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Opéra-Comique Overtures
Charles GOUNOD (1818–1893)
La Nonne sanglante (The Bleeding Nun) (1854: arr. Charles Delsaux) [8:10]
Jacques Fromental HALÉVY (1799–1862)
Les Mousquetaires de la reine (The Queen’s Musketeers) (1846) [7:28]
Léo DELIBES (1836–1891)
Le Roi l’a dit (The King Has Spoken) (1873) [6:33]
Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791–1833)
Zampa (1831) [8:07]
Étienne-Nicolas MÉHUL (1763–1817)
Joseph (1805) [5:53]
Héléna (1803) [5:29]
Alexandre-Charles LECOCQ (1832–1918)
La Petite mariée (The Little Wife) (1875) [6:00]
Louis-Aimé MAILLART (1817–1871)
Les Dragons de Villars (The Dragoons of Villars or The Hermit’s Bell) (1856) [6:00]
François-Adrien BOIELDIEU (1775–1834)
Le Calife de Bagdad (The Caliph of Baghdad) (1800) [7:23]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819–1880)
Le Mariage aux lanternes (Marriage by Lantern Light) (1857) [5:37]
ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien/Michael Halász
rec. 2019, Großer Sendesaal, ORF Funkhaus, Vienna
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.574122 [67:01]

Now for the opera round. Fingers on buzzers, please. Who wrote The Bleeding Nun? No takers? The Hermit’s Bell? Okay, how about The King Has Spoken? Flummoxed? Well, you’re in good company; indeed, the only pieces here that I do know are: the overture to Marriage by Lantern Light, discovered on a fine Offenbach album with Neeme Järvi and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Chandos); and the curtain-raiser to Hérold’s Zampa, last heard on a most enjoyable album called Great Comedy Overtures, featuring Lance Friedel and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos). That said, Albert Wolff’s account of the latter - on Overtures in Hi-Fi, recorded for Decca in the 1950s - is as good as it gets (I welcomed the Eloquence reissue back in 2011.)

Opéra-comique, a genre of 19th-century French opera that contains both spoken dialogue and arias, has its roots in théâtre de la foire, or theatre of the fair. Although the form grew in popularity, many of the pieces have now fallen out of the repertoire; a notable exception is Bizet’s Carmen, which, in any case, is usually presented sans speech. Most were premiered at Paris’s Théâtre de l'Opéra-Comique, also known as the Salle Favart. The venue, which burned down twice, in 1838 and 1887, was rebuilt in the 1890s. (Wolff, who died in 1970, was principal conductor there for several years, which might explain why he was so adept at this and related rep.)

To be honest, I can’t imagine the works from which these overtures are taken will rise from the ashes of obscurity any time soon. That said, conductor Michael Halász, a mainstay of the Naxos catalogue, has plenty of experience in European opera houses, so he seems a good fit for this music; ditto the lively, engaging musicians of the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien. The Gounod - a slightly foursquare arrangement - does have its charms, the horns sounding especially fine. By contrast, Halévy’s overture to The Queen’s Musketeers is both songful and intensely dramatic, with deft playing throughout. Indeed, Halász and his band achieve a Gallic hauteur at this point that’s most apt. As for the Delibes, it blends a strong, repetitive beat with the dancerly tunes one would expect of a composer best known for his ballet scores.

Although Friedrich Trondl’s engineering is pretty good in its lossless, ‘CD quality’ form, the already warm bass can seem a tad unfocused at times (it’s very noticeable in the Delibes.) As so often, I found the 24/96 download - which doesn’t cost a lot more - opens up the soundstage, improves detail and tidies up the recording’s bottom end. As for Zampa, despatched with all the panache it demands, it seems to have even greater impact in high-res. In fact, I’d say Wolff and his Paris orchestra have met their match here, the Viennese strings and brass especially idiomatic and exciting in the tuttis. The two Méhul overtures, to Joseph and Héléna, are a delight, too, the former packed with incident and fraught with anticipation, the latter full of bounce and brio. There’s an ear-catching refrain in Héléna that I found strangely mesmeric, the lovely orchestral interplay emphasising the recording’s excellent stereo spread.

Goodness, this is a most rewarding release, and the spirited, very theatrical performance more than makes up for any perceived lack of musical substance. That said, Lecocq’s overture to The Little Wife isn’t short of craft or interest, Maillart’s The Dragoons of Villars essayed with splendid strut and swagger. There’s also a melting solo, which is just one of many unexpected pleasures in this collection, which ends with the grand opener to Boieldieu’s Caliph of Baghdad and the sweet-toned intro to Offenbach’s Marriage by Lantern Light. (These pieces stand up well on their own, but those who want to know more about the operas themselves will find Robert Ignatius Letellier’s liner-notes very useful.) In short, this is a fine addition to the albums I’ve already flagged up, not to mention Darrell Ang’s superb Meyerbeer and Offenbach collections. Rich pickings indeed.

Alert, idiomatic performances, very well recorded; a much-needed tonic in these testing times.

Dan Morgan

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