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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791 – 1864)
Grand Opera
Diana Damrau (soprano)
Orchestre et Choeur de l’Opéra National de Lyon/Emmanuel Villaume
rec. Opéra National de Lyon, August/September 2015
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
* World Premiere Recording
ERATO 0190295849016 [81:27]

Giacomo Meyerbeer won an enormous popularity during his lifetime and was arguably the most successful opera composer of the 19th century. It was at the Paris Opéra he founded his fame through works like Robert le Diable, Le Prophète, Les Huguenots and – posthumously – L’Africaine. His spectacular music, colourful, dramatic, requiring virtuoso singers, was of course a vital reason – even though it was also criticized as being vulgar, cheap and crowd-pleasing. But the melodramatic librettos by Eugène Scribe were also important, as was the sensational productions at the Opéra. They were in a somewhat banal way Gesamtkunstwerke before Wagner, who was deeply influenced by Meyerbeer in the beginning of his career. After his death interest gradually waned and during the 20th century performances of his were few and far between. A few arias and the coronation march from Le Prophète remained in the concert repertoire and were recorded by many of the great singers from the golden age. Nowadays, however, several of the operas have been revived, and Diana Damrau’s new disc is a timely reminder of the riches that can be sorted out by adventurous producers and singers with the technical ability to perform them satisfactory. Diana Damrau, who has treated voice-fanciers with a lot of bon-bons during the last decade or so, is certainly richly endowed for the task, and on this disc, filled to the brim with rarities as well as old friends, we can wallow in both coloratura fireworks and a wealth of attractive melodies.

Let me also mention at once that this is not a series of lollipops disconnected from their context. Instead we get several long scenes with both chorus and other soloists, which is very valuable. The first excerpt is Berthe’s Mon coeur s’élance et palpite from Le Prophète. As in most of the great female roles there is a profusion of coloratura and Diana Damrau is in glorious voice. Robert le Diable from 1831 was Meyerbeer’s real breakthrough, and Isabelle’s aria contains one of his most memorable melodies. Alimelek, oder Die beiden Kalifen is an early work, written when the composer was just 22, but even then he was an accomplished musician. This is a World Premiere Recording, and even though it contains a fair share of coloratura the aria is also an agreeable listen.

During the early 20th century, when the gramophone record was still in its infancy, prima donnas like Luisa Tetrazzini and Amelita Galli-Curci turned to Catherine’s arias from L’Étoile du Nord to show off their fluent coloratura. The opera, from 1854, is partly based on a ten-year-older German-language singspiel, Ein Feldlager in Schlesien. The Air from the third act is certainly one of the most fiendishly difficult arias anywhere, and as often is the case in such repertoire the soprano has to combat with a flute – here even two, marvellously played by Julien Beaudiment and Cathrine Puertolas.

Meyerbeer’s last opera, L’Africaine, or Vasco da Gama, as was its original title, is well-known to most opera lovers through the celebrated tenor aria O Paradis from act 4, recorded by most great tenors since the advent of the gramophone record. But there is much else to admire and on this disc there are two arias for Inès, the daughter of Admiral Don Diego, who is forced by her father to marry another man when it is Vasco da Gama she loves. Both arias are great music and in the second of them (tr. 11) we also encounter Anna, Inès’s confidante, expertly sung by Kate Aldrich.

The Italian-language Il Crociato in Egitto has been recorded complete twice, by Opera Rara and Naxos. I have the Naxos and there are several good things on it, but several of the singers are rather vibrato-laden. My colleague Robert Hugill, who reviewed it at Musicweb, summarized his impressions: ‘If you are curious about the Italian Meyerbeer then this set will give you a strong flavour of the piece, but Meyerbeer lovers will want to stick to the Opera Rara discs.’ The great dramatic scene on the present disc with two of the main characters, Palmide and Aladino, the latter role sung by Laurent Naouri, is as good sample of the opera as any.

Not long ago I reviewed a brand new recording of Le pardon de Ploërmel or Dinorah as it is better known as. It is full of charming music and well worth considering, but non-specialists will probably be fully satisfied with the Shadow Song, as it is generally known. Most readers probably have it already with one or other of the great sopranos of the past or present, but whoever they are they have to be very good indeed to challenge Diana Damrau. She is fabulous!

I have already mentioned Ein Feldlager in Schlesien in connection with L’Étoile du Nord, and here is a lovely waltz from it, recorded for the first time. Kate Aldrich is a good Vielka. Emma di Resburgo from 1819 is another Italian excursion. In the first scene the protagonist sings a nice aria with harp accompaniment. Sensitive and beautiful singing.

With some justification one can state that Les Huguenots is Meyerbeer’s greatest accomplishment. It is a gigantic work that requires seven world-class singers and a host of comprimarios to make its mark. During the second half of the 20th century Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge championed the work and the soprano chose it for her farewell performance at the Sydney Opera. The most famous number, Marguerite’s Ô beau pays appears in the first scene of act 2, and here we get the complete scene as a thrilling document of what grand opera is all about.

Emmanuel Villaume and his forces from L’Opéra National de Lyon bestows the proceedings with all the required atmosphere and punch and the minor roles are well taken but the greatest shining star here is Diana Damrau. She has made several successful solo albums since her debut with Virgin/EMI back in 2006, but I wonder if this isn’t her greatest hitherto. Besides the superb singing this disc also adds substantially to our knowledge of Mayerbeer’s music, including some music that has never been recorded before.

Not to be missed!

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Michael Cookson

Contents & other performers
Le Prophète (1849)
1. Mon coeur s’élance et palpite (Berthe) [4:05]
Robert le Diable (1831)
2. Robert, toi que j’aime (Isabelle) [5:52]
Robert: Charles Workman (tenor)
Alimelek, oder Die beiden Kalifen (1814)
3. Nur in der Dämm’rung stille (Irene) [6:17]*
L’Étoile du Nord (1854)
4. Ah, mon Dieu! … Cést bien l’air que chaque matin (Catherine) [6:58]
Julien Beaudiment & Catherine Puertolas (flutes)
L’Africaine (1865)
5. Là-bas, sous l’arbre noir … Fleurs nouvelles, arbres nouveaux (Inès) [5:34]
Il Crociato in Egitto (1824)
6. D’una madre disperata ... Con qual gioia (Palmide) [9:20]
Aladino: Laurent Naouri (bass)
Le Pardon de Ploëmel (Dinorah) (1859)
7. Comme cette nuit est lente à se dissiper! ... Ombre légère (Dinorah) [8:20]
Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (1844)
8. Oh Schwester, find‘ ich dich! … Lebe wohl, geliebte Schwester (Therese) [6:53]*
Vielka: Kate Aldrich (mezzo-soprano)
Emma di Resburgo (1819)
9. Sulla rupe triste, sola ... Ah questo bacio (Emma) [6:38]
Les Huguenots (1836)
10. Ô beau pays de la Touraine (Marguerite) [12:55]
Urbain: Pei Min Yu (soprano)
Coryphée: Pascale Obrecht (soprano)
Dame d’honneur: Joanna Curelaru (mezzo-soprano)
L’Africaine (1865)
11. Anna, qu’entends-je ... Adieu, mon doux rivage (Inès) [8:34]
Anna: Kate Aldrich (mezzo-soprano)



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