The popularity of “La Dame Blanche” in the nineteenth century was immense. It received its 1000th
performance at the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1862 and had reached 1675 by 1914. This success was however matched by its subsequent almost total neglect. Listening to this recording it seems unthinkable that such a charming, well-crafted and memorable opera should not once again be part of the regular repertoire. It can be compared with Auber’s “Fra Diavolo” (1830) or Adam’s “Le Postillon de Longjumeau” (1836) in style but is surely superior to either. Indeed I would compare it much more with Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory” (1828) in terms of its sheer musical quality, although it should be noted that it predates all of these works. Boieldieu not only had the ability to write memorable, even catchy, arias and ensembles but also was able to match dramatic situations and to write interestingly and imaginatively for the orchestra as well as the voices. When allied to a stage sense developed by the writing of nearly forty operas in total the reasons for his early success are obvious. The reasons for current neglect in terms of stage performances are less clear.
The most obvious reason could be that which usually condemns operas to remain unperformed – the libretto. However, whilst scarcely the most gripping of plots - it concerns a mysterious “ghost” called “The White Lady” who eventually reveals the whereabouts of some missing treasure to the tenor lead – George Brown - it is far from being uninteresting or incoherent. Based very loosely on episodes from Sir Walter Scott’s “Guy Mannering” and “The Monastery”, it was much tidied up to produce a clear narrative (unlike the original novels). Although the Scott connection might seem to link it to other Scott-based operas including “Lucia di Lammermoor” or “La jolie fille de Perth” the real comparison is with less dramatic works set in a more rural, even realistic, setting such as “L’elisir d’amore” or “La Sonnambula”. On the basis of this recording it would seem to be their equal in quality and I long for the chance to test this in live performance.
The present discs present the work to its best advantage, with mainly French singers and a very alert sounding orchestra. Rockwell Blake is the main non-Frenchman in the cast, but he sings very stylishly and with apparent ease in the florid sections. He is replaced by a French actor in the dialogue but this causes none of the awkward problems that can be caused by a failure to match the two voices. There is a problem with the dialogue, however, at least for me and others whose French is not up to coping with lengthy stretches of French delivered at some speed. The booklet promises a full libretto and translation at the EMI Classics website but I have not been able to find it there. This is a great pity, as it is obviously essential to understand what is being said and sung to get full enjoyment from this (or any other) opera. I hope that EMI will find a way of remedying this.
It would nonetheless be a pity to let this stop you from trying this set. It should appeal not only to all admirers of French opera of this period, but also to those of Offenbach and Sullivan, both of whom learnt from Boieldieu’s works, or indeed lovers of any early nineteenth century operas. I have previously managed to find recordings of “Ma tante Aurore” and “Jean de Paris”, and excerpts from “La Dame Blanche” but the present recording is by some way the best introduction to this composer’s music that I know of. I hope that it may have rivals in due course but past experience suggests that it would be worth acquiring this excellent version while it is available at a reasonably low price.