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Michael BALFE (1808-1870)
The Bohemian Girl (1843) [150.24]
Nova Thomas (soprano) – Arline; Patrick Power (tenor) – Thaddeus; Jonathan Summers (baritone) – Count Arnheim; Bernadette Cullen (mezzo) – Queen of the Gipsies; John del Carlo (bass) – Devilshoof; Timothy German (tenor) – Florestan
members of RTE Repertory Company; RTE Philharmonic Choir
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Richard Bonynge
rec. National Concert Hall, Dublin, January 1991
DECCA PRESTO CD 473077-2 [73.16 + 77.08]

Balfe’s The Bohemian girl was one of the three Victorian operas ironically dubbed “The English Ring” which held the stage as part of the standard repertoire in the nineteenth century. These fell into disrepute and neglect in more modern times. The last time The Bohemian girl was given a professional performance in England was in a Covent Garden production of 1951, mounted as part of the Festival of Britain at the insistence of the quixotic Sir Thomas Beecham. The other two operas of the “English Ring” have fared even less well. We do have a recording of William Vincent Wallace’s Maritana originally issued on Marco Polo and now available on Naxos (review review), but of Sir Julius Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney, probably the best of these three scores, we have only excerpts (Overture; excerpts on Classics for Pleasure and a long-gone extended version on LP: Rare Recorded Editions RRE157-8). Not that the term “English” was ever appropriate for these works, since two of the composers were Irish and one (Benedict) was German.

This recording of The Bohemian girl was originally issued in an Argo box, complete with texts and translations into French, German and Italian housed in a substantial booklet of nearly two hundred pages containing not only notes on the music and synopsis of the plot, but also a valuable and well-argued essay by Andrew Cornall on the musical sources used for the recording, which differ in some major respects from the old Boosey and Hawkes score. In this later Decca reissue as part of their ‘British Music Collection’ most of this has gone, to be replaced by a much less substantial biography of the composer by Raymond McGill, and only the synopsis remains. For those specialists in British opera of the nineteenth century, therefore, only the original Argo set will really suffice; and fortunately this remains available from Archiv Music. For most others, this Decca reissue will probably be fine.

Not that the synopsis of the plot of The Bohemian girl really stands up to much scrutiny. I am certain that when Gilbert and Sullivan in The Pirates of Penzance parodied the chorus who stand around and sing when they should be taking immediate action – “Yes, but you don’t go!” – what they had firmly in mind was the situation at end of Act One here when, following the abduction of Arline, a full-scale ensemble takes place for several minutes before anybody thinks to rush out in pursuit. It is this sort of dramatic ineptitude by the wretched librettist Alfred Bunn which really accounts for the neglect of the score; as George Bernard Shaw observed, the musical material supplied by Balfe has a strong melodic character which is not solely confined to the one well-known highlight I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls. There are many imitations of contemporary Continental models – Rossini, Bellini, and French opera – and also the use of spoken dialogue, especially in the first two of the three Acts, to advance the plot between numbers. There are also some novel touches of orchestration, such as the use of the basset horn in The heart bowed down, which show Balfe as considerably more than a simple recycler of earlier writers.

For this recording that inveterate investigator of early nineteenth century opera Richard Bonynge assembled a cast which rises well to the musical challenges. Nova Thomas in the title role may not be Joan Sutherland (who recorded I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls in her earlier years) but she has a nice line in innocence and a fresh voice which counts for much in this nave music. As her ineffectual lover, Patrick Power has a sweet lyrical tone which fits his role well; Jonathan Summers is not ideally steady as her father, but otherwise does all that is required. Bernadette Cullen and John del Carlo are both strong if rather lacking in villainous relish, and Timothy German is suitably pointed as the comic relief. The dialogue is unfortunately spoken by uncredited actors, which means that there is some disparity between the sounds of speech and song in some roles; but the chorus and orchestra sing and play enthusiastically for Bonynge. The recorded sound is excellent and well-balanced.

The original Argo set had a delightful piece of period art in the shape of a scene from the opera provided by Richard Bonynge himself from a music cover for the score, while this Decca reissue less enterprisingly supplies merely a stern-looking photograph of Balfe himself. Since this recording was issued, we have been furnished with two further Balfe operas in recordings of The Maid of Artois and Falstaff, neither of which appear to be readily available any longer; but the latter in particular serves notice that Balfe was a composer of talent who might have gone on to greater things had the taste of his Victorian audiences not restricted him to dreadful plots like The Bohemian girl. We are unlikely soon to get a new recording of this, his most popular opera, and almost certainly not one as well performed as it is here; so prospective buyers are advised to snap this one up while it is available from Presto Classical. Those willing to shell out more for the same performance in a more substantial presentation may go to Archiv Music; new copies of that Argo set are listed on Amazon at a ridiculously expensive 43.01 (very limited stocks) or at an even more extravagant 153.56. Who on earth is willing to pay such prices?

One of the Beecham Covent Garden performances of 1951 is available from Classical Recording Quarterly Editions (CRQ 134-6) with a cast that includes Roberta Peters, but the vintage sound is no match for the Argo recording from forty years later and the set extends to three CDs. I should perhaps warn buyers to avoid the Classics for Pleasure CD of highlights from the score (coupled with excerpts from the other two operas in the “English Ring”) which are very much less well sung and recorded, although the LP did have some value in furnishing some items from Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney. Now that’s a score of which we do need a complete recording.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review (original release) : Jonathan Woolf



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