André Messager studied with Saint-Saëns and Fauré, and became a versatile musician: composer, pianist, critic, opera administrator, and the first conductor Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (which was dedicated to him). He made his name particularly as a composer of frothy operettas, following a distinguished French tradition, but his style did extend more widely.
As musical director of the Opéra-Comique and later the Opéra, Messager was an experienced performer in the theatre. His international career included many appearances at Covent Garden, where he conducted Don Giovanni, Carmen and Faust. Fauré described him as 'familiar with everything, knowing it all, fascinated by anything new'.
This reissue of Fortunio finds Messager at the peak of his creative form. For this is a sophisticated opera, not merely a frothy operetta. The style is admittedly light, but that is its strength, with subtle vocal lines above beautiful melodic strands in the orchestra. The orchestration is particularly imaginative, and contributes tellingly to the more powerful, climactic moments when they emerge from the prevailing trend.
The opera is based on Alfred de Musset play 'Le chandelier'. This in fact refers not to lighting but rather to a decoy for a love affair. Fortunio is a young apprentice who is intended as protection for an affair between the lawyer's wife Jacqueline and the handsome soldier Clavaroche. Inevitably, since this is a French story, Fortunio himself falls for Jacqueline, only to learn in dismay of the other affair.
An unusual feature of Messager's four-act opera is that the first act serves as a prelude to de Musset's story, since it tells of how Jacqueline and Clavaroche began their relationship. Acts two, three and four then follow the outlines of the play.
The Opéra de Lyon production of 1987 was recorded by Erato, and the cast certainly makes an effective team. Among the principals, Michel Trempont is on excellent form as the betrayed husband Maître André, while Gilles Cachemaille is equally good as the self confident, appealing figure of Captain Clavaroche. Colette Alliot-Lugaz is vocally beguiling as the beautiful Jacqueline, around whom the opera centres. As the young and rather naïve Fortunio, Thierry Dran is on good form dramatically, though his vocal tone is far from reliable.
John Eliot Gardiner conducts with admirable vitality and maintains a disciplined ensemble, though occasionally his phrasing might have found a more Gallic charm and warmth. The orchestral playing is good, well balanced in a recording perspective which allows details to be heard in just the right proportion.
There is a full libretto with English translation, but the accompanying essay sprays this way and that without having much to offer on the subject of this particular opera. This is the more unfortunate because no synopsis is provided, and this sad omission is compounded by the lack of any meaningful information about the opera in any of the most central sources: Kobb‚'s Opera Guide, The Viking Opera Guide and The New Grove Dictionary of Opera.