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Reynaldo HAHN (1875-1947)
Ciboulette (1923)
Mady Mesplé (soprano) - Ciboulette; José Van Dam (bass-baritone) - Duparquet; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) - Antonin; Colette Alliot-Lugaz (mezzo-soprano) - Zénobie; Francois Le Roux (bass) - Roger; Monique Pouradier-Dutell - Francoise; Jean-Christophe Benoit (bass) - Le Pęre Grenu; Le Marquis; and several others
Ensemble Choral Jean Laforge, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo/Cyril Diederich
rec. Salle Garnier, Monte-Carlo, 16-24 September 1981, 21-23 June 1982.
[56:34 + 58:08] 
Experience Classicsonline

Reynaldo Hahn is probably best known for some of the most charming French songs - or mélodies as they are commonly called in French. Interestingly, though, his ancestry was anything but French. His father was German - the family name reveals as much – and his mother was Venezuelan. In 1878, when Reynaldo was three, the family left Venezuela and headed for Europe, never to return. Hahn established himself in Paris where he soon became prominent as the most Parisian of composers, despite his cosmopolitan background. He was a decent pianist and had a lovely voice and became a celebrity in the salons. From an early age he had composed songs and it was in the double - or rather triple - capacities of composer, singer and accompanist that he became a ‘darling’ of the Parisian audiences. He got his formal musical education at the Paris Conservatory, where he became a close friend of Massenet, whose favourite pupil he was. Undoubtedly he learnt a thing or two about ingratiating melodies and lush harmonies from his mentor. He was a man of the theatre, composing incidental music, ballets, a couple of operas and several very popular operettas. The first of these - and his greatest success - was Ciboulette (1923) followed two years later by Mozart.

As a conductor he specialised in Mozart, so that second operetta seems to have been very close to his heart. I can’t say that there is much in the away of Mozartean influence in Ciboulette, but Massenet and Offenbach are godfathers and there are a few dashes of Lehár as well. Like Offenbach, another typically French composer with German background, he is more prone to write spirited ensembles than solo songs but there are a few ravishing couplets and several charming duos. His orchestration is rather transparent and he is firmly rooted in the late 19th century harmonic language; there is little in the way of impressionism. The general Gallic tone has Spanish spice in the second act. Like Debussy and Satie he was also caught by the new American rhythms: cake-walk or ragtime. In general he is at his best in some of the finales; the one to the first tableau of act I is particularly riveting. The big ensemble in 3/4-time in the middle of the second tableau (CD 1 tr. 16) is extremely charming. 

The Monte-Carlo forces are truly at home in this music. Their playing and choral singing under the experienced Cyril Diederich is inspired and idiomatic. The all-French cast also deliver their lines and the copious spoken dialogue with verve and relish. I know José Van Dam is Belgian, but as such he belongs to the French idiom, and Nicolai Gedda, fluent in at least seven languages, has always had a special affinity for French. By the time these recording sessions were held he was a bit over 55 and had lost a little of the youthful bloom, but one has to travel far to hear more lively and stylish singing and acting. Mady Mesplé was also in her early fifties but her bright tones are as unmistakably French as ever. Few sopranos have ever been so at home in this kind of repertoire, Natalie Dessay being the only true inheritor. As for Van Dam he has rarely sung with such lyric beauty. Just listen to his Couplets in the first tableau (CD 1 tr.5), so soft and beautiful and with wonderful legato. Colette Alliot-Lugaz and Francois Le Roux also make the most of their roles. 

There may not be the same spirit in this music as in some of Offenbach’s most infectious creations, but Hahn was definitely one of the best in the genre during the first half of the 20th century. 

To follow the rapid dialogue and the intricate ensembles one needs to be rather fluent in French - or have access to a libretto. EMI state in the booklet and the back cover of the jewel-box that full libretto and English translation are available at the EMI classics website. I wasn’t able to find it though, and when I typed ‘Ciboulette’ in the search function there was no hit. The booklet has a very condensed synopsis giving the outlines of the story but to savour this delightful operetta properly one has to understand even the details. I hope this will be corrected in due time. In the meantime lovers of French operetta can at least enjoy the charming music, performed by an outstanding cast.

Göran Forsling 




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