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Franz Ignaz BECK (1734-1809)
L’isle déserte (1779) [55:39]
Constance: Ana Maria Labin (soprano), Laurette: Samantha Gaul (soprano), Dorval: Theodore Browne (tenor), Sainville: Fabian Kelly (tenor)
La Stagione Frankfurt/Michael Schneider
rec. live, 17-18 May 2019, Rokokotheater, Schloss Schwetzingen, Germany
CPO 555 336-2 [55:39]

A taster of Franz Ignaz Beck’s opera L’isle déserte, the overture, appeared in 2007 on a disc with Michael Schneider conducting three of the Symphonies Op 4 (review). Schneider’s recordings on CPO and recordings of four sets of Beck’s symphonies on Naxos have gradually given us a more three-dimensional feel for this unsung composer. He left his native Mannheim at 15, and after some wanderings in Italy ended up in Bordeaux. That was not a place usually associated with world-shaking musical events, but by 1780 it had one of the largest and best-equipped opera houses in Europe.

The opera is one of Beck’s only two stage works to have survived complete. It was long regarded as lost but a manuscript score recently resurfaced in France; this is a recording première. It is categorised as an opèra comique. The libretto adapts Metastasio’s L’isola disabitata. The plot revolves around two protagonists “who vanished long ago during an ocean passage and now meet again in the barren expanse of a ‘desert island’”. The term comique contrasts with the French tragédie lyrique tradition. Here it is little to do with light humour: the work is merely defined as something other than grand opera. Themes of abandonment and sorrow, love and affection, and a rousingly happy ensemble finale – it all makes for a richly satisfying and easily digestible entertainment, now as it would have been in its day.

The orchestra is excellent. The cast is good, and the soprano voices of Constance and Laurette are well matched in their duet Ah, do cease to feel such sorrow. The male roles are also fine. It is the only arguable disadvantage in all this admirable homogeny that the characters are tricky to identify unless one is following the libretto. That, thankfully, is printed in the booklet in French, German and English. L’isle déserte is one of those delightfully transparent operas, easy on the ear, with an undemanding narrative. There is some Sturm und Drang in the central verse of Dorval’s aria No 6 at the Tout mon coeur se déchire moment, but his mournful message is otherwise resolutely in a major key. Constance’s final Recitativo obbligato/Aria is surprisingly troubled. The impression each of these roles makes is ultimately almost caricature rather than well-rounded personages in which we feel any kind of real emotional investment.

Certainly enjoyable in its own right, Beck’s L’isle déserte will be of interest to music historians: the work of a composer active in France who went against national trends by adapting an Italian libretto. Comparisons are invited by contemporary examples that took up Metastasio’s text, such as Joseph Haydn’s entirely different singspiel version Die wüste Insel, also from 1779. Beck’s opera – a rare confluence of Italian libretto style and French music theater composed by a German – will no doubt be the subject of renewed scholarly discussion as the result of this fine recording.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Dave Billinge

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