Amours Divins! - Famous French Arias and scenes
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 16:9
Subtitles given for introductions in English, German and French when introductions are not spoken in English
No titles provided in the sung items or original recording dates given
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 109241 [126:00]

As I noted in my review of the Italian Arias and Scenes in this series (review) there are a number of factors that I cannot reconcile as to the recordings and sources. These discs carry an Arthaus Musik catalogue number, but they also claim to be Monardo Arts productions with copyright dates of 2000 and 2001; certainly not the dates of the performances concerned. It seems that Monardo are a technology company operating in Halle in Germany who have access to original television and film archive material. Whatever the context, the sound and pictures in this collection are of the highest quality with performances to match and that is what matters.

The selected contents, whose composing dates range across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, feature two major compositions from the latter. There's nothing by Bizet or Gounod, dominant French opera composers of the latter century. However, those two composers get plenty of exposure on the recorded visual medium compared with the works included here which show an evolution in style of performance and writing. The two nineteenth century works, La Belle Hélène and Hamlet, premiered a mere four years apart, are of completely different genres.

Jacques Offenbach, composer of the opéra-bouffe La Belle Hélène, was originally Jacob, born in 1819 in Cologne, the son of a Jewish cantor and music teacher. The son revealed such early talent that the father made many sacrifices to send his son to study in Paris where he in turn scraped a living as a ‘session’ cellist, in today’s idiom. In the early 1850s he started to compose light-hearted buffa works. At the time of the 1855 World Exhibition in Paris, frustrated by inability to get his compositions performed, he had opened the minuscule Bouffes Parisiens theatre. Visitors to The Exhibition flocked to hear his tuneful operettas satirising the politics and society manners of the Second Empire, particularly sexual freedom and promiscuity. As one successful work followed another Rossini dubbed Offenbach "The Mozart of the Champs Elysée". This frivolous time in France finished abruptly with the Franco-Prussian war and the siege of Paris in 1870-71.

The story of sexual freedom in La Belle Hélène is typical. The husband, preferring sleep to any carnal activity, lusts after the god Paris and manoeuvres his presence in her boudoir. The extracts shown in this collection feature Felicity Lott who has made quite a name for herself as a singing actress in this repertoire at the Châtelet Theatre, Paris from which this production and several others here originate. The Châtelet Theatre has no revolving stage or fly-tower but in my experience, live and on film, this rarely limits an imaginative producer. In the extract from La Belle Hélène excellent singing along with simple sets bring Offenbach's music alive. In the extracts from Alceste and Orphée et Eurydice the productions are by Robert Wilson, who is very much of the minimalist school of production finding shapes and colour meet his dramatic requirements. This is particularly adequate when he has singers of the quality of Anne Sofie von Otter and Magdalena Kožená as here. Their command of vocal nuance is wonderful to hear. I have seen more colourful and impressive productions, but that is the manner of Wilson; as for the costumes they hardly enhance the story. The singing of American tenor Paul Groves, who seems to specialise in roles from the French repertoire, and often sings at the Opéra National De Paris, impressed me with his subtlety and expressive resource.

Be aware, and beware: the storyline in each sung operatic offering is not provided by titles during the extracts from the production but by the singers concerned, either beforehand or between items. When a singer gives the description in French, titles are provided in the three languages indicated, but only French and German when the singer gives them in English. Some speak English in an accented manner that lost me at times without the benefit of titles. Be aware also of the orchestral accompaniment, except that for the twentieth century pieces, is by period instrument bands whose playing style demands plentiful colour, vocal nuance and expression from the singers. After each singer’s contribution credits are rolled, even when the details are the same for the next singer contribution. I have used that information, together with that on the sparse documentation and some research in the summary contents below. However, I have not delved into the date of recording of the productions shown, which surely should have been present somewhere.

Gluck sought to reform the static opera seria traditionally on offer in Venice, and elsewhere, with his reform operas. The first was Orfeo ed Euridice when he was intent on focusing on the drama rather than on vocal display. He took the concept further in his revision of the work for Paris and which is featured here. The same is true of Alceste. The keen listener will note the difference in dramatic impetus with Iphigénie en Tauride composed first and foremost for Paris. It is reflected in this collection both by the production and the vocal strengths of the cast. I was particularly impressed by Juliette Galstian and not surprised to hear that she has gone on to sing in heavier roles in major houses. She, like Rodney Gilfry as Oreste gives a formidably acted and sung interpretation with Deon van der Walt not letting the side down.

Compared with the works of Gluck the presence and need for bigger operatic voices for the music of Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas is evident from the start. The production has its quirks with the use of dolls and enlarged model heads but the drama shines through with high quality singing. In terms of musicological interest and contrast the extracts from Hamlet come with the support of a traditionally tuned orchestra. The poor background information does not indicate whether the recording was made in the Paris theatre or in Toulouse. The style can be compared with that of Verdi whose Don Carlo at the Paris Opéra preceded Hamlet by a mere four years before branching into that used in libretti by Boito and the later verismo composers in Italy. All the singers involved are more associated with opera of the second half of the twentieth century rather than the earlier works on this disc. The strength of singing and vocal style is apt for the music with the production being simple but appropriate.
Robert J Farr

Contents List
1. Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
La Belle Hélène. Opera Bouffe in three acts (1864)
Felicity Lott (soprano)
Amours divins! and L’invocation à Venus
Felicity Lott (soprano) and Yann Beuron (tenor)
C’est la ciel qui m’envoi ce beau rêve amoureux
La Belle Hélène
Châtelet Theatre, Paris
Dir. Laurent Pelly
Cond. Mark Minkowski
2. Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Alceste. (Paris version 1776 of original 1767 for Vienna)
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo)
Divinités du Styx! and Ah divinité implacable
Paul Groves (tenor)
Oh moment délicieux! Bannis la crainte et les alarmes. Vivre sans toi and aria. Alceste au nom de dieux
Châtelet Theatre, Paris
Dir. Robert Wilson
Cond. John Eliot Gardiner
3. Orphée et Eurydice (Paris version of 1774 in French derived from 1762 version for Vienna)
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo)
Objet de mon amour. J’ai perdu mon Eurydice
Châtelet Theatre, Paris
Dir. Robert Wilson
Cond. John Eliot Gardiner
4. Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)
Hamlet (1868)
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Vains regrets! J’ai pu frappe le miserable. Être ou ne pas être
Natalie Dessay (soprano)
Sa main depuis hier. Les Serments ont des ailes. The Mad Scene.
José van Dam (bass-baritone)
C’est en vain que j’ai cru me soustraire aux remords.
Châtelet Theatre, Paris with Capital Toulouse Orchestra
Dir. Nicolas Joel
Cond. Michel Plasson
5. Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Iphigénie en Tauride.
Juliette Galstian (1779 for Paris Opéra)
O toi qui prolonges mes jours. Je cède a vos désirs. O malheureuse Iphigénie.
Je t’implore
Rodney Gilfry (baritone)
Dieux! Qui me poursuives. Protecteurs de ces affreux rivages.
Deon van der Walt (tenor)
Quel language accablant pour un ami. Divinité des grands âmes
Dir. Claus Guth
Cond. William Christie

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