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Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Les malheurs d'Orphée - opera in three acts; text: d'Armand Lunel (1926) [35:24]
Le pauvre matelot - Complainte in three acts - text: Jean Cocteau (1927) [41:43]
Jacqueline Brumaire; Bernard Demigny; Claudine Collart; Janine Collard; Jean Cussac; Clara Neumann; Saül Verzoub; André Vessières (Les malheurs d'Orphée)
Jacqueline Brumaire; Jean Giraudeau; Xavier Depraz; André Vessières (Le pauvre matelot)
Solistes de l'Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris/Darius Milhaud
rec. Disques Véga, Paris, 1956, AAD. stereo
Collection Musiques Françaises
ACCORD 476 159 1 [65:45]
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Milhaud was no dabbler when it came to operatic output. His total operatic catalogue runs to no fewer than fifteen works: La Brebis Égarée, 1923; Les Malheurs d’Orphée, 1926; Le Pauvre Matelot, 1927; L’Enlèvement d’Europe (part 1, trilogy), 1927; L’Abandon d’Ariane (part 2, trilogy), 1928; La Délivrance de Thésée (part 3, trilogy), 1928; Christophe Colombe, 1930; Maximilien, 1932; Esther de Carpentras, stage premiere 1938; Médée, 1939; Bolivar, 1950; David, stage premiere 1955; Fiesta, 1958; La Mère Coupable, 1966; Saint Louis, Roi de France, 1972 (oratorio-opera).

The two operas presented on this Accord disc are chamber works using an orchestra of thirteen instrumentalists although Le pauvre matelot was originally laid out for full orchestra. His other chamber operas include L'abandon d'Ariane, La déliverance de Thésée and L'enlèvement d'Europa. Les malheurs d'Orphée was premiered on 7 May 1926 at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brüssels. The libretto is by Armand Lunel (1892-1977), a childhood friend of the composer. Le pauvre matelot was premiered on 16 December 1927 at the Opéra-Comique, Paris. The libretto in this case was initially written by Cocteau for an abortive operatic project by Auric.

Misadventure or tragedy. Call it what you like these two operas have plots with a bitter twist in the tail. In Le pauvre matelot the dénouement involves the sailor returning home in disguise and being killed by the wife because the ‘cock and bull’ story he has cooked up is so good that the loving wife needs to ‘do-in’ the stranger to rescue her husband from debt. In the other Orpheus and the gypsy Eurydice elope to the mountains. There Eurydice dies of a mysterious malady and her body is carried away by mourning animals. Orpheus, distraught, returns to his village where Eurydice's sisters, believing he has killed Eurydice, kill him and too late realise their mistake.

As for the music, in the case of Les malheurs d'Orphée there is no prelude at track 1. We are straight into the singing - a complex ensemble that smacks of Poulenc and includes chattering Rio-style rhythms. Track 8 has plenty of Stravinskian skirl and impact similar to the punchy attack in Les Noces and in Oedipus Rex (tr. 15). There is a slight abrasion on the vibrant women's voices - an artefact of the passing years. The animals cortege for Eurydice wails and ululates. The mourning chorus and funeral cortège of Eurydice are sometimes performed as freestanding concert items.

In Le pauvre matelot Milhaud weaves together authentic sea shanties and his own original material. "Blow the Man Down" puts in a strong and boozy appearance in the scenes running up to the killing. However there is plenty of variety here. For example at tr. 22 there is some gorgeous folksy singing from the soprano, Canteloube-style. The feel of this serenata-style piece links with Vaughan Williams’ contemporaneous operas Sir John in Love and Poisoned Kiss.

Rob Barnett



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