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Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
Le Cheval de Bronze, Opéra-comique in three acts (1835)
(Sung in German)
Tsing Sing, an old mandarin – Franz Fuchs
Prince Yang, son of the Emperor of China – Tino di Costa
Tschin-Kao, a farmer – Leo Heppe
Yanko, a young peasant – Kurt Equiluz
Péki, the daughter of Tschin-Kao – Wilma Jung
Tao-Jin, the wife of Tsing-Sing – Edith Kermer
Princess Stella – Herta Schmidt
Niederösterreichischer Tonkünstlerchor
Grosses Wiener Rundfunkorchester/Kurt Richter
rec. February 1953, ORF Studio, Vienna
Synopsis enclosed but no libretto
ORFEO C986192 [34:51 + 51:39]

Auber is a commuter train station in Paris, not far from L’Opéra, possibly named after Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, who was a leading composer of operas during the first half of the 19th century. He reached enormous popularity, which however eventually faded away, and today his name is primarily known for some overtures, which have remained at least in the fringe of the repertoire for popular orchestral concerts. Quite recently Naxos have issued a couple of CDs with his overtures, and on one of them we also find Le cheval de bronze, which was frequently heard and recorded during the 78 rpm period. Like several of its companions this is melodious and colourful music and it is understandable that they caught the interest of the public 200 years ago. They also give a hint that the rest of the music in those operas was attractive. A couple of them have survived and been recorded in fairly recent times. Fra Diavolo exists in at least two versions, including one with Nicolai Gedda in the title role, and Le domino noir was recorded in the 1990s under Richard Bonynge with soloists of the calibre of Sumi Jo and Bruce Ford (review). There have been some others as well but basically the supply is rather meagre.

Question is whether the present issue is more than a stopgap. It is a 67-year-old broadcast recording from Österreichischer Rundfunk, sung in German, without spoken dialogue – Le cheval de bronze is an opera-comique – and with partly rather mediocre soloists. The remastering by Erich Hofmann has refreshed the sound to some degree: it is free from distortion and it is clear, one can easily hear a lot of the words and enjoy the commitment and expressivity of the singers, but the sound of the orchestra is still rather primitive and grating on the ear. To tell the truth, however, one soon adjusts to the mono sound and its dynamic limitations and Kurt Richter leads a performance full of life and with few if any longueurs.

The libretto was written by Eugčne Scribe, the most sought-after librettist of the period. The plot is, as usual, quite complicated: It takes place in China, in the Shangtung province long ago and the story is derived from a tale in The Arabian Nights. The rich landowner Tchin-Kao is preparing a wedding for his daughter Péki to an elderly mandarin, Tsing-Sing, who already has four wives. His fourth wife, Tao-Jin, doesn’t like this, nor does Péki who wants to marry the young peasant Yanko. Yanko suddenly disappeared six months ago, riding on a bronze horse. Péki meets Prince Yang who is travelling round to find a wife. Péki tells him about her problem, and then Yanko returns all of a sudden but refuses to say what had happened. The prince stops the wedding and tells the mandarin to follow him and fly with the horse. Péki decides to run away with Yanko to avoid being married to another old man that her father has selected for her. The mandarin Tsing-Sing returns without the prince. He also refuses to tell anything, because if he does he will be turned into a statue. Unfortunately he speaks in his sleep and both he and Yanko are transformed into statues. Péki decides to ride away on the horse to save Yanko. She dresses up as a man and off they fly to the planet Venus where Princess Stella reigns. Péki has to get hold of the magic bracelet that Stella wears, in order to cure Yanko from the malediction. She returns to earth and finds another statue, prince Yang who has kissed Stella and been transformed. Péki uses the bracelet and saves Yanko and Yang but refuses to save Tsing-Sing until he promises not to marry her. Now she can marry Yanko and the prince can marry Stella. Everything is sorted out – well, not everything. Poor Tsing-Sing has to make do with his four old wives.

The music is invariably easy on the ear, several of the ensembles are spirited in the best buffo style and – especially in the second and third act – there are arias and duets that stick. Peki’s ballade in act I (CD 1 tr. 10) is the first really enjoyable number and it is excellently sung. Her couplets in act II Hört Unvermählte, wie Leid oft Liebeslust vergällt (CD 2 tr. 4), where she sounds very girlish, compared to the more mature sound in act I, is another highlight, as is the duet with Tao-Jin and Tsing-Sing (CD 2 tr. 5). In act III we also meet Princess Stella, who has an aria and a duet with Yang that are truly lovely with a great deal of well executed coloratura.

The soloists may not be as mediocre as I first intimated. With one notable exception they are today totally forgotten, but they have merits in various ways even so. The exception is the legendary Kurt Equiluz in the role of Yanko. He is known as one of the greatest Bach singers of the 20th century, especially as the Evangelist in Bach’s passions. But he was for many years a prominent character-tenor at the Vienna State Opera, from 1957 until 1983, appearing in 66 different roles. Born in 1929 he is fortunately still among us, and his birthdate reveals that when this recording was made he was still only 23, so this is probably one of his earliest recordings. His flexible and elegant voice and his care over words point forward to his long and successful career as we know it, not least from numerous recordings. Russian born bass Leo Heppe as Tschin-Kao sounds worn and shaky but he is a good actor and creates a believable character. He was a member of the Vienna State Opera Chorus for many years but also appeared in popular music under the stage name Bob Martin. Among other things he took part in the first European Song Contest in Frankfurt in 1957. Franz Fuchs as Tsing-Sing sings and acts acceptably and Tino di Costa has some ringing high notes as Prince Yang. Edith Kermer’s Tao-Jin is rather squally while Wilma Jung’s Péki is among the best, in particular in the Ballade, mentioned earlier. The true primadonna is however Herta Schmidt as Princess Stella. Her light lyrical soprano is a pleasure to listen to and her coloratura is spot on.

If one can disregard the deficiencies, technical and otherwise, this recording still gives a good picture of the work. On Wikipedia there is a later recording listed, recorded in 1979 with Chorus and New Philharmonic Radio Orchestra, conducted by Jean-Pierre Marty. I haven’t heard it, but at least sonically it should be more satisfactory.

Göran Forsling

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