Of these scores, only the ballet music for Aida was originally composed as an integral part of the opera concerned, and that music is always included in complete recordings of that work. The remainder of these pieces were written for productions at the Paris Opéra which insisted on the incorporation of a danced scene in the latter part of any work performed there. This, according to Wagner who was compelled to insert a ballet into Tannhäuser for this reason, was so that the Jockey Club could come and admire the legs of the dancers after they had dined. The fact that the dancers were also frequently their mistresses added an additional frisson to the situation. The iron rule “ballet after supper” was rigidly enforced – even Berlioz wrote a ballet for insertion in Act Four of Les Troyens to satisfy the doubly-paying customers. The earliest published scores of Carmen included a ballet in the final Act, mostly consisting of music from L’Arlésienne and Le jolie fille de Perth. Most of the composers fell into line with a possible degree of reluctance, but some tried to make the ballet relevant to the plot and even to link it musically to the rest of the action.
In the earliest score here, Verdi’s revision of I Lombardi as Jérusalem - the dates given above are the dates of the relevant Paris productions - he didn’t really try to do more than supply some music for the ballet dancers to display their wares to their clients. It falls into the category of much early nineteenth century French ballet such as that by Adam: pleasant with occasional musically dramatic flourishes, but by-and-large pretty rather than of any great substance. For the other music here, Verdi tried to do something better – or at least different. For his next Paris score, the première of Les vêpres siciliennes, he composed a substantial ballet scene depicting the four seasons for the Third Act, with suitable illustrative music. And for the production of Il trovatore the following year, he went even further in tying the ballet music in the Third Act to the rest of the score by quoting from the Anvil chorus during the gipsy ballet scene. All complete recordings of I vespri siciliani - as the opera quickly became known in Italian translation - include the ballet music. Some recordings of Trovatore such as that by Richard Bonynge include the ballet music there too. The music for Trovatore is interesting, in particular for the way that Verdi links the music to the rest of the action – a point that the booklet note by the conductor overlooks. He never did this again.
The music for Macbeth, for the witches’ scene in Act Three, is also frequently included in complete recordings of the opera. Verdi really lets himself go here, with plenty of appropriately eerie and devilish music. The long ballet written for Don Carlos at its Paris première, like that for Les vêpres twelve years earlier, has a plot of its own concerning the history of the pearl - later owned by Elizabeth Taylor as a present from Richard Burton - which has an oblique reference to the plot. The ballet music was later excised by the composer when he prepared both his later Italian versions, and is rarely heard today even in performances that revert to French.
The music for Aida is familiar, although it comes as a bit of a jolt here when the Dance of the Priestesses fades away without the final contribution from the off-stage chorus. That for Otello is rarely heard – Karajan included it in his 1960 LP recording - it has disappeared in the CD re-mastering - and parts of it can be heard in the mutilated film version Maazel recorded for Zeffirelli. To be frank it is no great loss. Verdi here really seems to have been composing on autopilot, and although he makes a brave attempt at local colour he gives it short shrift. It is the shortest of the ballet scenes here.
The performances under Serebrier are everything that the music needs: lively, responsive, and dramatic although the priestesses in Aida are perhaps a little sedate. The recording claims to be the “first time that all the ballet music from Verdi’s operas has been brought together in a single recording.” The extracts from Aida - which in any event are always included in complete recordings of the opera - may be new to this sort of compilation, but the rest of this music has been assembled before in various collections of Verdi orchestral music. Levine includes all the scores with the exception of Il trovatore and the early Jérusalem on one disc with his Metropolitan orchestra on Sony. Never matter. They are very well performed and recorded here. The price is right if you want to explore some Verdi with which many listeners will be totally unfamiliar.
Paul Corfield Godfrey