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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) Don César de Bazan - opéra comique en quatre actes (1872, revised in 1888)
Don César de Bazan - Laurent Naouri (baritone); Maritana - Elsa Dreisig (soprano); Lazarille - Marion Lebègue (mezzo); Le Roi Charles II d’Espagne- Thomas Bettinger (tenor); Don José de Santarém - Christian Helmer (baritone); Un Capitaine - Christian Moungoungou (baritone)
Orchestre de Frivolités Parisiennes/ Mathieu Romano
rec. 2019, Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne, France
Sung in French
Notes in French and English, French libretto available for download from www.naxos.com NAXOS 8.660464-5 [74:18 + 37:47]
Don César de Bazan is one of Massenet’s earlier compositions for the operatic stage and his first full length one. He composed it when he was 30 years old and still fairly unknown in musical circles. It was first staged in 1872-73 where it achieved a modest run of 13 performances. This was among the works staged in the opera season which resumed just after the utter disaster of the Franco-Prussian war and the horrendous 4 month siege of Paris in which 47000 civilians died from attacks and starvation by Bismarck’s forces. The gentle humour of D’Ennery’s libretto seems somehow at odds with the realities of a nation recovering from such a nightmare. The story is a romantic adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tragedy Ruy Blas in which the author replaces tragedy with a gentle romantic comedy and introduces a couple of new characters that don’t occur in the play. The opera was not considered a great success in its day. One interesting thing to note that is that the mezzo, baritone and tenor leads of the premiere all went on to create the leads in the world premiere of Bizet’s Carmen three years later. In 1895 Massenet decided to adapt the Act Three orchestral prelude which in the opera is a fantasia on Spanish dance rhythms entitled Sevilliana. His new adaptation would be a tour-de-force showpiece for coloratura soprano and orchestra, which was recorded in the early days of the gramophone by such luminaries as Amelita Galli-Curci and Nellie Melba. There is a truly breathtaking modern account of this old bonbon by Sumi Jo on her Carnavale album where her voice simply whizzes by at a phenomenal pace. In 1887 there was a great fire at the Opéra Comique which destroyed many of the musical manuscripts held there. Massenet was obliged to revise the opera and recompose the orchestration based on a printed vocal score; this new version had its premiere in 1888, which is the version used in this recording.
The plot concerns a poor grandee of Spain, Don César who is something akin to the poetic soul of Cyrano de Bergerac. He is in love with a Gypsy singer, Maritana, who also is admired by the rakish king Charles the II. Don César rescues a young boy, Lazarille, from the gallows, an act which sets in motion the conflict between himself, the King, and the First Minister, Don José de Santarém. After various intrigues the King is obliged to renounce Maritana and all ends happily for Don César and his love.
Massenet’s music for this work is original and enticing, already showing the skills in seamlessly transitioning from one emotional mood to another, which earmarks so much of his best music. His gifts at orchestration produced yet another example of a French composer capturing the essence of native Spanish ambience in a composition that exudes un esprit Espagnole.
Laurent Naouri is an absolute delight as Don César. He finds a gentle swagger that is just right for his character. His vocal resources are undiminished as he gives a memorable lesson in the French style of vocal acting. His arias are beautifully executed, and one could easily listen to him for hours to revel in the clear and perfect French pronunciation. This is an admirable portrayal in every respect.
Elsa Dreisig as Maritana has a soprano voice of pure crystal with diamond-like precision in her coloratura passages. She is equally gifted at the more poetic arias such as the gorgeous romance she sings in Act Three.Thomas Bettinger is the amorous King Charles II. His tenor demonstrates a bright and forwardly placed tone which is hampered by some patches of throatiness which sometimes detract from the lines of phrasing.
Manon Lebègue is a charming Lazarille: her polished mahogany tone is an asset in pieces like her Act Two berceuse (CD 1, track 8). Thankfully Massenet provided Lazarille with several attractive pieces to sing. Christian Helmer sings the role of King’s minister Don José with a lovely hazelnut timbre that makes a perfect contrast to the more citrus infused tone of Naouri. Their Act Two duet is truly memorable and a superb example of a French buffo style that can be found in works such as Meyerbeer’s Dinorah.
The orchestra and chorus are well disciplined and handled with appropriate style by conductor Mathieu Romano. The sound engineering is generally fine but I can detect that there is a tendency for the acoustic to become opaque sounding during the musical climaxes. This is no doubt due to a fault in the acoustical properties of the opera house in Compiègne.
The booklet provides a detailed synopsis which includes some musical assessment by writer Robert Letellier. A French libretto is available to download. It is worth noting that the producers chose to record only the dialogue that has an orchestral accompaniment. I rather wish they had chosen to record a sensible amount of the dialogue to make the story flow better; something that has been successfully done in recordings of such works as La Fille du Régiment and the original version of Carmen.
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