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Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Le postillon de Longjumeau (1836)
Robert Swensen (tenor) – Chapelou, postilion, later Saint-Phar, an opera-singer; Pamela Coburn (soprano) – Madeleine, Proprietress of an inn, his wife, later Mme. De Latour; Peter Lika (bass) – Bijou, a wheelwright, later Alcindor, a member of the chorus; Florian Prey (baritone) – Marquis von Corcy, theatre manager; Jürgen Linn (bass) – Bourdon, A member of the chorus
Stuttgarter Choristen
Rundfunkorchester des SWF Kaiserslautern/Klaus Arp
Recorded live at the Festhalle, Bad Urach, Germany on 1st October 1992
CAPRICCIO 51180 [47:22 + 49:23]

 

 

Adolphe Charles Adam was one of the most prolific suppliers of mostly light-hearted stage works (more than ninety!) during the first half of the 19th century. He had an easy melodic gift, learnt his trade early and knew how to keep the action of his admittedly not very profound librettos alive. He could, when time allowed, write a transparent and attractive orchestral score.

Today he might be regarded as passé, but a few works from his pen can still be heard from time to time. The ballet Giselle belongs to the standard repertoire in many houses and of the operas Si j’étais roi and the present work Le postillon de Longjumeau can have an occasional outing. Cantique de Noël, the somewhat saccharine Christmas song - in the English speaking world known as O Holy Night - is heard everywhere at Yuletide.

The postilion of Longjumeau, premiered in Paris on October 13, 1836, has been famous for Chapelou’s romance Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire in the first act. It is a favourite exhibition piece for tenors with an easy top register, requiring the singer to throw off a high D. Helge Roswaenge’s HMV recording from the late 1930s (in German of course) was legendary and Nicolaï Gedda made his sensational debut at the Stockholm Opera back in 1952 in this part. Present at that premiere was EMI’s legendary producer Walter Legge. The rest is history: within a year Gedda was singing everywhere. There exist several recordings with him: a live recording from the premiere and an early studio recording, both in Swedish. Later he recorded it in the original French and in German, the latter in connection with a highlights LP from the opera (possibly it was a complete set but I have only seen the highlights). Ariola/Eurodisc made a complete recording (also in German) in 1962 which has been available from time to time. That production was conducted by Reinhard Peters with a cast including John van Kesteren and Swedish soprano Stina-Britta Melander. The present offering, again in German, was recorded live in 1992 and is complete insofar as all the musical numbers are included. However since this is an opéra-comique it also contains a considerable amount of spoken dialogue, which in this case is completely omitted. It seems that what is recorded is not a staged performance but a concert. There are no signs of action, no movements, no stage noises, just the occasional rustling of pages being turned. There are also practically no signs of an audience being present, apart from the second act ensemble where the Marquise has a comic solo with coughs and other business (CD2 track 3). Here one can vaguely hear amused reactions from a rather distant audience.

The French original is in three acts but this German version (by Klaus Dreyer) is compressed into two. The plot is briefly as follows: The postilion Chapelou and the young landlord Madeleine are celebrating their wedding in the little village Longjumeau, not far from Paris. The year is 1756. Chapelou is asked to sing his famous song to the guests and is overheard by Marquis de Corcy, artistic director of the Paris opera, who has stopped at the little village to have his carriage repaired. He persuades Chapelou to go with him to Paris and sing at the Opera. In this he is encouraged by Bijou, the blacksmith, who has repaired the carriage and who secretly loves Madeleine. The second act takes place ten years later in Paris, where Chapelou is now a star at the Opera under the name of Saint-Phar. Madeleine has inherited her aunt’s fortune and lives as Madame de Latour in Fontainebleau. Saint-Phar has seen her at the opera without recognizing her and admires her. Bijou is also at the Opera, as Alcindor, singing in the chorus. Saint-Phar and the chorus are invited to Madame de Latour’s castle, ordered there by the director, who is also in love with her. Saint-Phar proposes. Madeleine accepts and they are married in the palace chapel – by the member of the chorus Bourdon, Saint-Phar thinks, since he arranged it that way to avoid being charged with bigamy. But the Marquis had locked Bourdon in a room and they were married by the real chaplain. So now Saint-Phar believes he will be condemned to death. But all of course ends well. Madeleine announces that bigamy has not taken place and Chapelou, who has finally recognized his first wife, realizes that he has always loved Madeleine.

On this rather predictable libretto Adam lavished a rich and melodious musical score, not very subtle perhaps, but the rather crude complications require sturdy and exciting music and that is what Adam delivers in abundance. And there are subtleties too. The orchestral introduction to the first scene (there is no overture) is light and airy. The interlude between the two scenes of act two (CD2 track 1) is a fine atmospheric piece, nicely orchestrated with strings and woodwind and a virtuoso clarinet solo, almost a concertino movement. Both the tenor and the soprano have several lyrically beautiful solos and duets. This is definitely not a “one-piece-only” opera; several of the tunes are really catchy. The chorus has a lot to do, mostly in lively numbers and the Stuttgarter Choristen are an enthusiastic body with a lot of “go”. The orchestra, as known from other recordings, play well with fine rounded tone, helped by the not very resonant but warm acoustics. The soloists are close-miked, maybe a little too much in relation to the orchestra, but on the whole it is a rather well-integrated sound. What feels somewhat irritating is that after each musical number there is a fade-out, not affecting the music but creating a dead acoustic, often lasting for several seconds before the next number starts. In a real performance there would have been spoken dialogue there. Maybe there was some kind of a narrator at the concert, whom the producers edited out. Anyway there is no applause either. One gets an almost antiseptic feeling.

The soloists are good. Robert Swensen, in the taxing role of Chapelou/Saint-Phar, has a goodish lyrical tenor voice, not wholly equalized and thinning out towards the top. His is a flexible voice moving effortlessly between the extremes, right down in the bass register; he has no problems with the high D. The postilion song is good, his second act aria (CD1 track 6) even better. It is unfair to compare him to Gedda, but in his own right he gives a well thought-through reading.

Madeleine/Madame de Latour is even better, sung with youthful elegance, beautiful tone and flair by Pamela Coburn. She can be heard to best advantage in the first two scenes of act one (CD1 tracks 1-2). When we meet her in act two in her big aria (CD2 track 2) ten years are supposed to have passed and it seems that the passing of time has slightly affected the quality of her voice. It has a harder edge to it, robbing it a little of the warmth. But she still negotiates her runs and trills with ease, and when we meet her in the duet with Saint-Phar (CD2 track 4), actually one of the finest numbers in the opera, she is back on form again.

The blacksmith turned chorus-singer, Bijou/Alcindor, has a splendid buffo aria in act two, executed with verve and humour by the excellent Peter Lika, one of those fruity bass voices of which Germany seems to abound. Florian Prey, son of the late lamented Hermann Prey, has obviously inherited a feeling for comedy and he also has the communicative stage presence brought over to the listener without the visual element. He gives a lively portrait of Marquis von Corcy. His antics in the second act ensemble (CD2 track 3) are a joy.

Ideally I would have wished the performance to be sung in French and retaining at least some of the spoken dialogue for the continuity of the action, but this is still an enjoyable performance, and to someone knowing only the postilion song it will certainly come as a positive surprise. It will not overthrow the existing ranking-list of 19th century French opera neither is it a forgotten masterpiece challenging Faust or Carmen or a dozen others. Nevertheless it provides 1½ hours of pleasant listening and is far superior to the roughly contemporaneous Alessandro Stradella by Flotow, which I reviewed not so long ago.

Documentation – if that’s the word for it – is limited to a cast-list and a synopsis in three languages, but it retails at super-budget price. Anyone curious enough to buy it might well derive as much pleasure from it as I have done. While not wanting to serve it as a three-course meal very often, I’m sure parts of it will occasionally be a nice snack.

Göran Forsling


 



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