Rarely do we come across
a reconstruction of a previously lost opera of some importance.
Here however through research and dedicated interest a major
Offenbach work, only ever rumoured to exist, has been resurrected.
The revival of this important work took place at the Montpellier
Festival in 2002, but the occasion escaped notice outside France.
What we hear in this substantial
work is wonderful scoring, atmospheric situations and captivating
melodies and themes. Its overture opens with the familiar Hoffmann
Barcarolle (in different orchestration). One might assume that
Offenbach had recycled this from his Tales of Hoffmann,
but not so. This work was written ten years before Hoffmann
and, good as Hoffmann may be, this opera is
superior. It was composed when the composer was at his freshest,
brimming with good ideas to interest his public.
It is worth exploring the
background: Oxford’s Encyclopedia on Opera does not mention
the work yet entries for other titles come both before and afterwards.
Offenbach’s work prior to Les Fées is shown as Barkouf
(1860), and this is followed by La Belle Hélène (1864).
The 1864 date for completion of Les Fées relates to the
opening of a German version in Vienna, Die Rheinnixen
(The Rhine Nixies). He probably composed the
work between 1860 and 1862, writing La Belle Hélène between
1862 and 1864. This chronology is interesting because, whatever
the reality, we are assured that Offenbach wrote Les Fées
at the zenith of his creativity if La Belle Hélène is
anything to go by. Consequently Les Fées should
seriously interest all lovers of good opera.
It shouldn’t come as any
surprise to find that Offenbach chose a supernatural theme based
on a famous Rhine legend. This was of course to be made popular
by Wagner in his Ring a decade later. Lachner first used
the theme in 1846, Mendelssohn started to set the subject in
his Loreley (unfinished at his death) in 1847, Vincent
Wallace successfully produced his opera Lurline (again
set on Rhine folklore in 1860) and Bruch followed with another
in 1863. The subject was therefore a hot potato and particularly
fashionable at the time. The only problem was the creation of
suitably mystical staging with realistic transformations at
a time when mechanical stage effects and gas lighting were crude.
It could well be that it was the lack of imaginative settings
that let things down; one can only guess. Nevertheless, Les
Fées was deemed good enough to follow up with a German version.
When listening to this music one can understand why.
Here, Offenbach provides
an abundance of musical invention. It’s the work of a composer
fired with enthusiasm and freely expressing himself with captivating
mood and melody. The famous (Hoffmann) Barcarolle weaves
its way in and out of Act III with haunting orchestral phrases.
It is eventually sung dreamily and with mellow flow by chorus
rather than principals. There are sections throughout that predict
the lighter Offenbach found in Orpheus, La Belle Hélène
and Les Brigands. Generally, it is both melodious
and atmospheric with a seamless flow of musical ideas that never
rises to the level of heaviness found in Hoffmann. As
the researchers of this material point out, it is quite amazing
that such a good score was ever forgotten by the public, and
by Offenbach for that matter. Or was it that he was so full
of good ideas that he wished to move on with La Belle Hélène
(1864) and Barbe Bleue (1866)? There
are themes here that will be recognised in the Offenbach compilation
ballet, Gaïté Parisienne (1938). The finale of Act III
will also be familiar. It is another waltz tune rather similar
to one later used in La fille du Tambour Majeur. Also
there are sections, particularly in Act 4, that echo passages
from Orpheus in the Underworld, written six years earlier.
The company was on form for this live performance:
I found the singing a joy, with a good cast assembled. There
is much freshness in Offenbach’s writing in the arias. A particularly
haunting delight is the andante tenor aria sung by Piotr Beczala in Act 2
[CD2 tr.4]. His light lyrical style is ideally suited to the
material. The duet that follows later in the Act picks up a
good pace with more than a touch of jollity that is reminiscent
of the lighter Offenbach: this is not out of place in Offenbach’s
exploratory genre. The soprano Regina Schörg, as Armgard, has
a rich mature tone (not dissimilar to Callas) and is ideal for
the rôle. The other singers are equally strong.
The quality of sound is
as good as a modern studio recording with just the right amount
of reverberation - so often live recordings tend to be dry.
The notes contain interesting background about the restoration
of this work and Offenbach’s approach to it.
This is a find worthy of
inclusion in the wider European repertoire ... even if Tales
of Hoffmann has to be discarded to make way for it.
The work is a treat.