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Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791-1833)
La Somnambule (1827)
Orchestra Victoria/Richard Bonynge
rec. Iwaki Auditorium, Melbourne, Australia, July 2004
MELBA MR301087 [69:30]


How could such fine music as this have remained neglected until now with this premiére recording? In his time, Hérold was a well-respected musician who followed in the vein of Rossini and Auber. As hinted in the notes, he may have been a source of inspiration for Bellini’s La Sonnambula, to be written four years later. Interestingly, the plot for this charming ballet was written anonymously by the well-known writer, Scribe, who wrote many libretti for successful European operas. Here, with his usual enthusiasm, Richard Bonynge has researched and unearthed a gem. Not played for 150 years, this music contains haunting and romantic ideas. Add to this those hummable melody lines that are such a feature of the stage works we enjoy from this Romantic period of European music.

Today, composer Hérold brings to mind only La Fille de Mal Gardée and the Zampa overture, yet he wrote large amounts of theatre music that have been totally forgotten. In this ballet we hear a freshness of tuneful invention, warm undertones, and strong rhythm in the French tradition. Apparently, some of Hérold’s music in La Somnambule contains ideas borrowed from Auber and Rossini, but they must be so well reworked that none sound familiar to me. Certainly, the style of tracks 17 and 18 conveys strong Rossinian characteristics, yet with their kaleidoscope of orchestral colour I feel that this music is on a level with that found in the Tchaikovsky ballets. Tracks 5 and 8 (Allegro) suggest to me that Delibes was influenced by Hérold, for one of the movements contain characteristics that remind one of the ‘Animated Clockworks’ scene in Coppélia (1870), a ballet that came nearly fifty years after La Somnambule. Even the ever-popular Giselle, by Adam, contains similar colouring yet chronologically speaking this also followed the Hérold ballet. 

The plot concerns a sleep-walking bride who in a trance happens to climb a ladder conveniently left outside the Inn window. She is later found in bed at the Inn and is accused by her fiancée of being unfaithful. A red shawl in the wrong hands and witness to a further sleep-walking escapade on the adjoining Mill roof explains the situation to everyone’s satisfaction.

The Melbourne-based Orchestra Victoria responds intuitively to Bonynge’s direction and delicacy of touch since much warmth is teased out of Hérold’s rich score. In one passage, an unusual effect of rapid staccato notes delivered by the horns is played with perfection despite the obvious difficulty of being consistent over a duration of bars. 

A word should be said about Melba. This Australian label came to note with three issues in the summer of 2000; of Massenet, Strauss, and 19th Century English opera arias, the latter being a most interesting compilation (sung by Deborah Riedel) from forgotten English Operas (see reviews of The Power of Love and the Massenet).

The Power of Love remains one of my favourite CDs and led to the Victorian Opera’s decision to record Balfe’s The Maid of Artois (see review) four years later. These discs went out of print in 2002 after which little was heard of Melba. It is not only good to see this new Hérold release and know that the label is alive and well, but also to know that the other recordings have been repressed and are available again. 

The SACD sound is excellent with good separation and a warm, yet spacious, acoustic that brings out flattering qualities in the woodwind and strings. The handsome full-colour booklet, put together on Opera Rara lines, contains interesting historical notes researched by Richard Bonynge and Patrick O’Connor. No doubt the notes on Hérold in the Grove Dictionary of Music will now have to be updated as a result of the fresh information. The notes are in English and French.

Raymond Walker 




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