William Vincent WALLACE (1812-1865)
Maritana - opera in three acts (1845)
Majella Cullagh - Maritana (soprano); Lynda Lee - Lazarillo (mezzo); Paul Charles Clarke - Don Caesar de Bazan (tenor); Ian Caddy - Don José de Santarém (baritone); Damien Smith - Captain of the Guard Alcade (baritone); Quentin Hayes - King Charles II of Spain (bass)
RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, RTÉ Concert Orchestra/Proinnsías Ó Duinn
rec. 19-20 September 1995, O’Reilly Hall, University College Dublin, Eire.
Notes and synopsis in English. Libretto downloadable from Naxos site.
NAXOS 8.660308-09 [64:19 + 44:55]

Maybe you’ve sometimes found yourself in the opera house hearing an all-time favourite such as “Traviata” or “Bohème”. In the seat next to you is a dear old lady – I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt about being “dear” when she’s not doing what I’m describing. As the best-loved tunes come up one by one she hums them, quietly, unmelodiously and above all insidiously. Whether she’s so caught up by it all she doesn’t realize what she’s doing, or whether she just thinks no one will notice, when she’s so obviously moved, do you have the heart to tell her to shut up?

If you’d been attending the opera house in England or Ireland any time up to about 1930, the opera beloved of your humming neighbour might still have been “Traviata” or “Bohème”, but it could just as easily have been “Maritana”. Even today, as damn good tunes come up one after another, in all the right places, you can imagine what an added value it would have if we still had the thrill of recognition that our great-grandparents had.

It didn’t happen. “Scenes that are brightest” will strike a bell with some, perhaps also “There is a flow’r that bloometh” and the rollicking “Yes! Let me like a soldier fall”. Younger listeners will probably not know even these. In order to enjoy this opera like a well-tried old friend, as we do “Traviata” and “Bohème”, we’d have to start all over again. It’s been silent too long. That is, we would if we thought it worth our while.

After listening to this recording my one-man jury is still out. In many ways it’s a lot better than I imagined it would be. Right from the overture you can be reassured that it is orchestrally highly competent. The imaginative, often piquant scoring means that there is far more atmosphere and colour than you would suppose by just looking at the vocal score. Particularly ear-catching is the violin obbligato to the King’s aria “Hear me, gentle Maritana”. The melodies are not only memorable, all the set pieces are well shaped, and in a few places – tracks 5, 9 and 10 on CD 2 and Maritana’s recitative preceding “Scenes that are brightest” – Wallace also shows that he can write scenas and concerted pieces with a properly theatrical build up.

But that’s rare. The reason my jury is still out is that this is an opera with spoken dialogue rather than recitatives, and the spoken dialogue isn’t recorded here. To be sure, to judge from the literary quality of the verses, it could well be embarrassing to listen to. On the other hand, all the things that happen, happen during the dialogue. You can read the synopsis as well as following the libretto – you can download this from the Naxos site, and you can download the entire vocal score from the IMSLP-Petrucci Library if you wish. But none of this will involve you in a theatrical experience, you won’t feel the story building up with the musical numbers slotted into it. Indeed, unless you’ve actually attended a performance – I haven’t – you simply won’t be able to judge whether it works as a theatrical experience, as opposed to a series of highly enjoyable arias and ensembles.

Maybe it doesn’t. There is also the issue that modern audiences tend to be uneasy with serious opera that has spoken dialogue in place of recitatives. This led to the curious experiment in Dublin, in the 1970s, described in the notes by John Allen, of resuscitating recitatives written by one Severio Mattei for a performance in Italian, back-translated into English. This version quickly sank from view once more. On CD a solution might be a narration between the musical numbers. But no, if the opera is to live again it will have to be accepted and loved in the form in which it was written. A recording with sufficient dialogue to maintain the story-line would at least give as un idea if this could happen.

Perhaps we are muddling our genres. If this mish-mash of improbable situations with a happy ending is a serious opera, then so are “The Merry Widow” and “South Pacific”. If we can get to accept “Maritana” and other British/Irish works from the 19th century as a genre of their own, as close to operetta or the musical as to grand opera, and serious only insofar as they are not (intentionally) funny, perhaps we can enjoy them again. If my jury is still out on “Maritana” as theatre, it’s come in with a strong majority verdict in favour of its music.

On the performance, by and large … There’s some fine conducting from the RTÉ Concert Orchestra’s long-serving Principal Conductor – now Conductor Laureate – Proinnsías Ó Duinn. Well-chosen, highly singable tempi, infectious rhythms, relish of orchestral colour and warm but not over-indulgent handling of the ballad numbers. The singing comes up against the problem that, given the international repertoire and operatic globalization, anyone who could sing this music supremely well, wouldn’t sing it at all.

Best are the ladies. Majella Cullagh actually has a very beautiful voice, a slightly reedy timbre reminiscent of the young Gwyneth Jones. She certainly has agility in the odd moments where it’s called for and her top notes are easy – right up to a high E flat at the end that might be envied by, well, certain Violettas. But there are also some ungainly corners. “Scenes that are brightest” is a good stab, but lacks the lovely, even, long liquid line that the young Montserrat Caballé might have brought to it. But here we go again, the young Montserrat Caballé didn’t sing it and on the whole Cullagh will do quite nicely.

The breeches role of Lazarillo is less demanding since her one aria and her duet with Maritana are in slow tempi. Lynda Lee certainly displays a rich, evenly controlled timbre and a good sense of line.

Of the men, one can say that they are the sort of stalwart singers that can be appreciated in a provincial theatre. They know how to put the music over, though the baritones are a bit croaky in their lower notes, the tenor more husky than ringing in his top ones. But, at the risk of labouring a point already made, whatever bright young tenor is currently being touted as the heir to Pavarotti, he won’t be singing the part of Don Caesar de Bazan. So let us be thankful for an honest professional job, as we can for the splendid recording and informative notes by John Allen for a set originally issued in 1996 on Marco Polo 8.223406-07.

The customary judgement on the only recording of a work like this is that “at last listeners can make up their own minds about it”. For the reasons I’ve stated above, I don’t think this recording leaves us any the wiser over “Maritana” as a theatrically effective opera. If a string of excellent musical numbers guarantees an excellent opera (I don’t think it does), then this is an excellent opera. Musical enjoyment in the home seems guaranteed.

Christopher Howell

If a string of excellent musical numbers guarantees an excellent opera, then this is an excellent opera.