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HERVÉ (Florimond RONGER) (1825-1892)
Mam’zelle Nitouche (1883)
Fernandel (baritone) – Célestin/Floridor; Elaine Thibault (soprano) – Denise; Aimé Doniat (tenor) – Champlâteaux; Line May (soprano) – Corinne
Decca Studio Orchestra/André Grassi
rec. Decca Studios, Antony, France, 1968. ADD
ACCORD OPÉRETTE 476 9999 [66:19 + 40:24]



Perhaps of all the composers listed amongst the new Accord releases of French operettas Hervé is the most significant. He has been claimed as the ‘father of opéra-comique’, that unique brand of light French opera coupled with dialogue. Certainly the music is fresh and appealing - the work starts with a charming yet short overture.

First a chorister, this composer became an organist by the time he was fifteen. Hervé is a pseudonym of Florimond Ronger, taken from a Marquis de Hervé, whom Ronger admired. He studied under Auber at the Paris Conservatoire but soon became dazzled by the theatre. Taking to the stage, he played minor roles and the occasional tenor part. A double life continued after he won a competition for the post of organist at the prestigious Saint Eustache church, Paris. This dual role, with split loyalties, was to serve as the basic plot for Mam’zelle Nitouche the most famous of his one hundred and twenty plus operettas; it’s still performed in France.

By 1855, working up from pantomime and ‘Les Folies’ presentations, Hervé had presented many one act operettas. He became proficient in writing, directing, staging and conducting as a result. Round the corner from his theatre, the Folies-Concertantes, Offenbach was busy laying down a parallel career at the Bouffes-Parisiens theatre. The two became rivals and for many decades were jealous of each others successes. Yet perhaps Hervé is rightly regarded as the ‘father of operetta’. His work was often satirical and his style generally more rhythmic than that of Offenbach. Judging by this work, the songs are tuneful, and his orchestration is competent and endearing. A number of songs are sturdy and march-like in character.

Mam’zelle Nitouche is one of his last successes (212 performances), written at a time when ‘opéra-bouffe’ was largely abandoned by Hervé for the more popular form of the ‘vaudeville opérette’. It is an operetta set within an operetta. The absurd and trivial plot, partly autobiographical, concerns a convent organist, Célestin, who composes for the stage under the name of Floridor — "Able and gay is Floridor: serious and devout is Célestin" are the lyrics in one of the songs. A convent girl, Corinne joins him in this split occupation. Act I, set in the convent, begins the friendship. Act II is set in the Theatre foyer during the interval of the first night of the Célestin’s operetta ‘Babet et Cadet’. Act III requires them to return to the convent disguised as dragoon officers to confront the Mother Superior about a forthcoming marriage.

In Act I some of the music needs to be played on an organ (on-stage) to match the religious solemnity of the setting. However, the one used in this recording is an example of the early electric organs that were coming in during the 1960s. With heavy vibrato to mask a lack of harmonics the instrument is not suited to the back-drop of a conventional orchestra. Musically, the balance of the piece is poor: only the characters of Célestin and Denise are fully developed and consequently pick up most of the musical numbers between them. There is little chorus involvement.

The singers may well have been dynamic in a stage production, but in a recording where the only focus is on the voice the performance is not ideal. Soprano, Eliane Thibaut as Denise is weak at times and Fernandel in the big part of Célestin/Floridor can be gritty in his delivery: both are more 'music hall' artistes rather than operatic performers. Doniat as the officer, Vicompte de Champlâteaux sings badly with trembling vibrato in his Act I couplets yet recovers to sing pleasantly enough in Act II. The performance might have been put together with French Radio in mind for each disc is filled with over 40% of French dialogue. The notes are written only in French.

Raymond Walker

 

 



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