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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
La Colombe (The Dove) - Opéra comique in two acts (1860) [79.59]
Sylvie, a wealthy countess - Erin Morley (soprano)
Horace, a young Florentine - Javier Camarena (tenor)
Mazet, manservant to Horace - Michèle Losier (mezzo)
Maître Jean, major-domo of the countess - Laurent Naouri (bass-baritone)
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. June 2015, Hallé St. Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester, UK
Full French texts with English translation
OPERA RARA ORC53 [40.48 + 39.11]

Opera Rara continues to do sterling work in resurrecting and recording forgotten operatic repertoire of the nineteenth century. Following hard on the heels of their award-winning recording of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs (review) is Gounod’s La Colombe which is Sir Mark Elder’s second release for the label in 2015. The two operas couldn’t be more different. In four acts Les Martyrs - a tragic story of Christian martyrdom - was Donizetti’s first Grand Opera for Paris. Gounod’s La Colombe (The Dove) is a heart-warming opéra-comique in which the original title Le Faucon (The Falcon) was probably thought to be too aggressive a bird for the sensibility of opera-lovers. It was replaced by a more placid alternative, La Colombe (The Dove).

The success of Gounod’s Le Médecin malgré lui and Faust at the Théâtre Lyrique prompted its manager Léon Carvalho to request the staging of his next opera Philémon et Baucis. This was despite the fact that it had already been commissioned by Edouard Bénazet for the Baden-Baden opera house in Germany. Impresario and casino director Bénazet agreed to forego Philémon et Baucis if he could have another new production which was to be La Colombe. The French libretto was written by Gounod’s favoured partnership of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré based on Jean La Fontaine’s text Le Faucon which was in turn inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron tales.

Gounod completed La Colombe in 1860 and it was staged to considerable acclaim the same year at Baden-Baden. In 1866 it was revived at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, including some revisions. Soon after that it was staged in several European cities but its initial popularity soon ran out of steam. Charming and witty this is a rather twee tale which has no pretensions in the direction of emotional profundity. The hard-up Horace falls in love with the wealthy Countess Sylvie and he invites her to dinner. His manservant Mazet desperately searches his garden for something suitable to cook for the table. With all the chickens already eaten Horace asks Mazet to serve his pet dove. After dinner Horace confesses to Sylvie that as a token of his love he has sacrificed his cherished pet dove. A happy ending ensues when Sylvie agrees to marry him only for Mazet to admit it was not the dove he served up but a neighbour’s parrot.

Outstandingly chosen, all the four soloists have strikingly differentiated voices and make conspicuous and rewarding contributions. Sylvie, a wealthy countess is sung by American soprano Erin Morley who demonstrates her relative ease with Gounod’s coloratura demands. Morley’s highpoints are her admirable control in the substantial act 1 Air Je veux interroger (I’d like to have a word) where Sylvie is certain her looks will win Horace’s affections. Then there's the tender act 2 Romance Que de rêves (What lovely dreams) as Sylvie muses on how badly she has treated Horace. Morley, certainly no stranger to French roles, excels and gives a charming and appropriately girlish feel to her brightly focused soprano. Mexican Javier Camarena, who made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2011, certainly deserves praise for his Horace, the rather inexperienced Florentine bachelor. Beautifully rendered is Horace’s touching act 1 Romance J’aimais jadis (Once I was in love) declaring how the sweet dove reminds him of Sylvie. He is exquisitely tender in the act 2 Madrigal Ces attraits (This beauty) in praise of Sylvie’s attractions. Bright in his high register with a smooth and sweet mid-range the Mexican tenor displays an attractive timbre giving a thoroughly engaging performance.

Described as Horace’s manservant, Mazet is his Godson, a trouser role taken by Michèle Losier a mezzo-soprano. Losier’s success in the Metropolitan Opera auditions led to her house debut in 2007. With her experience shining through like a beacon I admired every note of her performance. The Canadian distinguishes herself singing expressively to the dove in her act 1 Romance Sylvie, Sylvie! Venez-la ma mignonne! (Sylvie, Sylvie! Come here, my pretty bird) and in the same act delivers a suitably amusing tirade of annoyance in Dans la solitude (Living in solitude). Striking and resilient, Losier’s unmannered mezzo has a distinctive, medium-dark colouring together with a generous supply of character. I look forward to hearing her in a more substantial part. The role of Maître Jean, major-domo of the countess is played by Frenchman Laurent Naouri. Gounod has given Maître Jean some excellent writing to work with and Naouri, a solid bass-baritone, certainly doesn’t disappoint in his act 1 Ariette Le amoureux (Lovers) extolling how lovers have generous hearts. He's also successful in the amusing act 2 Air Le grand art de cuisine (The great art of cooking) complaining how can he possibly cook without food? Appearing regularly at many of the world’s most prestigious opera houses Naouri is in unwavering form, dark and strong and one senses plenty of power remains under the bonnet. Undoubtedly the Hallé have been well prepared and the level of assurance in this performance is evident from the first bar to the last. Sir Mark draws playing of elevated quality that is stylishly expressive and engagingly sympathetic to Gounod’s musical personality.

The engineering team provide excellent sound which is especially clear and detailed with a well judged balance. In the generously detailed booklet the essay by Hugh Macdonald, as authoritative as I have come to expect from this label, is interesting and instructive. I will not be alone in expressing gratitude to Opera Rara for providing full French texts with an English translation in the handsome booklet.

There are a couple of features about this outstanding release that somewhat jar. The spoken dialogue in La Colombe, which is extensive, is not to my taste. It seems for its Monte Carlo revival in 1923 Francis Poulenc composed sung recitatives which although not authentic would have been my definite preference. The use of a plain cover design rather than a picture from the period such as that of Maître Jean on page 25 just doesn’t work for me. A similarly unadorned image used for Les Martyrs was effective but not this one.

Having briefly discussed Opera Rara during my 2011 interview with its artistic director Sir Mark Elder, his enthusiasm for French Grand Opera, a genre that interests me passionately, was infectious. There is certainly plenty of scope for suitable operas for Opera Rara to explore and record. Showing my predilection for heavier fare I live in hope that several French grand operas, which have long intrigued me, might become a reality in the recording studio such as Fromental Halévy’s Charles VI, La reine de Chypre and La magicienne and Daniel Auber’s Gustave III.

Michael Cookson


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