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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Orphée aux Enfers

Aristée/Pluton – Andrée Dran (tenor)
Jupiter – Bernard Demigny (baritone)
Orphée – Jean Mollien (baritone)
John Styx – Jean Hoffmann (baritone)
Mercure/Morphée – Andre Jonquères
Mars – Lucien Mans (baritone)
Eurydicé – Claudine Collart (soprano)
Diane – Janine Lindenfelder (mezzo-soprano)
L’Opinion Publique – Violette Journeaux (mezzo-soprano)
Vénus – Monique Chalot (soprano)
Cupidon – Simone Prébordes (soprano)
Junon/Minerve – Anne Marie Carpentier (mezzo-soprano)
Paris Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Rene Leibowitz
Recorded 1951
Au mont Ida (from La Belle Hélène)
Jussi Björling (tenor)
Nils Grevillus (conductor)
Recorded 1936
Pif, Paf, Pouf (from La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein)
Louis Musy (baritone)
Recorded 1931
Ah! quel diner je viens de faire (from La Périchole)
Claudia Novikova (soprano)
Recorded 1932
Je t’adore brigand (from La Périchole)
Maggie Teyte (soprano)
Recorded 1934
Charbonniers et fariniers (from La Boungère des Ecus)
Que voulez-vous faire? (from La Boungère des Ecus)
Reynaldo Hahn (vocals and piano)
Recorded 1928
Dites lui qu’on l’a remarque (from La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein)
Yvonne Printemps (mezzo soprano)
Henri Busser (Piano)
Recorded 1934
Ma mère aux vignes m’envoyit (from Madame Favart)
Germaine Corney
Recorded 1933
Ah! vivre deux! (from Les Contes d’Hoffmann)
Miguel Villabella
Gustave Cloez (conductor)
Recorded 1932
Barcarolle: Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour (from Les Contes d’Hoffmann)
Lucrezia Bori (soprano)
Lawrence Tibbet (baritone)
Rosario Bourdon (conductor)
Recorded 1927
Elle a fui, la tourterelle (from Les Contes d’Hoffmann)
Eide Norena (soprano)
Pierre Coppola (conductor)
Recorded 1930
C’est un chanson d’amour (from Les Contes d’Hoffmann)
Emma Luart (soprano)
Gaston Micheletti (tenor)
Gustave Cloez (conductor)
Recorded 1928
REGIS RRC 2063 [3 CDs: 56.05+72.14+44.33]

 

There have been remarkably few recordings of ‘Orphée’ in French, which is rather surprising considering the work’s popularity. But the combination of circumstances make it understandable; Anglophone casts are reluctant to record so much spoken dialogue in French; opera companies tend to produce the work in the language of their country (there have been at least two recordings in English based on English productions of the work); there has been a significant decline in Francophone recordings of French operas since the war and this has been combined with some sort of failure in the stylistic tradition of French performances. We can, perhaps, come to accept international grand opera performances of ‘Carmen’ or ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’, but this style of performance is harder to accept in an operetta like ‘Orphee’ where the delivery of the text is almost as important as the music.

Since this recording was made in 1952, there have been only two more in French. Michel Plasson recorded the work in 1978 with Mady Mesplé as Eurydice and in 1999 Mark Minkowski went into the studio with a fine cast that included Natalie Dessay.

But things are just a little more complicated than that. Plasson recorded Offenbach’s later, 1874, expanded version of the operetta. This is a grand, four act piece that is rarely performed on stage. In the opera house, you are more likely to find performances of the original, smaller scale, 1858 two act version with odd items interpolated from 1874 and this is what Minkowski has recorded. Leibowitz recorded the original 1858 version without interpolations and it does come over as rather compact and quite short. However this version was written for Offenbach’s tiny theatre ‘Les Bouffes-Parisiens’ and the work has a liveliness and concentrated intensity which can be rather dispersed in bigger versions. Leibowitz, recording with the same forces who gave us the classic recording of ‘La Belle Hélène’, makes the most of this versions virtues; you scarcely miss the grander, larger scale forces that would be needed for the 1874 version. Like ‘La Belle Hélène’ this recording has become a classic. The original cast might be surprised at this classic status; after all none of them is really famous and not all the voices are perfect. But what the performance has is a secure sense of style.

Claudine Collart makes a deceptively fragile sounding Eurydicé, with a shapely turn of phrase and plenty of charm.. Jean Mollien displays a rich-toned voice and a nice line in pomposity as Orphée. Andrée Dran, as Pluton, has a fine, flexible tenor, though his sense of line is uneven. All of the Gods turn in sharply defined characters; Janine Lindenfelder, who, here, is ravishing as Diane, sings the title role in Leibowitz’s fine recording of ‘La Belle Hélène’. Jean Hoffmann is a characterful and rather tipsy sounding John Styx, if a little untidy. Collart and Bernard Demigny, as Jupiter, relish the ludicrous scene where Jupiter seduces Eurydicé disguised as a bee, and their buzzing duet is a triumph of vocal art. Violette Journeaux, as L’Opinion Publique, opens the proceedings with her wonderfully redolent and expressive speaking voice.

All of the singers share elements of the same, almost vanished, very French vocal production; perhaps sounding a little dry at times but ideal for pointing the text. Not only do they relish the sung text, but the spoken as well. The whole cast, both in their vocal qualities and in their methods of delivery, have a strong period feel, but they are secure in their communal feel for the style of the piece. These are virtues which have been replaced in our own time by a more generic vocalism, even if it is easier on the ear. This confidence to be different also applies to the orchestra. The disc was recorded in an era when orchestras in different countries could still have radically different playing styles, so from the first notes of the overture, the orchestra displays a distinctive, lean (and rather period) sound with the woodwind having that particular French tang. Reading between the lines of the above, you may come to realise that not everyone will appreciate the distinctive sound-world of this recording. But it is important; this is a sound-world that is firmly in the performing tradition that Offenbach would have recognised.

Not all is perfect, the ensembles are notably untidy, there is the odd passage of fioriture which sounds rather fuzzy and the balance in the concerted passages can be poor. Of course, it is recorded in very period sound; but faced with such a stylish, witty performance, who could really complain.

The recording is accompanied by a selection of Offenbach arias recorded by a series of interesting and well known artists. Amongst these are a suave performance of ‘Au mont Ida’ (from ‘La Belle Hélène) by Jussi Björling (sung in Swedish) and an account of ‘Pif, Paf, Pouf’ (from ‘La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein) by Louis Musy that almost made me laugh out loud. Claudia Novikova singing ‘A quel diner’ (from ‘La Périchole’) in Russian, is a curiosity, but Maggie Teyte has an exquisite sense of style in her performance of ‘Je t’adore brigand’ from the same opera.

The composer Reynaldo Hahn was not strictly an opera singer at all, but his two items from ‘La Boulanger des Ecus’ are a perfect match of words and music, even if they are sung with a thread of a dry voice. Yvonne Printemps evinces the same textual priority in her charming solo from ‘La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein’. A further curiosity is the Barcarolle from ‘Le Contes d’Hoffmann’ sung by Lucrezia Bori and Lawrence Tibbet, in English.

This set is essential listening for anyone that is interested in Offenbach’s operettas. This important historic performance has not always been available on CD so it is good to welcome it back.

Robert Hugill

 



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