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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819–1880)
Orphée aux Enfers, (1858), Highlights
1. Ah! C’est ainsi! [5:20]
2. La mort m’apparaît souriante [2:17]
3. Eh hop! hop! [1:52]
4. Pour séduire Alcmène [2:29]
5. Bel insecte à l’aile dorée [3:28]
6. Vive la vin! Vive Pluton! [2:04]
7. Ce bal est original [1:49]
Yann Beuron (tenor) – Orphée; Natalie Dessay (soprano) – Eurydice; Laurent Naouri (baritone) – Jupiter; Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor) – Aristée; Pluton; Etienne Lescroart (tenor) – Mercure; Virginie Pochon (soprano) – Minerve; Jennifer Smith (soprano) – Diane; Patricia Petibon (soprano) – Cupidon; Véronique Gens (soprano) – Vénus; Steven Cole (baritone) – John Styx
Orchestre et Choeur de l’Opéra National de Lyon; Orchestre de Chambre de Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
La Belle Hélène (1864), Highlights
8. Overture [1:28]
9. C’est le devoir des jeunes filles [1:43]
10. Amours divins [3:30]
11. Voici les rois de la Grèce [4:02]
12. On me nomme Hélène la blonde [4:15]
13. Le voici le roi des rois [0:56]
14. Je la vois, elle dort [3:01]
15. Dansons, aimons, buvons, chantons [4:58]
16. Lorsque la Grèce est un champ de carnage [2:59]
17. Et tout d’abord, ô vile multitude [3:13]
Felicity Lott (soprano) – Hélène; Yann Beuron (tenor) – Pâris; Laurent Naouri (baritone) – Agamemnon; Alain Gabriel, Laurent Alvaro (tenor) – Les 2 Ajax; Marie-Ange Todorovitch (mezzo) – Oreste; François Le Roux (bass) – Calchas; Eric Huchet (baritone) – Achille; Michel Sénéchal (tenor) – Ménélas
Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble; Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), Highlights
18. A cheval sur la discipline [1:40]
19. Ah! Que j’aime les militaries [2:32]
20. Ah! C’est un fameux regiment [3:17]
21. Voici le sabre de mon père [3:23]
22. Dites-lui qu’on l’a remarqué [4:34]
23. Le carillon de ma grand-mère [4:09]
24. A cheval! A cheval! [2:52]
25. Il était un de mes aïeux [2:19]
26. Et bien, Altresse, me voilà, hôlala! [1:42]
Felicity Lott (soprano) – La Grande-Duchesse; Yann Beuron (tenor) – Fritz; François Le Roux (bass) – Boum; Frank Leguérinel (baritone) – Puck; Sandrine Piau (soprano) – Wanda;
Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble; Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
no rec. dates and venues given; published 1998–2005
VIRGIN CLASSICS 0946 391344 2 7 [76:59]


Some of the most infectious operettas ever written were composed by Jacques Offenbach. He had a vaudeville to his name when he was only 19, but it wasn’t a success and for quite some time he mainly wrote music for himself to play as a cellist, educational music and songs. It was not until he was in his mid-thirties that he got into operetta. These took the form of a series of one-acters – one of the most successful being Mesdames de la Halle in March 1858. The public in Paris didn’t expect full-length works, rather three or four short pieces for an evening’s entertainment. But then in October 1858 he presented Orphée aux Enfers and that was the start of something new. By later standards this was fairly small-scale in two acts and it was later revised and amended to four acts in 1874. When we hear it today it is in the original 1858 version but with some added numbers from the revision. In 1858 it wasn’t an immediate success; the public wasn’t prepared for the caricatures and the parody, but the work was discussed in the press and gradually interest grew. During the next twenty years he produced a number of successes and on this disc are collected highlights from arguably the best three of them. There is no need to go into detail concerning the plot, for that you need the complete recordings, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many of those who buy this fairly inexpensive but very well filled disc, get so engrossed in the music that they pretty soon upgrade to the complete sets from which these excerpts are culled.

Conductor Marc Minkowski and his forces from Lyon and Grenoble have really done Offenbach proud up there in his Heaven – or did he go down to the Underworld in company with Orphée and his friends? “Infectious” was the fifth word in this review, referring to the music, but the playing and singing must also be contagious to make its mark, and I have to warn readers that there is no known cure or vaccination against “Offenbach’s disease”, so those who don’t want to contract it – please steer clear! These are enormously spirited performances, no undue lingering, rhythmically riveting and generally uplifting. There is punch in the concerted numbers and the dances are whirlwinds. This doesn’t mean that the music is hard-driven. The beautiful, lyrical moments – and there are lots of them – are handled with great care and Offenbach lovers can feel safe: most of the favourite numbers are here and they are in the main expertly done. There is an exceptionally good chorus and the solo parts are taken by some of today’s leading French singers. The opening couldn’t be more enticing: the glittering Natalie Dessay as Eurydice and tenor Yann Beuron as Orphée in the duet with the famous violin solo. Dessay is superb all through Orphée, Beuron has a small but expressive voice and that goes for many of the singers here. In the main this is a typically French performance where ensemble feeling is more important than individual star achievements. Etienne Lescroart, another tenorino, is an agile and sprightly Mercure.

In La Belle Hélène we don’t get Pâris’s Au mont Ida, but the melody constitutes most of the short overture. As compensation Pâris (Yann Beuron) has two honeyed solos; in the latter of these (tr. 17) he indulges in some quite hilarious yodelling – love it or leave it! Marie-Ange Todorovitch is a good Oreste and in the group of the Kings of Greece we find several good character singers, among them veteran tenor Michel Sénéchal as Ménélas. Laurent Naouri is a spirited Agamemnon and he is also heard in duet with Natalie Dessay in Orphée aux Enfers, where he is an irritatingly buzzing fly. In the title role Felicity Lott has a more generous vibrato than ideally, but she is still a good Hélène, full of character and she is at her best in Invocation à Vénus (tr. 12).

La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is the latest of the three works here and it was also the last recorded. Though the booklet says nothing it was, if I remember correctly, set down in December 2004 and by then Felicity Lott’s voice had aged. She had problems with the lower register in what is actually a mezzo-soprano role. Of the three operettas on this disc La Grande-Duchesse is the one totally dominated by the heroine. Ms Lott has the measure of the character but she can’t efface the memory of Régine Crespin, who recorded it for Sony (or CBS as it then was) many years ago. She sings a lively Voici le sabre, however, and has the right seductive tone in Dites-lui. Yann Beuron is a good tenor partner here too, and another veteran, François Le Roux is a charismatic General Boum, though he hasn’t much voice left. For all the individual contributions it is, however, Marc Minkowski and his brilliant chorus and orchestra who are the true heroes.

The complete sets should be readily available and there are few alternatives. I have already mentioned the Crespin recording of La Grande-Duchesse, with Alain Vanzo, Robert Massard and Mady Mesplé and with Michel Plasson conducting, where Crespin is lighter of tone and more idiomatic. Plasson also recorded both Orphée aux Enfers and La Belle Hélène for EMI 25–30 years ago. Orphée, from 1979, was presented in the more lavish 1874 version, so it is not quite comparable to Minkowski’s leaner original version. Plasson’s Eurydice, Mady Mesplé, can’t compete with Natalie Dessay and in general Plasson is heavier. But he has good soloists, among them Michel Sénéchal as Orphée. Plasson’s La Belle Hélène, recorded in December 1984, has no less a diva than Jessye Norman in the title role, John Aler in good voice as Pâris and names like Charles Burles, Gabriel Bacquier and Jean-Philippe Lafont among the Greek kings. This has always been my favourite version and I still think it holds its own even against Minkowski, not least for Ms Norman’s fresher Hélène.

This paragraph was of course intended as information for those who want complete sets. Those who don’t should be well satisfied with the excerpts on the present disc but, as I warned earlier, being infected – and the risk factor is high – there is no way back.

Göran Forsling 




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