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François AUBER (1782-1871)
Ouvertures et ballets rares
Jenny Bell (1855): Overture [7:35]
L'enfant prodigue (1850): Overture [7:35]
La sirène (1844): Overture [8:41]
Vendôme en Espagne (1823): Boléro [3:56], Air pour le second ballet [6:34]
Le dieu et la bayadère (1830): Overture [7:38], No. 5 ballet [9:58]
La muette de Portici (1828) - ballet (1861): No. 1 [1:53], No. 2 [0:47], No. 3 [0:50], No. 4 [1:01], No. 5 [2:15]
Le premier jour de bonheur (1868): Overture [5:37]
Gothenburg Opera Orchestra/B. Tommy Andersson
rec. Artisten, Gothenburg University, June 2000
STERLING CDS1039-2 [64:25]

"With so much unknown material potentially in the offing, I can only speculate pleasurably about such intriguing possibilities to come as Julie (1805) who, according to her intriguing subtitle, is responsible for l'erreur d'un moment; L'ambassadrice (1836) which I take to be an early draft of Call me madam; and Jenny Bell (1855) whose comparatively proletarian name, I'd like to think, suggests that her opening aria might announce that Alas, there's trouble at t'mill."

Those somewhat whimsical thoughts concluded my recent review of an enjoyable Naxos release, marketed as the first in a series of discs of Auber overtures, performed by the Orchestre de Cannes under conductor Wolfgang Dörner (review).

Now, however, thanks to Herbert Schneider's useful booklet notes for this somewhat older Auber collection on the Sterling label, I know that, far from being an archetypal Gracie Fields mill girl made good, young Jenny is an eighteenth century operatic diva who, in Eugène Scribe's rom-com libretto, entertains the Hanoverian court with the likes of God save the King and Rule, Britannia - and not, after all, with a quick burst of Sing as we go. That may be something of a disappointment, but it's more than made up for by my positive delight in discovering so much attractive and relatively unknown music on this disc.

Turning first to the overtures, four of the five were completely new to me, while I'd only ever made the acquaintance of the fifth - L'enfant prodigue - when it was played on that recent Orchestre de Cannes release. Despite having been composed at various different points over a 24 years timespan, the three that open operas comiques - La sirène, Jenny Bell and Le premier jour de bonheur - all demonstrate an essentially consistent approach, as Auber introduces and develops some of the more tuneful melodies that follow in the complete works. If none of them turns out to be quite as memorable as the overtures to those old favourites of the genre Fra diavolo, Le domino noir and Les diamants de la couronne, they are still full of Gallic charm, high spirits and joie de vivre. Someone once described Auber's compositions as "champagne in music" and it is easy to see why.

The two grand opéra overtures are equally successfully and enjoyably carried off. Le dieu et la bayadère is another one of those manifestations of 19th century Western Europe's fascination with the "exotic" East, though I'm not sure that you'd guess that fact, if you were unaware of its title. To my own ears, Auber's musical conception of Hindustan might just as well be a depiction of Hauts-de-France. In similar fashion, while the L'enfant prodigue overture is supposed to be introducing a story set in biblical Judea, there are precious few musical indications of that in its score. Given, too, that the deeply serious moral point of the original parable is transformed by librettist Scribe into the simple lesson that, as the booklet note neatly puts it, "if you travel to distant lands and leave your family in the lurch, you will experience astonishing events", it's perhaps not so surprising that Auber's way with L'enfant prodigue emerges as less grand opéra than Grand Tour.

In addition to the five overtures, this disc also gives us the chance to hear several examples of Auber's writing for dancers. Nineteenth century operatic ballets have not generally had a good press. They have usually been characterised as cuckoos in the operatic nest, sometimes holding up the on-stage drama for as much as 20 or 30 minutes. Nonetheless, some of them not only have good tunes, but are artistically worthwhile both in what they add to the opera and in their own right (see here for an interesting piece by the Royal Opera's writer in residence Sarah Hibberd on the importance of the ballet episodes in Rossini's William Tell). The dance selections on this disc may have been written over a period of almost four decades but, just as with the overtures, Auber maintains an essential consistency of style, even while incorporating, with varying degrees of success, supposedly "Spanish", "Hindustani" and "Neapolitan" rhythms, orchestrations and effects into his scores in an attempt to match the locations of the on-stage action.
This disc includes the world premiere recordings of both the first dance music Auber ever wrote for the Paris Opera, Vendôme en Espagne, and the ballet for Le dieu et la bayadère. Some of the numbers from the ballet sequence added to the 1828 opera La muette de Portici more than three decades after its premiere are, on the other hand, more familiar: they have appeared on CD before, albeit in restructured form as the well-known stand-alone exhibition piece - and regular dance competition favourite - the Grand pas classique. As is the case throughout this disc, the Gothenburg Opera Orchestra under conductor B. Tommy Andersson plays both idiomatically and with immense enthusiasm. Their performances - delivered with a touch more theatrical panache than those of the Orchestre de Cannes, as well as on a somewhat sonically larger scale - have been recorded in crystal clear and well-balanced sound by an obviously skilled engineering team.

A "personal note", added to the booklet notes by the Sterling label's executive producer Bo Hyttner, makes his own enthusiasm for this music very obvious. I suspect, however, that it will not be enough to convince many listeners that these scores are any more than lightweight, if undeniably tuneful, romps that remain generally formulaic and inevitably constrained by the requirements of mid-19th century theatrical convention. While it's certainly convenient to have orchestral excerpts from seven of Auber's operas made available on a single disc, the experience of listening to them in sequence one after the other tends to rob them of any individual identity, to which they might otherwise have laid claim. For the composer's individuality - such as it may be - to emerge, I suspect that his music needs to be programmed alongside that of other contemporaries, as was generally the case years ago, when record companies frequently put out releases of miscellaneous "favourite" overtures. Such an exercise might throw Auber's distinctive qualities into sharper relief and be a more effective means, perhaps, of justifying Mr Hyttner's admiration.

"Champagne in music" this may be, but I suspect that most listeners will find that, just like the finest vintage, it's best appreciated by the single glass rather than by the magnum at a single sitting.

Rob Maynard



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