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Michael William BALFE (1808-1870)
Satanella (1858) [111.46]
Sally Silver (soprano: Satanella), Kang Wang (tenor: Rupert), Catherine Carby (soprano: Leila), Trevor Bowes (bass: Arimanes), Christine Tocci (mezzo-soprano: Stella), Quentin Hayes (baritone: Hortensius), Frank Church (baritone: Bracaccio), Elizabeth Sikora (soprano: 1st Lady), Anthony Gregory (baritone: Karl)
John Powell Singers
Victorian Opera Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. Urmston Grammar, Manchester, 5-6 July 2014
NAXOS 8.660378-79 [2 CDs: 111.46]

Earlier this year, when discussing the reissue of Richard Bonynge’s recording of Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl (review), I made some observations on the difficulty in establishing an authentic text of the opera; and the problems that arose with that popular score are clearly as nothing compared to the production of a score of an opera as neglected as Satanella. When it was originally produced in 1848 critics complained that the performance ran for more than four hours; and, even allowing for three intervals, this would imply that there were at least three hours of music and spoken dialogue. Even before the vocal score was published, Balfe had set to work to abridge the work, cutting two numbers and making truncations in others. After the composer’s death, subsequent revivals applied even more stringent scissors, and in a booklet note Michael Harris explains the difficulties this caused with passages in the orchestral parts pasted over and missing pages. Fortunately the original manuscript has survived, but much of the writing is in what the booklet describes as ‘shorthand’ and certainly the one page that is reproduced in the booklet teeters on the brink of illegibility. For the purposes of this recording Balfe’s own abridgements are accepted, and this would seem to be fine since the published vocal score would seem to represent the score as he finally wished it to be presented. The omitted musical material, we are informed, did not “help to advance the plot” – although it might have been nice to hear it as an appendix on the second disc.

The plots of many Victorian operas are, like The Bohemian Girl, the sheerest rubbish; but, as Raymond J Walker observes in his booklet note, “Satanella is fortunately not one of them.” Well, the farrago of thwarted love, diabolical intervention, visions and abductions is pretty well in the worst traditions of theatrical melodrama, and the final happy ending where the hero marries his half-sister (was that legal, even in Victorian England?) is contrived in the extreme; but at the same time the principal character of Satanella, the demon who wants to be good and eventually becomes an angel, has some real depth and makes for an interesting character study well above the level of the various ineffectual goodies who surround her. Certainly George Bernard Shaw seems to have placed the score on a level with other melodramatic plots of the same ilk such as Fra Diavolo and Robert le Diable, drawing attention to Balfe’s use of a primitive leitmotif technique to illustrate characters, although he describes the composer’s employment of them as “undeveloped, unaltered and uncombined.” Nor, as will be seen, is this the only cause for criticism of the work.

These discs omit the spoken dialogue, but a brief synopsis tells us all we need to know about the plot as it develops; and the complete text, including the full spoken sections, is available online at the Naxos website. Bonynge’s set of The Bohemian Girl did include the dialogue, but had to employ a whole raft of extra actors for the purpose, and to be quite frank neither clarity of English expression nor words which avoid risibility are the strongest points in Satanella. One example should suffice: the princess Stella sounds like an offended Queen Victoria when she comes out with language like “Count Rupert, doubtless, ere this, has repented his inconsiderate conduct towards me; therefore, tell him from me, that I on my side after due reflection, consent to overlook the affront offered to my house and lineage, and am willing to forgive him.” Actually Queen Victoria herself would certainly have been more forthright and less circumspect than this. (In the sung passages Richard Bonynge has sometimes amended the libretto in the interests of ‘vocal comfort’, but the text as given on the website maintains the original in all its ghastly verbosity.)

So, it is well that we have here just the music for Satanella, whatever the loss in dramatic continuity; and it is well, too, that the music is so very idiomatically performed. For most of the First Act we are in the sort of territory that Gilbert and Sullivan were later to satirise so devastatingly, with a drinking song for Rupert that would hardly disturb the atmosphere of a vicarage tea party. But then suddenly with the closing scene where Rupert is supernaturally seduced by the temptress Satanella, we enter a different world altogether – the voices and orchestra being shadowed by an offstage chorus (presumably of succubi and other demonic spirits) which sings a wordless cavatina behind the scene. This is simply not the sort of thing that one has come to expect of a Victorian ballad opera, and the whole effect is startling in the extreme, displaying (as indeed one finds elsewhere in Balfe) a willingness to experiment that one wishes he had indulged more often. Kang Wang cannot do much to add vigour to his drinking sing, but the following duet with Sally Silver shows both singers at a raised level of passion and engagement. And the orchestral peroration is positively early Wagnerian for a moment, with a key shift in the final bars which is equally unexpected. I cannot imagine how the spoken dialogue which is apparently supposed to follow could possibly fit in here.

It is passages like this Act One finale which make the ongoing process of discovering Balfe’s operas – this is the fifth now to receive a complete recording on CD – so rewarding; and at the same time so disconcerting, since all too often he seems quite content to relapse into his commercially successful ‘ballad’ style with songs that persistently fail to come up to the level of I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls for sheer melodic memorability. Passages like the chorus for the pirates in Act Two clearly left their mark when Gilbert and Sullivan made their subsequent excursion to Penzance; but the music that Sullivan provided for his pirates, despite its comic intent, had more sheer ferocity that the over-polite Balfe can furnish here. A similar problem arises at the opening of Act Three, where the demon Arimanes dispatches Satanella to seduce the hero; the anticipation of Klingsor and Kundry in Parsifal, distantly hinted at in the opening chorus, is quickly dissipated in a duet of quite startling banality; and in the ensuing scene, set in a Tunisian slave market, any opportunity for local colour (as in Weber’s Oberon) is missed entirely.

Indeed by far the greater bulk of the solo work in the opera goes to Satanella herself, and Sally Silver copes well with both the dramatic effects and the abundant coloratura. Most of the remaining roles are very much less clearly defined, but all the singers make as much of an impression as they are allowed. The small chorus are firmly in the picture, although the pirate ship sounds rather under-manned. The orchestra, with a small body of strings set against a full wind section, reflects the standard practice in Victorian theatres of the time; but Balfe’s scoring was clearly designed with this sort of balance in mind, and the recording makes sure that the violins are well in the aural picture. Balfe’s combination of cornet with woodwind in the prelude is fortunately a rare exception to his generally happy scoring. Some passages, such as the gently rippling introduction to the bridesmaids’ chorus in Act Two, are particularly felicitous. Richard Bonynge clearly enjoys himself in sections of scoring like this, and keeps the score moving when it might threaten to hang fire. Some sound effects – wind and thunder – add atmosphere in the best melodramatic tradition.

It would be entirely idle to pretend that Satanella is a neglected masterpiece, but at the same time – if you don’t expect too much – it is good fun and on several occasions rather more than that. It is certainly a worthwhile discovery for those, and they are many, who relish the thought of another neglected nineteenth century opera; and interesting, too, for those who want to investigate where Gilbert and Sullivan found their targets for satire. It would be impossible to imagine the opera revived with more understanding and enthusiasm than here. Previous recordings of Balfe operas have tended to vanish from the catalogues quite quickly; Naxos have a more commendable attitude towards the matter of deletions than many of their rivals, but it might still be a good idea for potential purchasers to invest with some alacrity.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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