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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Pomme d’Api, Operetta in one act (1873) [51:11]
Ernest L’ÉPINE (1826-1893)/Jacques OFFENBACH
Sur un volcan, Comédie à ariettes in one act (1855) [31:02]
Magali Léger (soprano)
Florian Laconi (tenor)
Marc Barrard (baritone)
Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
rec. 2018, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal
CPO 555 268-2 [82:23]

Where is the borderline between opera and operetta? When it comes to Jacques Offenbach’s circa 100 stage works, the composer himself labelled the majority of them operas. Posterity, however, has claimed that they were operettas, with the exception of Les contes d’Hoffmann and the completely forgotten early Die Rheinnixen, from which he culled a couple of numbers for his masterwork Hoffmann, including the eternal favourite Barcarole. All his earliest works, with one exception, were one-act-comedies, until in 1858 his great breakthrough Orphée aux enfers was presented, and it was in two acts. His greatest successes – La belle Hélène, La vie parisienne, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, La Périchole – were all in two or three acts and they have survived to this very day and are all available in excellent recordings. But some one-acters have also survived, not least the triple-bill Pomme d’Api, Monsieur Choufleuri and Mesdames de la Halle, which was a great success at Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1979 with revivals in 1980 and 1983 and also resulted in a recording of all three under Manuel Rosenthal.

Pomme d’Api is one of the gems in this genre and it is good to have an alternative recording. The coupling is a true rarity. Sur un volcan was performed only once, on 29 December 1855 along with Offenbach’s Ba-Ta-Clan and never more, until quite recently, and the reason was that the autograph was rediscovered just a few years ago. In the liner notes Jean-Christophe Keck tells the almost improbable story of how he managed to get hold of the autograph, which had been scattered and popped up piecemeal in various parts of Europe. Offenbach’s role in this work is a bit unclear. Ernest L’Épine, a today largely forgotten person, wrote the music, while Offenbach arranged and instrumented it, but it seems that he did more than that. ‘He may be said to have created order in the score’, as Jean-Christophe Keck puts it in his notes. It is a rather brief work, just over 30 minutes, and fits neatly as a filler to Pomme d’Api on this super long CD.

Let’s consider that work first. Pomme d’Api (little red apple) is the nickname of Catherine, Gustave’s mistress since two years. But Gustave has a problem. His uncle, Rabastens, a retired sewing-machine maker and confirmed bachelor, has decided to cut off Gustave’s allowance, since he thinks his nephew should find another girlfriend – two years with the same one was too much! Gustave is sad about that since he truly loves Catherine. When they meet Rabastens has just dismissed his maidservant and employed a new one, who turns out to be Catherine. Rabastens is hooked on her and wants to marry her but when he realises that the young couple really love each other he blesses their relation and even raises Gustave’s allowance. A simple and predictable story but it is witty and the music is from Offenbach’s top drawer. The overture is as sprightly and melodious as anything else that Offenbach wrote and the vocal numbers are showstoppers. Gustave’s romance Mon oncle, ne vous fâchez pas (tr. 5), Catherine’s entrance couplets Bonjour monsieur (tr. 7) and the long duet C’est un dimanche (tr. 11) with Gustave and Catherine are particular delights.

The story in Sur un volcan is located to Dublin in 1806. Napoleon’s army has been defeated by the British, but two French naval officers, the young St. Elme and the veteran Trafalgar, still control the city. They have barricaded themselves in a powder keg and threaten to blow it up if they are attacked. This would make the volcano underneath to erupt and destroy the whole city. The actress Katrina comes to their house, fed up with having to die on stage every night. Trafalgar, who is alone, falls in love with her and wants to marry her. When St. Elme returns from a walk Katrina admits that she has long been in love with him and wants to marry him and offers him the money she earns from her performances as a dowry. St. Elme accepts and Trafalgar, who has realised the age difference between Katrina and himself, is satisfied with their marriage. There are some absurdities in the story which may be the reason why the work disappeared so quickly. But it is entertaining and even though the music isn’t as inspired as Pomme d’Api’s it is attractive and I believe that a good staging could be a success.

The singing is a little uneven, but generally serves the music more than acceptably. Florian Laconi sports an elegant light lyrical tenor and is at his best in the romance of Pomme d’Api (tr. 5), while he shows some strain in other places. Marc Barrard’s baritone is well suited to the elderly characters he is allotted and he is an expressive actor. Quite the best singing comes from soprano Magali Léger, who has a lovely soubrette and sings with great charm. I still prefer the Rosenthal recording with Mady Mesplé, Léonard Pezzino and Jean-Philippe Lafont but will with pleasure return to the present version as well. And it is truly great to have the least known of Offenbach’s operettas – irrespective of how much or little of it he actually wrote. Offenbach completists – if they exist – must of course have it, but operetta lovers at large should also lend an ear to this disc.

Göran Forsling

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