June 02, 2022


Offenbach: Le Voyage dans la Lune. Violette Polchi, Sheva Tehoval, Matthieu Lécroart, Pierre Derhet, Raphaël Brémard, Thibaut Desplantes, Marie Lenormand, Christophe Poncet de Solages, Ludivine Gombert; Chœur et Orchestre national Montpellier Occitanie conducted by Pierre Dumoussaud. Bru Zane. $39.99 (2 CDs).

Suppé: Mozart—Incidental Music; Die Afrikareise—Overture. Julie Svěcená, violin; Pavel Rybka, organ; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $13.99.

     The Franco-Prussian War was disastrous for France, leading to the capture of Napoleon III, the end of the Second Empire, and national humiliation both military and existential. It was also, not coincidentally, a disaster for Jacques Offenbach, who went from being the toast of Paris to being vilified for his German birth – even though he was a French citizen and had been awarded the Légion d'honneur by Napoleon III. That was, in fact, part of Offenbach’s problem: a too-close identification with the old and vanished régime. Offenbach’s once-popular works were roundly attacked as symbolizing everything superficial and contemptible about the reign of Napoleon III. Luckily for Offenbach, he was popular outside France, in England and Austria, and was able to manage rather well for himself (despite his well-known profligacy) until, inevitably, French attitudes toward him softened and he was able to return from self-imposed exile to produce some new works and create highly successful revivals of his old ones. But he never did return fully to satire and political commentary, however mild or oblique: there was never again to be anything like La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, which in fact had been banned in France after the Franco-Prussian War because of its anti-military stance. What there was to be was extravagance. Postwar France delighted in spectacle, and the more unrealistic and entertainingly fairy-tale-like, the better. It was against that background that Offenbach in 1875 became the composer, although not the impresario, behind Le Voyage dans la Lune, based loosely on Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon. The work was extremely elaborate, being in four acts and no fewer than 23 scenes, and including a huge cannon (to launch the lunar explorers heavenward) and a volcanic eruption. The work is strange, wild, complex, almost totally incoherent, and an enormous amount of fun. And as so frequently happened with Offenbach, it proved highly influential: its grand snowflake ballet led to the creation of many more scenes of the type, most famously Tchaikovsky’s in The Nutcracker. Offenbach’s work was very definitely a multimedia display, filled with special effects; so experiencing Le Voyage dans la Lune only on CD is bound to limit its impact: the music was really only part of what the production was all about. However, the music happens to be quite wonderful: this is mature Offenbach, beautifully proportioned, orchestrally well-balanced, exceptionally tuneful, always clever, and thoroughly hummable. Some of the pieces simply support events on stage, but some stand on their own quite well – there are in fact two ballets, the snowflake one and one for phantom-like creatures called chimères. The Bru Zane recording of this fascinatingly unwieldy spectacle is wonderful in every way. Bru Zane produces by far the most consistently elegant and attractive CD packaging available from any company today, with the discs bound into the front and back covers of a beautifully designed and very comprehensive book whose essays not only discuss the music but also place it in historical context and offer intriguing commentary on the composer and his times. A full libretto is part of the presentation – doubly welcome at a time when many labels lazily offer only summaries of stage works. Yet none of this would matter if the performances were less than excellent – but in the case of Le Voyage dans la Lune, the recording fully lives up to the manner of its presentation. The cast is large and consists entirely of typecast characters, from two kings (one from Earth, one from the moon) to a scientist named Microscope. The plot is of course ridiculous, but it scarcely matters: apples become the objects that teach moon people (Selenites) how to love; there is a sort of stock market where women rather than shares of companies are bought and sold, headed by a character named Quipasseparla (“who goes there”); there is a Land of the Paunchy – the fattest Selenites are required to work for the king, which on the moon is an unenviable position; and so on. The singers and chorus manage to handle the constant changes of rhythm, tempo and attitude implicit in the numerous scenes with aplomb, and everyone resists the understandable temptation to overact. Pierre Dumoussaud leads Orchestre national Montpellier Occitanie with skill and engagement, allowing Offenbach’s natural melodic flow to pervade the performance while never pushing things too far or drawing them out to too great a degree. Le Voyage dans la Lune is a curiosity and far more of an oddity than many other Offenbach works, lacking even the slightest hint of the character development on which the composer had started to focus with La Périchole in 1868. This scarcely matters. Le Voyage dans la Lune was never intended to be more than light entertainment, albeit spectacular light entertainment; and the music was never planned to be profound – only memorable. It is certainly that; and this performance is a very welcome opportunity to hear one thoroughly charming way in which Offenbach rebuilt his fortunes and his reputation after they were brought low along with the Second Empire.

     Offenbach was not the only famous 19th-century operetta composer whose interest in stage works actually extended beyond operetta. Franz von Suppé also went into fields beyond operetta – and his works in some of those areas are as little-known today as are Offenbach’s non-operetta productions. Of course, Suppé is familiar for certain music entirely unrelated to the stage: his concert overtures are heard more often today than anything else he wrote. But it is his non-operetta stage works that are now entirely obscure – such as his incidental music for a Künstler-Lebensbild about the life of Mozart. The German title means “life portrait of an artist,” and the concept was to produce a stage play detailing a somewhat fictionalized but largely accurate biography of a well-known musician and illustrate it musically with the composer’s own works. This obviously limits the original contributions by the composer – but Suppé found a way in Mozart (1854) to put his own stamp on the material while also paying due homage to Mozart’s own music, somewhat along the lines of Tchaikovsky’s much later (1887) Suite No. 4 (“Mozartiana”). For one thing, Suppé needed to decide which Mozart music to include, and how to present it: the stage play focuses mainly on operas and the Requiem, but Suppé also found ways to include bits of a violin sonata, Symphony No. 39, and even a snippet of Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony (No. 94). Suppé also created a lovely Concertino – in effect, a nine-minute violin concerto – to be used in a scene where Mozart reflects on his love of Constanze and looks ahead to a hoped-for better future. The play Mozart runs a full four acts, and Suppé’s music – as heard on a new Naxos CD featuring the fine playing of the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dario Salvi – lasts only 51 minutes. So obviously music was not the entire point of the stage production, even though the thematic material of the play focused on a famous musician. Still, the Suppé material – an overture, a single piece from Act III, and two items each from the other acts – shows a clear understanding of and admiration for Mozart, and is well assembled, nicely arranged, and useful as a guide or accompaniment to the on-stage activity. The Mozart music is a world première recording, and so is the short, unrelated overture also offered on the disc, the much later Die Afrikareise (1883). This operetta does have an overture that is occasionally performed, but the version heard here is the original one, which Suppé abandoned when he decided to omit one of the pieces on which this version is based. (The overture usually heard is not by Suppé but was assembled by Paul Lincke.) With its adventurous spirit and typical-for-Suppé waltz, this overture is infectious in its enthusiasm and in its naïve celebration of the adventure inherent in a 19th-century trip to Africa. As a whole, this CD represents an enjoyable trip in itself – not geographically, but back in time, and to a type of stage work that was characteristic of the 19th century but is little-known today.

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