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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Die Rheinnixens or Les Fées du Rhin (The Fairies of the Rhine) - A romantic opera in four acts, sung in German (1860-62)
Regina Schörg (sop) - Armgard; Nora Gubisch (mezzo) - Hedwig; Piotr Beczala (ten) - Franz; Dalibor Jenis (bar) - Conrad; Peter Klaveness (bass-bar) - Gottfried; Uwe Pepper (ten) - Peasant; Gaëlle Le Roi (sop) - Fairy
Lithuanian Radio Choir
Orchestre National de Montpellier/Friedemann Layer
rec. live, Radio France/Montpellier Festival, France, 30 July 2002. DDD
UNIVERSAL ACCORD 472 920-2 [3 CDs: 74:57 + 67:50 + 65:55]


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.

Raymond J Walker



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