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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


André MESSAGER (1853-1929)
Véronique - operetta (1898)
complete with dialogue
Susan Miller (Hélène)
Ted Christopher (Florestan)
Elizabeth Peterson (Estelle)
Robert Goulet (M. Coquenard)
Amy Warchol (Denise)
Ohio Light Opera Choir and Orchestra /J. Lynn Thompson
Rec. College of Wooster, Ohio, USA
NEWPORT CLASSICS NPD 85635/2 [CD1 48.16; CD2 52.17]

http://www.newport-cd.com/



Opéra-comique commenced initially with works written in the early 19th century. Offenbach is the composer most associated with this genre of light, frothy, flowery, bright and easily accessible music. Building on the fun surrounding Auber’s Fra Diavalo, Offenbach lit the way for equally fresh composers who wished to try their luck in writing for the stage in this novel genre. In Britain Offenbach’s opéra-comique was eventually eclipsed by the rise of the Savoy comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan two decades later. Yet it was Messager’s La Basoche which rescued D’Oyly Carte’s new English Opera House when no English work was ready to replace the theatre’s opening opera, Ivanhoe (Sullivan). He had followed the Offenbach style with much success. Of Messager’s works, Veronique is the one best remembered in Britain, partly because Eric Robinson exposed the hit Veronique song, ‘Here and There’ (De ci, de là) in BBC Television’s early orchestral concerts and it soon got played elsewhere.

André Messager was born in central France at Moutluçon. With a musical interest in keyboard instruments he had a leaning to the organ. He studied at the Ecole Niedermeyer under the eminent masters Saint Saëns and Fauré who became his lifelong friends. By 1878, when 25 he had a symphony performed and was writing prize-winning cantatas. In contrast to this serious output, he provided little divertissements, like the ballets for the Folies Bergère, which provided useful income. His rise to fame came with two opéra-comiques written in 1885– La Fauvette du Temple and La Béarnaise, both of which received long runs and were exported to London and New York. The critics liked his orchestration since it revealed a classical suppleness and charm somewhat lacking in the French compositions of Planquette and Lecocq, performed alongside Offenbach. Five years later his compositions were at their best. In 1890, La Basoche played at the Opéra-Comique and opened a new chapter with a score was considerably stronger than his usual stage compositions. (No recording of the work exists, though it was broadcast by the BBC under Beecham? in the 1920s.)

Véronique opened in 1898 and was set in a romantic period of French fashion, the 1840s, which had some appeal to French audiences in itself. The plot is a love story surrounding two central characters, Florestan and Véronique. After a vibrant overture, the operetta takes little time to warm up. For the entrance of Hélène (Véronique) Messager is musically at his strongest, using wind and strings to provide a perfect and magical effect. Florestan appears with a lilting song, which is not particularly inventive and is similar to songs from the pen of Lecocq or Planquette. But this contrasts nicely with Messager’s ambitiously written quartet, Charmant, charmant that follows. The Act 1 finale is recognisably Offenbach-ish in rhythm. Two hits are the catchy – De ci, de là (Trot here, trot there) (mentioned above), and a flowery Swing song, heard later. Act 3 is notable for its comic duet with a refrain that wins Messager to the heart. Messager’s compositions are elegantly light in orchestral colour, and generally have a vocal line often shadowed by the orchestra (à la Offenbach). His gift lies in warm melodies and harmonies that are easy on the ear. A musical director has to feel the Parisian lilt if the tunes are to hold their magic. Florestan’s Air, ‘Every shop girl is a beauty’ (CD2 tk6) has a tune whose source was probably "He’s a how-di-do" (Mikado) written 12 years earlier. Elsewhere Messager has musical phrases which also seem to have been borrowed from the Savoy operas (CD2 tk8.20" in). One of the most impressive tunes of Véronique is the one which starts the overture.

The soloists both sing and act well with the required element of fun included. Susan Miller as Hélène/Véronique is a light soprano and Ted Christopher (Florestan) a robust tenor, both with fine vibrato. Susan Miller has slight difficulty with a few sustained notes at the end of lines, but this does not mar her performance. The couple complement each other well (hear them in the Act II duet, "Now you’re laughing" (CD2 tk2). Amy Warchol (Denise) has excellent diction: her singing is good but her consonants can be edgy. The orchestra play well throughout and only once (in the Act 3 Entr’acte; CD2 tk9) did I consider the strings decidedly thin. Lynn Thompson keeps a lively pace and does find some of the French nuances of Messager’s lush score, but tends to gloss over the dynamic changes heard in the EMI recording. John Ostendorf’s production is lively and fast moving with committed actors who bring realism to their parts.

Why the opening chorus runs on from the overture without a track change I don’t know since this is not normal practice. The 2 CD set is taken from a live stage performance. During the dialogue sections the stage movement is very obvious and is at times distracting. However, only once did this interfere with the singing and so can be dismissed without much worry. (This is not the case on many other Ohio productions where the recording is first class throughout.) The balance between singers and orchestra at times becomes less than ideal. This is particularly noticeable in ‘Trot Here, Trot There’ (‘Hee-haw, Hee-haw’) where the delicate accompaniment is drowned.

The notes in English come with a complete libretto of a translation by Charles Kondek. The dialogue works well but there are some odd lyrics – "De ci, de là" is translated as ‘Here and there’ which to fit the music is expanded to "Trot here, trot there". In this translation it is changed to a cumbersome "Hee-haw! Hee-haw! Clip, clip-clopping". The notes do not tell us why they felt they had to provide another English translation.

Further reading: "Operetta", Traubner (Oxford); ‘Musicals", Ganzl (Carlton)

Raymond Walker


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