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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Offenbach fantastique!
Les trois baisers du diable (1857) – overture [3:03]
Robinson Crusoé (1867) – entr’acte [7:25]
Le voyage dans la lune (1875) – overture [6:37]
Fantasio (1872) – Act 3: no. 15 entr’acte [2:44]
Le Roi Carotte (1872) – no. 26 entr’acte (L’orage) [4:23]
Les fées du Rhin (1864) – overture [5:07]
Fantasio (1872) – Act 2: no. 8 entr’acte [3:23]
Barkouf (1860) – Act 3: entr’acte – valse [4:04]
Fantasio (1872) – Act 1: introduction [7:56]
La haine, theatre music (1874) – no. 22 marche réligieuse [5:10]
Le Roi Carotte (1872) – no. 25A introduction [2:53]
Le Roi Carotte (1872) – no. 25B ballet/valse [7:18]
Orphée aux enfers (1858) – overture [9:17]
Leipziger Symphonieorchester/Nicolas Krüger
rec. 2019, Kulturhaus Böhlen, Germany
GENUIN GEN20698 [69:27]

In his magisterial doorstop of a survey, The Oxford Companion to Music, Percy Scholes described Offenbach’s music as, without qualification, both “very melodious” and “taking” (op. cit., eighth edition [London, 1950], p. 629). While the first description is crystal-clear in meaning, I am not necessarily sure about the second – and neither, I imagine, was Mr Scholes, for he actually put a set of inverted commas around in in his text. Nevertheless, for the purposes of argument I shall assume that by using the word “taking” he was suggesting that the composer produced the sort of tunes that, once heard, lodge determinedly in the listener’s mind.

Unfortunately, however, the selection of Offenbach’s music on which Scholes based his judgment did not tell the whole story. From the year 1847 until his death more than three decades later, the composer had produced a staggering 130 or so works for the stage, marketed to the public under various descriptions including such still recognisable or understandable ones as opéra comique, opéra fantastique, opéra féerie, opéra bouffe and such long-forgotten categories as saynète, anthropophagie musicale and comédie à ariettes. Some, inevitably, were more successful than others and Offenbach’s general practice in the case of commercial failures was to withdraw them quickly from circulation and squirrel them away. Such “lost” works were thereby unavailable for subsequent musicological scrutiny. As a result, Scholes’s laudatory judgment had in fact been based on an unrepresentatively successful sample of the composer’s output.

Thankfully, in recent decades painstaking work by musicologists – especially those connected with the pioneering Offenbach Edition Keck (see here – has unearthed many of the withdrawn pieces, sometimes to significant acclaim. An Opéra de Lyon production of Le Roi Carotte, for instance, won the award for Best Rediscovered Work in the International Opera Awards 2016. As a result, we can now reassess Offenbach’s output in a broader perspective and can recognise that, pace Percy Scholes, he produced plenty of tunes that, while undeniably melodious, were not always earworms.

Rather unusually - and with the exception of the single track from Orphée aux enfers - this newly-released CD showcases music from some of those less successful and consequently less well-known Offenbach operettas. The degree of their commercial failure is repeatedly emphasised by booklet essayist Claudia Forner as she takes us through a pretty depressing sequence of flops and personal disappointments: “Les trois baisers du diable… [was a production] for which… audiences were not yet sophisticated enough”; “…the decisive breakthrough had still not happened…”; “Barkouf … was too much. After only seven performances, the preposterous three-act opéra bouffe was discontinued”; “Les fées du Rhin… lasted just one performance”; “Less fortunate was the adaptation of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoé… which did not earn more than respectful applause”; “[Offenbach] doggedly composed one work after the other… [before he] concluded the series of failed commissions”; “Offenbach delivered the death blow to his work with La haine…”; “bankruptcy”; “haggard and overworked”.

You might think it entirely reasonable to suppose that such a litany of doom and gloom indicates that the operettas in question must have of insubstantial musical value. It comes, then, as something of a surprise to find Ms Forner making the striking claim that this disc brings us nothing less than “lost treasures” that actually “highlight Offenbach’s most productive phase in the most varied and radiant colours”. Given that most of those “lost treasures” had been thoroughly pooh-poohed by critics and audiences at the time, can there really be anything in such a bold assertion?

Putting aside a very well delivered account of the overture to Orphée aux enfers, a universally popular piece that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered “lost”, quite a lot of music here is undeniably attractive and enjoyable. The overture to Le voyage dans la lune, for instance, is a stylish creation in which a gently propulsive theme is effectively developed before being capped by a vivacious galop that inevitably brings to mind troupes of knicker-flashing can-can dancers. The overture to Les fées du Rhin, meanwhile, is both opened and closed by the familiar theme that was later recycled in the rather less chilly waters of the Adriatic as the barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman. The ballet/waltz from Le Roi Carotte is a winning creation too, with a familiar melody metamorphosing into the sort of grand waltz that one can imagine Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie leading in the ballroom of the Tuileries palace – if only the hapless monarch hadn’t managed to lose his throne just a few months before the work’s 1872 premiere. Rather to my surprise, I also derived a great deal of pleasure from the grandiose Marche religieuse which, despite its name, is a distinctly incense-free concoction. Its musical pomposity – combining echoes of the finale to Berlioz’s Symphonie funèbre et triomphale with an occasional hint of Louis Moreau Gottschalk at his over-the-top best – is a hoot.

Other works that I placed on the positive side of the ledger were the entr’acte from Robinson Crusoé, replete with effective tropical bird twittering from the woodwinds and a solid “big tune” at the finale, and the introduction to Fantasio which benefits from its extra length and feels more like a conventionally constructed 19th century overture than some of the much shorter ones that were designated as such and are included here.

That leaves, unfortunately, almost as many tracks to which I failed to warm particularly on first acquaintance. It’s not, I think, that there’s anything much that’s actually wrong with the overture to Les trois baisers du diable, the introduction to Le Roi Carotte or the assorted entr’actes that fill out the rest of this disc. It’s just that they are, in general, too short to make much in the way of an impression outside of a theatrical context of which we innocent listeners know nothing.

The Les trois baisers du diable overture offers a good example. After an introduction lasting a couple of minutes, it seems to be on the verge of taking off enjoyably, only to be choked off frustratingly abruptly at 3:03 without having had the chance to create much in the way of recognisable mood or atmosphere at all. While that might not have mattered if we had been listening to the piece as the prelude to a full theatrical performance, when heard as a stand-alone offering wrenched from its proper context it is profoundly unsatisfying.

The various short entr’actes included on this disc suffer slightly less in that regard. Whereas an overture usually offers a comprehensive tour d’horizon of what’s to come, an entr’acte capitalises on an already-established mood and so often simply emphasises or exaggerates it in a single compelling – and relatively consistent - musical sweep. Nevertheless, the quality of any composer’s invention can vary significantly. The entr’acte from Le Roi Carotte, helped considerably by the fact that at 4:23 it has the opportunity to include a winning, if necessarily brief, “big tune”, makes a generally positive impression here. On the other hand, both of those to Fantasio (especially that in Act 3) are simply too brief and lacking in memorable melody to do so.

Confronted by unknown musical material like these Offenbach “lost treasures”, listened to in the emotionally neutral setting of a domestic sitting room, we surely need help in order to assess its effectiveness. To be precise, in order to make the most of our experience of it, we need to be told what we ought to be listening for. That’s where the booklet notes of a release like this are so important. Sadly, they do not quite rise, on this occasion, to the challenge. The visual presentation of the text isn’t as clear as it might be, with references to the titles of individual works hard to spot as they have been printed in pale ink. The proof-reading also lets through at least one obvious howler when we are told that “not until 180 years after [Offenbach’s] death” were his failed compositions rediscovered – which, if true, means that we will still have to wait another 40 years for that welcome event to occur. However, a far more serious obstacle to our enjoyment of the music is the failure to offer us information about each piece’s precise role and context in the story, leaving us, even after listening carefully, completely in the dark as to how effectively it may have served its theatrical/narrative purpose.

It might be thought that such a major flaw could have torpedoed this release in the water. It is, though, redeemed to a significant extent by some highly engaging performances. The players of the Leipziger Symphonieorchester sound as if they are relishing the opportunity to get to grips with these unfamiliar scores. At the same time, Nicolas Krüger exploits his considerable experience of conducting in the opera house to deliver idiomatic and enjoyable accounts that have been recorded, moreover, in very good sound. The fact that some of these “lost treasures” may turn out, on closer inspection, to be rhinestones rather than flawless diamonds neither detracts from the innocent pleasure that they frequently offer nor lessens the admiration due to the artists so effectively applying the polish required to bring them back to life.

Rob Maynard

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