Between 1855 and the collapse of the Second Empire,
Jacques Offenbach helped turn Paris into the ‘cabaret of the world’,
beginning with a hilarious one-acter about a double bass player and
a cannibal queen and moving on through more than seventy operettas.
These include Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Hélène
and what he hoped might be remembered as his ‘serious’ masterpiece,
The Tales of Hoffmann. This is largely based on the play by Jules
Barbier and Michel Carré, staged in Paris in 1851, which uses
the character of E.T.A Hoffmann (maverick writer, fantasist and musician)
as narrator and stitches together three of his stories into a fantastical
whole. It was left incomplete at the composer’s death, and it was left
to Ernest Guiraud to finish some of Act 3 and much of the orchestration.
It became Offenbach’s greatest success.
There are at least eleven complete recordings in the
present catalogue, and the top of the list tends to be (at least to
specialists) Cluytens’ earlier (1948) EMI version, featuring a truly
authentic French cast who capture the opera’s native style as no other.
But as Richard Osborne’s note rightly tells us, it was Cluytens himself
who felt the need to update that mono recording, and Walter Legge was
drafted in to start negotiations for the ‘dream team’. It seems Cluytens
had originally insisted on Maria Callas as one of the three heroines,
though she fell out with Legge over the casting of Giulini’s Verdi Requiem,
and then Legge himself parted company with EMI, only staying involved
with the Offenbach project because of his wife, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.
Though Legge later referred to this recording as "a poor dilution
of my original concept", the background vicissitudes are never
apparent to the listener.
It may seem to some that the sheer élan and
fizz of the previous version is missing in places here, but there is
no doubt, to my ears, that Cluytens’ conducting is one of the true strengths
of this present set. There is a tightness and spontaneity that only
come from great experience and familiarity with the score. He gets excellent
results from his orchestra, and the principals are uniformly stylish
and in good voice. Expectations had been sky high for this recording,
though on release some critics were mixed in their views. Gedda was
more or less universally praised, and it’s easy to see why. As in Gounod’s
Faust (another GROC, also conducted by Cluytens) he was born
for this role. Diction and phrasing are superb, and the tone is full
and fruity, with glorious top end; just sample ‘O Dieu de quelle ivresse’
(Act 3) to see what I mean. It’s doubtful a more stylish tenor could
have been found for this role in 1965. Victoria de los Angeles acquits
herself well, despite having had health problems following the birth
of her first child. Gianna d’Angelo is also immensely accomplished,
not least in her big Act 2 coloratura aria ‘Les-ois-eaux-dans-la-char-mille’.
Schwarzkopf came in for criticism as ‘too German’, ironic in this most
Germanic of Offenbach’s works. To my ears the voice and subtlety with
the text are exemplary. George London is slightly rough of tone, but
Ernest Blanc is at least as enjoyable and effective as he was on the
Faust set. Supporting roles and chorus work are all excellent.
The recording shows its age slightly in places. There
is a hint of distortion on top notes and some climactic passages, but
overall balance and detail is admirable. Full text and translation,
as usual, and typically entertaining background notes. On two well-filled,
medium price discs, this has to be a strong contender for your library,
combining as it does the stylish performing traditions of a previous
generation with pretty good stereo sound. Recommended.