus, many of Offenbach’s works, the ones that established his reputation and helped it grow, are chamber pieces, quite different from the larger-scale spectacles parodying Greek myths and 19th-century court and military foibles for which he is mostly remembered today. So when Offenbach began rebuilding his reputation and his business after the Franco-Prussian war turned him into persona non grata in Paris because of his German background, one thing he did was to return to his roots of nearly two decades earlier by creating the one-act trifle, Pomme d’Api. Although it dates to 1873 and shows more stylistic maturity than similar small-scale Offenbach works of the 1850s, it is essentially a throwback with a simple love-triangle plot and modest (although excellently rendered) orchestration. The new CPO recording of the work is an absolute delight, with the 28-member Kölner Akademie presenting the music with all the verve and transparency it deserves, and singers Magali Léger, Florian Laconi and Marc Barrard handling their formulaic roles with aplomb and with first-rate attention to the delicacy, if not exactly intricacy, of the musical numbers. It would have been good to have a French-English libretto – CPO again makes the very unfortunate decision not to provide one (or even a link to one) for either work on the disc, and the words to these little-known pieces are simply not available elsewhere. It is, however, true that the plot of Pomme d’Api is almost irrelevant: young lovers are about to be separated by the young man’s older, philandering uncle, until everything is untwisted and youth and love win out. And the music, whether or not listeners are skilled French speakers, is a delight, from the rollicking overture through eight numbers that showcase, again and again, the melodiousness that won (in this case, re-won) the hearts of Parisians and, for that matter, their francs. Pomme d’Api (the title, “little apple,” is the young man’s nickname for his beloved) is paired on this recording with a work that is even more obscure – indeed, one that had just a single performance in Offenbach’s lifetime and was only rediscovered and reassembled in the 21st century. This is Sur un volcan, an assemblage and reworking by Offenbach of a score by the now-forgotten Ernest L’Épine (1826-1893). Offenbach massaged this very slight work into usable form in the first year of the Bouffe-Parisiens, 1855. There is only half an hour of material in Sur un volcan, whose plot (which really could have used a libretto to help follow it) is a strange one: two French naval officers from Napoleon’s defeated forces threaten to detonate a powder keg and thus cause a volcanic eruption under Dublin (!), until an actress who specializes in Hamlet (!!) shows up and eventually pairs off with one officer, while the other is relegated to a paternal role. The love-triangle foundation underlying this oddity is visible and audible enough to show how Offenbach worked with the concept in the 1850s much as he did in the 1870s – and the music, which certainly has the Offenbach sheen despite originally being created by someone else, makes the entire brief production well worth hearing. Michael Alexander Willens leads both these small works in spirited and thoroughly engaging fashion, and the two pieces together provide a most welcome opportunity to hear some completely unfamiliar Offenbach and to marvel at the ways the composer found to use very modest forces with a high degree of creativity and his usual large component of delightfulness.

     When Offenbach was born in 1819, Daniel-François-Esprit Auber was already 37 years old and well into his compositional career. Auber spans the entire time from the Classical period to the latter part of the Romantic one – but the music of the long-lived composer has a certain style and familiarity that remained largely unchanged over many decades. This explains both his high popularity for a considerable period of time and his eventual fading from performance: as well-made as his operas are and as pleasant as his music always was, there is a sameness about Auber’s compositions that makes them distinct as a group but not so much as individual items. If this is a disadvantage in terms of continuing attention to Auber’s stage works, though, it is an advantage, and indeed a distinct opportunity, for musicians such as Dario Salvi to rediscover some very worthy material that today’s audiences have never had a chance to hear. In fact, of the 16 Auber pieces on a Naxos recording featuring Salvi conducting the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice, a remarkable 14 are world première recordings. Only the overture to La Neige (1823) and that work’s entr’acte to Act III have been recorded in the past – none of the material from the seven other stage works represented on this CD has been recorded before. And there is a plethora of pleasantry to be explored here: in addition to the eight overtures on the disc, Salvi conducts seven entr’actes and the musical portion of one melodrama (a form using spoken words over music). These specific operas were written between 1813 (Le Séjour militaire) and 1826 (Le Timide, which was performed only 14 times – the composer’s least-successful run). One work, Le Maçon from 1825, is a “French rescue opera,” a genre known today primarily from Beethoven’s Fidelio. One, Leicester (1823), is a milestone because it was the first collaboration between Auber and librettist Eugène Scribe – a partnership that was to span decades and result in a total of 38 works. Two, Le Séjour militaire and Le Testament et les Billets doux (1819), are chamber operas; the rest call for larger orchestras. One, Le Bergère châtelaine (1820), has an overture that sets the mood without actually quoting material from the work; the others incorporate bits of forthcoming music. So there are many ways in which these works are distinctive and represent different elements of Auber’s career and approach. Yet there is a sameness to them all: Auber writes in characteristic ways for the orchestra, for example using horn calls similarly in multiple works and relying only occasionally on special-sounding instruments such as the harp (heard to good effect in the material from Leicester). Much of the music could apply to many of the differing plots of these stage works, which is to say that it is characteristic but not highly distinctive. Nevertheless, all the pieces here show considerable skill in construction: Auber was a fine musical craftsman and had, in his way, as clear a sense of Parisian sensibilities as did Offenbach in his very different manner. Nothing on this CD is likely to elevate Auber’s reputation as a composer to a major degree for listeners in the 21st century, but everything serves as a fine showcase for his pleasant urbanity and the smooth, careful and well-thought-out approach that he had to entertaining the audiences of his time.

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