Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Un mari à la porte1 (1859) [44:02]
Les fables de la Fontaine2 (1842) [25:11]
Gabrielle Philiponet (soprano) - Rosita; Anaïk Morel (mezzo) - Suzanna; Stéphane Malbec-Garcia (tenor) - Florestan; Marc Canturri (baritone) - Martel; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko1; Nicolai Krügel2 (piano)
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England, 22 November 2008 (Un mari); Liverpool Philharmonic at the Friary, Liverpool England 18 November 2008 (Les fables)
I suspect Offenbach would be amused - certainly - and bemused - probably, by the enduring success enjoyed by his ‘disposable’ operettas. The word ‘disposable’ is in no way a slur on the quality but little more than a reflection of the purpose of their creation. Offenbach’s output was prodigious. He needed to feed the public’s demand for novelties and so wrote between three and seven new works every year during his most productive phase. These pocket operas - operetta in the literal sense - were, and remain, a welcome antidote to the bloated Grand Operas that dominated the Parisian opera houses in the middle of the 19th century. Offenbach’s genius - and he undoubtedly was one - was that he took a form limited by law, budget and the demands of a pleasure-seeking audience and from such unpromising base materials created a sequence of sparkling works which are witty, chock-full of memorable tunes and superbly crafted.
The piece offered on this disc, Un mari à la porte (a husband at the door) is a classic example of the type he produced for the Bouffe-Parisiens. Prior to 1858 there was a licensing law that prevented works having more than three characters on stage at any one time. Although by the date this work was first performed in 1859 the law had been repealed Offenbach chose to write a piece ‘limited’ in just such a way although he cocked a snook rather imaginatively by having the eponymous husband sing off-stage but through the door. The sheer financial success of this raft of work - and especially Orpheus in the Underworld in 1858 - ensured that producers around Europe sought both to stage these works and commission similar works by local writers. So Operetta was in effect born.
Few would argue that the work under consideration - here in its first complete recording - is a lost masterpiece. There is one famous song that has had a ‘life’ in concert and on disc. This is the soprano song; “J’entends ma belle” otherwise known as Rosita’s Waltz song or the Valse Tyrolienne. Away from that number - which is the clear showstopper - there are easily appealing waltz songs aplenty and sparkling ensemble writing. I’m not sure Offenbach knew how to write a bad tune. It is the ensembles that work best on this recording - none of the four solo voices are as simply beautiful or engaging as one might wish but when singing together they do impress. To say the plot is slight and inconsequential is an overstatement. Even by the standards of the nineteenth century this is flimsy stuff and the implied “naughtiness” of a husband catching a - albeit innocent - man in his wife’s room is unlikely to get the jaded pulse of the 21st century racing. The four voices divide neatly across the standard SATB range which again allows the ensemble writing to achieve maximum effect. The heroine - Suzanne - is a mezzo - Anaïk Morel. She has all the requisite technique but she sounds a tad matronly for my taste. This impression is exaggerated by the curious staging choice of this live performance that has the roles double cast.There’s a singer for the musical sections and an actor for the dialogue. The actor speaking the dialogue - of which there is quite a lot - sounds a lot younger than her singing colleague to distracting effect. It does strike me as just odd that in such a short piece it was not possible to find singers who could act the rather two dimensional roles well enough. Another oddity is that although the audience in this live recording are as silent as the tomb - even the applause is edited out - the semi-staged movements of the cast clump and clatter around. Rosita - “Suzanne’s friend” is a soprano sung by Gabrielle Philiponet and she again is fully able to sing the notes of her display song. Does she twinkle enough? - not for me. This is clearly a forerunner of the coquettish characters from Adele in Die Fledermaus even up to Musetta in La Bohème. Here she is a highly competent singer lacking the vivacious personality to make this music bubble with good humour. Indeed, I would level the same criticism at the conducting of Vasily Petrenko. No surprise at all to relate that the reduced Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra play with superb neatness and skill and that this has all been caught in excellent sound - stage noise aside - by the RLPO’s own label engineers. That said, where are those subtle little insouciant rubati, those teasing little lilts to the rhythms that lift this music from the interesting into the memorable and moving. I am very pleased to have heard this work complete and I am sure that admirers of the genre in general and the composer in particular will snap copies up. However, if you are looking to expand your knowledge of Offenbach beyond the ubiquitous Can-Can and even further than the classic ‘big’ operettas such as Orphée aux enfers or La belle Hélène there are plenty of other one act works I would suggest you sample first. Not that this disc should be ruled out of court just yet - the forty minutes or so of the main work leaves room for another rarity - Les fables de la Fontaine. This is no less than a little song-cycle of six settings of Fontaine’s fables: the crow and the fox, and the cricket and the ant are two of the most famous set here. Whether or not they were conceived for different voices is not clear but here they are performed using the same four singers who featured in the operetta. The accompaniment this time is piano alone - neatly and unfussily played by Nicolai Krügel. The songs date from nearly twenty years before the operetta and lack the sheer professionalism of the later work. For sure they are well crafted and easy on the ear but they are amiable rather than great. I prefer all of the singers in the song-cycle to the operetta - it feels that they are not working so hard to play the piece. The scale of the songs suits their voices and their French-speaking origins ensure perfect enunciation of the text. Again the audio production is good in an understated neutral way.
The single disc comes housed in a slim cardboard outer sleeve. This allows the 38 page libretto - in the original French with an English translation only - to be housed. Inside the jewel case is a separate liner which contains the usual track details, synopsis, biographies and brief description of the work. At his best Offenbach created works that can still make you laugh out loud and tap your toe to the infectious tunes. This highly competent but rarely inspired disc fills a gap in the repertoire but little more.
Nick Barnard

see also review by Paul Godfrey

This highly competent but rarely inspired disc fills a gap in the repertoire but little more.