Reynaldo Hahn is probably best known for some of the most charming
French songs - or mélodies as they are commonly called
in French. Interestingly, though, his ancestry was anything but
French. His father was German - the family name reveals as much
– and his mother was Venezuelan. In 1878, when Reynaldo was three,
the family left Venezuela and headed for Europe, never to return.
Hahn established himself in Paris where he soon became prominent
as the most Parisian of composers, despite his cosmopolitan background.
He was a decent pianist and had a lovely voice and became a celebrity
in the salons. From an early age he had composed songs
and it was in the double - or rather triple - capacities of composer,
singer and accompanist that he became a ‘darling’ of the Parisian
audiences. He got his formal musical education at the Paris Conservatory,
where he became a close friend of Massenet, whose favourite pupil
he was. Undoubtedly he learnt a thing or two about ingratiating
melodies and lush harmonies from his mentor. He was a man of the
theatre, composing incidental music, ballets, a couple of operas
and several very popular operettas. The first of these - and his
greatest success - was Ciboulette (1923) followed two years
later by Mozart.
As a conductor he specialised in Mozart, so that second
operetta seems to have been very close to his heart. I can’t
say that there is much in the away of Mozartean influence
in Ciboulette, but Massenet and Offenbach are godfathers
and there are a few dashes of Lehár as well. Like Offenbach,
another typically French composer with German background,
he is more prone to write spirited ensembles than solo songs
but there are a few ravishing couplets and several
charming duos. His orchestration is rather transparent and
he is firmly rooted in the late 19th century harmonic
language; there is little in the way of impressionism. The
general Gallic tone has Spanish spice in the second act. Like
Debussy and Satie he was also caught by the new American rhythms:
cake-walk or ragtime. In general he is at his best in some
of the finales; the one to the first tableau of act I is particularly
riveting. The big ensemble in 3/4-time in the middle of the
second tableau (CD 1 tr. 16) is extremely charming.
The Monte-Carlo forces are truly at home in this music.
Their playing and choral singing under the experienced Cyril
Diederich is inspired and idiomatic. The all-French cast also
deliver their lines and the copious spoken dialogue with verve
and relish. I know José Van Dam is Belgian, but as such he
belongs to the French idiom, and Nicolai Gedda, fluent in
at least seven languages, has always had a special affinity
for French. By the time these recording sessions were held
he was a bit over 55 and had lost a little of the youthful
bloom, but one has to travel far to hear more lively and stylish
singing and acting. Mady Mesplé was also in her early fifties
but her bright tones are as unmistakably French as ever. Few
sopranos have ever been so at home in this kind of repertoire,
Natalie Dessay being the only true inheritor. As for Van Dam
he has rarely sung with such lyric beauty. Just listen to
his Couplets in the first tableau (CD 1 tr.5), so soft and
beautiful and with wonderful legato. Colette Alliot-Lugaz
and Francois Le Roux also make the most of their roles.
There may not be the same spirit in this music as in
some of Offenbach’s most infectious creations, but Hahn was
definitely one of the best in the genre during the first half
of the 20th century.
To follow the rapid dialogue and the intricate ensembles
one needs to be rather fluent in French - or have access to a
libretto. EMI state in the booklet and the back cover of the jewel-box
that full libretto and English translation are available at the
website. I wasn’t able to find it though, and when
I typed ‘Ciboulette’ in the search function there was no hit.
The booklet has a very condensed synopsis giving the outlines
of the story but to savour this delightful operetta properly one
has to understand even the details. I hope this will be corrected
in due time. In the meantime lovers of French operetta can at
least enjoy the charming music, performed by an outstanding cast.