Rather remarkably, perhaps, Grétry’s Zémire et Azor was the last opera Beecham conducted in Britain. This ‘Beauty and the Beast’ opera of 1771 was one of the conductor’s favourites, and he’d recorded the delicious Airs de ballet with the LPO before the War on 78. He was to repeat the exercise with the RPO, less affectingly, afterwards. But this full-scale production, given in the appropriately intimate Royal Theatre in Bath, in May 1955, was an opportunity to stage the work, almost complete (Beecham snips an aria or two) at a time when this music – indeed French opera of this period – can hardly have been terra cognita. That limitation couldn’t be levelled at Beecham, who had spent his younger days in Paris libraries studying and copying out works of this period. In fact, he’d given a (private) performance of Grétry’s opera Le Tableau Parlant as early as 1906.
Orchestrally he turned to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, with whom he enjoyed cordial relations. Its membership included leader Hugh Maguire, flautist Laurence Beers, clarinettist Raymond Carpenter and horn player Barry Tuckwell – quite a redoubtable band, all told. The cast was, naturally, all-French. Bernard Lafort proves a firm, evenly-voiced baritone – elegant and quite light, though capable of agility. The servant role of Ali is taken by Michel Hamel, whose comic timing – and, presumably stage craft use of funny faces – can be gauged from the titters that greet his first scene dialogue. His tenor is personable, light and fluid. Lafort and Hamel duet most delightfully in Le temps est beau (Act I Scene I) which reveals the composer’s gift for enchanting lyricism and also his light, yet apposite, orchestration, rhythmically pointed with great finesse by Beecham. On this point, do not overlook the sense of intensity generated by the conductor in the Act I finale, one that demonstrates in barely one minute’s duration something of the power that he could cultivate from even the most simple-seeming of material.
Azor, the ‘fearsome beast’ is sung by Michel Sénéchal whose clear, open-voiced tenor is invariably a pleasure to hear – and he receives due applause after his Act I Scene II air Ne va pas me tromper. One can appreciate his legato at its most impressive in Act III’s Ah! Quel tourment d’etre sensible – though one can also appreciate the hint of steel too. His Act IV air Le soleil s’est caché dans l’onde is not only excellently sung, but the music has an almost Mozartian spirit. Zémire is taken by soprano Huguette Boulangeot, who starts as she means to go on in her introductory scenes in Act II; powerfully. Her Act II arietta Rose chérie is a seductive piece of music, though she sings it quite stridently.
One should also note the ‘Opera Comique’ dialogue, which is sprung, lively, obviously idiomatic, and frequently genial.
The orchestral principals acquit themselves fluently and with character. Beers’s flute can be heard behind the fast-paced Duet-finale to Act II, and especially in Act III’s air La fauvette, sung by Zémire. Tuckwell’s echo effects in the finale are also splendid. There is a series of instrumental movements and ballet pieces in the third act and they are imbued with Beecham’s sense of gravity and charm, even if the music is not on, say, Gluck’s level of inspiration.
The live broadcast comes through with creditable fidelity and Somm has gone to some trouble in including texts and translations and a fine booklet by Graham Melville-Mason. Beecham admirers have known of the existence of this recording for some time, and will be thrilled to find it now available in so persuasive a way as this.
see also review by John
Sheppard (January 2012 Recording of the Month)