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Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782 – 1871)
Le Domino noir (1837)
Angéle d’Olivarès – Sumi Jo (soprano)
Brigitte de San Lucar – Isabelle Vernet (soprano)
Horace de Massarena – Bruce Ford (tenor)
Count Juliano – Patric Power (tenor)
Jacinthe – Martine Olmeda (mezzo-soprano)
Gil Perez – Jules Bastin (bass)
Ursule – Doris Lamprecht (mezzo-soprano)
La tourière – Jocelyne Taillon (mezzo-soprano)
Lord Elfort – Gilles Cachemaille (bass-baritone)
London Voices
Gustave III, ou le Bal masqué (1833) Ballet Music
English Chamber Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. 1993/95, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
Synopsis enclosed
ELOQUENCE 482 7742 [74:47 + 69: 14]

During his heydays, from roughly 1820 to the 1860s, Auber was one of the most successful French opera composers. Works like La muette de Portici and Gustave III were instrumental in launching a new genre, grand opera, with followers like Rossini – Guillaume Tell – and Meyerbeer. But he also composed ópera-comique and Fra Diavolo (1830) was one of the most popular French operas during the 19th century – and is still played once in a while. Le Domino noir (1837) also stayed in the repertoire for a long time, in spite of a complicated plot. But like many of his near-contemporaries, his work fell out of fashion in the 20th century and what largely remained were some of his melodious and colourful overtures, which were ideal concert openers. And still they are attractive. Less than a year ago I reviewed an all-Auber disc which seemed to be the first in a series of recordings with Auber overtures.

The libretto for Le Domino noir was written by Eugène Scribe, who was a dominant figure in the French theatre and operatic world. Altogether he wrote around 400 stage works and such nimbleness is difficult to combine with profundity and creation of individual characters. Le Domino noir is also a fairly superficial but it can be amusing with good direction and positive actors. Leaving out a lot of side-plots, not to tire readers, the story goes briefly: The young nobleman Horace is engaged to his ambassador’s daughter, whom he has never met, since she is in a nunnery. At a masked ball he meets Angèle and they fall in love. But Angèle is also going to be a nun and can’t marry Horace. They meet again a year later, just before she is going to take the vows, at another masked ball, but this time she is disguised – the black domino – and Horace doesn’t recognise her. He falls in love with the veiled lady but she tells him that she has to say farewell for ever. Horace’s friend Juliano, in an attempt to help Horace, sets the clock back an hour and Angèle misses to leave at midnight and can’t get into the nunnery. The gates are locked. She finds a house, which turns out to be Juliano’s, who is having a party for some friends. Juliano’s housekeeper helps Angèle to disguise her as a relative from the country. She fools everyone – but not Horace who recognises her from last year’s ball. He doesn’t tell anybody but locks Angèle in a room. She is freed when the housekeeper’s lover opens the door and runs away, believing she is a demon. She manages to slip into the convent unnoticed and the same day she is to be installed as an abbess. Just before the ceremony she gets a letter from the queen who frees her from her vows and then she can marry Horace, while Ursule, her rival for the office, is named abbess.

This story is presented in the usual ópera-comique structure with spoken dialogue between the musical numbers. And there is a lot of dialogue, says Richard Bonynge in the liner notes, but he has retained only as much as is necessary for the story to be comprehensible. Moreover he has used some recitatives that Tchaikovsky wrote for a planned production of this opera in Moscow in 1969 with a visiting Italian opera company, who were unused to dialogue. There is no evidence that the production took place, but Tchaikovsky’s sketches for the recitatives, with a vocal line, a figured bass and some orchestral indications were published in the complete Russian edition of Tchaikovsky’s works. Four of these recitatives were used in the second act. “The first comes after the couplets of Jacinthe, another before the Révellions ensemble, a third before the ronde aragonaise and the fourth before the couplets of Gil Perez.”

Bonynge has also taken some liberties with the vocal lines, as they would have been executed in the 1830s, but discreetly compared to how the original Angèle, Laure Cinti-Damoreau decorated them.

Auber’s music is melodious, deftly orchestrated, often lively and bubbling with life. The overture has all these ingredients and is a good omen for what is to follow. The opening number is partly melodrama, partly singing and bursting with energy. One of the showstoppers comes about halfway through the first act. It is Angèle’s Qui je sais? Une fee, un bon ange (CD 1 tr. 5) – a delicious melody sung with beautiful tone. The Entr’acte before the second act is lovely and Jacinthe’s solo that follows is nice. The next highlight is Angèle’s La belle Inès fair florés (CD 1 tr. 17) – an elegant song in ¾ time and with a lot of coloratura. When Jacinthe’s lover Gil Perez appears somewhat later he is decidedly tipsy and his couplets are rather burlesque. Jules Bastin was 60 at the time of the recording and his voice had lost some of its roundness but he is very expressive. The finale is a whirlwind, to say the least.

In the third act we are in the convent and the stately, anthem-like Entr’acte tells us that here are serious things to be dealt with. But Angèle is lively and jolly when she pops in: Je suis sauvée enfin! Ah! quelle nuit! (Saved at last! Oh, what a night!)(CD 2 tr. 4). And this is followed by the real showpiece of the evening, Flamme vengeresse, a nice lively tune, richly embellished with truly intricate coloratura. Sumi Jo is tremendously good here. And more is to come. After a fast and intense nuns’ chorus Angèle addresses her sisters in a slow beautiful aria (CD 2 tr. 7) and when everything is sorted out, her final address Mes soeurs, mes chères soeurs CD 2 tr. 11) is a worthy terminal point. The deliciously scored orchestral introduction is Auber at his most inventive.

The indisputable star of this performance is of course Sumi Jo. Her technical brilliance is superb but she also creates a rounded portrait of Angèle. This set is worth buying for her sake only, but there is a lot more to admire. The music is melodious and attractive and even though none of her co-singers reaches her excellence, as a team they make this a valuable addition to the catalogue of recorded opera. An armful of roses goes without a doubt to Richard Bonynge for his realisation of this score.
As a substantial bonus we get more than 35 minutes of ballet music from Auber’s grand opera Gustave III, ou le Bal masque, once a great success but today it has to stand back for Verdi’s opera on the same subject. These eight ballet movements are pleasing listening experiences and the last half of the suite is a thrilling intensification. Prémiere marsche is grand, Deuxième marsche is grander, Galop is the grandest and the concluding (!) overture is grandissimo.

The only black mark is the absence of a libretto. When standard works are reissued at less than full price it is excusable, but this work is a rarity and finding a libretto with translations isn’t easy. The synopsis gives the outline of the story, but it is always interesting – and sometimes essential – to know what happens within the separate numbers. If you are fluent French speaker – which I am not – you will be able to follow the proceedings anyway, and if you are satisfied with the general overview the synopsis conveys, you will derive a lot of pleasure even so. A third option is to just shut your eyes and enjoy the music. Whichever alternative you choose you will hear a Sumi Jo in sterling form – and that is something not to be missed.

Göran Forsling



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