André Modeste GRÉTRY (1741-1813)
Zémire et Azor - Comédie-ballet in four Acts (1771) [114:24]
Sander - Bernard Lefort (baritone); Ali - Michel Hamel (tenor); Azor - Michel Sénéchal (tenor); Zémire - Hugette Boulangeot (soprano); Fatmé - Arda Mandikian (soprano); Lisbé - Claire Duchesneau (soprano)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. live, Royal Theatre, Bath, 16 May 1955
SOMM BEECHAM 30-2 [47:41 + 66:43]
The operas of Grétry are seldom recorded, and even less often performed, today. The composer was for a time the personal director of music to Marie-Antoinette and there is a strong vein of pretty artificiality which can seem at best trivial in unsympathetic hands. The present recording is certainly not in such hands as Beecham had a particular liking for the music of Grétry and his contemporaries. It was presumably at his behest that this opera was chosen as part of the programme for the 1955 Bath Festival. The present issue derives from a set of private recordings on 78rpm acetates of a live broadcast of one of a series of five performances of the work.
The plot a merchant ruined by a shipwreck who seeks refuge in the house of a Prince transformed into a beast by an evil fairy. The merchant takes a rose from the Prince’s garden, and in return for this theft is condemned to sacrifice his life to the beast. One of his daughters offers her own life instead, but comes to realise that the beast - the Prince - is in fact gentle in his intentions towards her. Her sacrifice returns the Prince to his human form. If a story of sacrifice reminds you of Idomeneo or Jeptha this would be misleading, as there is little exploration of the complex human relations involved. Instead we have a delightful series of beautifully worked airs, ensembles and dance movements - including the gentle Airs de ballet which Beecham played frequently outside the opera. The result may not be Mozartian, although it is close to Les Petits Riens, but is extremely beautiful, diverting and concise. It is easy to understand what attracted Beecham to it.
Although the sound, as re-mastered by Gary Moore and Arthur Ridgwell, is adequate for its age and origin some creative listening is required but most listeners will find it tolerable. There are cuts and changes to the text in Beecham’s edition and inevitably the performance style is that of its time. I have no doubt that a modern historically informed performance would sound very different but I am also in no doubt as to the sheer beauty and character of the sounds and approach found here. It helps immensely that most of the singers are French, especially as there is spoken dialogue between most of the numbers. This is however not too extensive and the booklet includes the entire libretto with an English translation by Andrew Parker.

The result is a delightful experience which should attract not just admirers of the conductor but also those interested in this important but underrated composer. If you do not know his music it is worth sampling these discs. I would be surprised if they do not give considerable pleasure.
John Sheppard
A delightful experience. I would be surprised if this set does not give considerable pleasure.