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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Ballet music from the operas
Les Huguenots (1836) [4:46]
Robert le Diable (1831) [28:10]
L'Étoile du Nord (1854) [9:15]
Le Prophète (1849) [18:38]
L'Africaine (1865) [8:51]
Barcelona Symphony Orchestra/Michał Nesterowicz
rec. L'Auditori, Pau Casals Hall, Barcelona, 3-6 July 2012
NAXOS 8.573076 [69:38]

Most readers will, I suspect, be familiar with the ballet music that Verdi included in the second Act of Aïda. Anyone who isn't will find several examples posted on YouTube where, for some inexplicable reason, the uploaded versions tend to be ones where a rather large amount of naked flesh is on display. Depending on your personal preference, you can enjoy bare-breasted temple maidens suffering goose-pimples during a chilly evening performance at the ancient ruins of Taormina or else La Scala's star dancer Roberto Bolle cavorting in a loincloth so skimpy that it wouldn't even serve as a dishcloth in Pharaoh's kitchen.
 
Nineteenth century composers were all too aware that such dance interludes were an important means of persuading prestigious opera houses to promote their works. At the Paris Opera in particular, ballet sequences, traditionally shoe-horned into the second Act and often somewhat steamy by the standards of the day, were thought necessary to encourage the patronage of fashionable young - and not so young - bucks. The members of the Jockey-Club de Paris were particularly notorious for entering their boxes at the beginning of Act 2, noisily assessing the physical charms of the corps de ballet and then leaving at the following interval, presumably inspired by the on-stage antics to organise after-show bacchanales of their own.
 
Such opera ballets could be pretty substantial. You will, for instance, note that the episodes in Robert le Diable, featured on this disc, amount collectively to almost half an hour's music. Even the most commercially aware of composers must, therefore, have occasionally despaired at the artistic compromises forced upon them. After all, interpolated dancing ran the obvious risk of destroying any carefully crafted dramatic tension on stage while simultaneously unbalancing the structure of the opera as a whole.
 
Those somewhat cynical opening observations do not necessarily mean, however, that opera ballets were necessarily of no musical worth. They contain some very attractive music and two of the well-crafted, tuneful Meyerbeer scores on this disc - the Suite dansante from L'Étoile du Nord, an attractive sequence of four episodes taken out of their original order and contexts, and the Ballet des patineurs from the third Act of Le Prophète - remain familiar to this day, thanks to Frederick Ashton who utilised them, in skilful arrangements by Constant Lambert, for his popular 1937 ballet Les Patineurs.
 
Ashton and Lambert had, though, exceptionally good ears for what made effective - and memorable - music for dancing and they made sure to select the best of Meyerbeer for their requirements. Both L'Étoile du Nord and Le Prophète stand out in this collection for their rhythmic virility, some charmingly graceful episodes and their sheer melodic memorability. The Marche indienne from L'Africaine also makes a strong impression, even if its generic "Indian-ness" is no more authentic - and is, indeed, at times rather similar to - Minkus's roughly contemporaneous ballet La Bayadère where the standard default setting is Viennese waltz time. In both cases, however, the music, taken on its own terms, is no less enjoyable for that.
 
The other two Meyerbeer scores that we have here, both written twenty or thirty years earlier, do not make such an immediate impact and I suspect that one would actually need to see them being danced on stage in order to be more than slightly diverted. Thus, the Danse bohémienne from Les Huguenots is, to my ears at least, a rather sedate and unexciting piece where, in spite of Michał Nesterowicz's best efforts, the dancers sound less like wild and colourful gypsies than somewhat plump French peasants who have overindulged at the dinner table.
 
One suspects too that the apparently sensational impact made on audiences of the time by the Ballet des Nonnes from Robert le Diable probably owed more to the salacious thought of hedonistic and debauched nuns gambling, drinking and having sex - shades of Ken Russell's The Devils - than to music which is many miles away from the sensuality of Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila bacchanale, let alone Richard Strauss's Dance of the seven veils. Even though the titles of no less than three of the six tracks allocated to the supposedly hell-raising nuns have the word séduction in them, with a bacchanale making a fourth, left to itself the music suggests instead that these ladies enjoy little more than, at most, a little light petting and a small glass of ginger beer. Only in the concluding track, the un-erotically entitled finale, do they seem, from a musical point of view, to be tossing off their wimples and letting their hair down a little. Truth be told, there's nothing much here that would disturb the cloisters of The sound of music.
 
It's good, nevertheless, to have these opera-ballet scores collected together in a modern recording that, at Naxos's competitive price point, may attract buyers hitherto unfamiliar with them. The Barcelona players are clearly a very accomplished group, with the woodwinds making a particularly positive impression. Conductor Michał Nesterowicz directs the orchestra with conviction and skill and benefits from a recording venue that, with the help of skilled engineering, captures all the musical detail clearly. Providing the icing on this tempting cake, Robert Ignatius Letellier, the author of several studies of Meyerbeer, has penned some very useful booklet notes - which, I ought in fairness to point out, are rather more positive about the Les Huguenots and Robert le Diable music than I may have been. Overall, then, it is difficult to see how a stronger case might be made for this music.
 
Rob Maynard
 
Previous review: Dan Morgan

 


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