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Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
La filleule des fées, fairy ballet in two Acts and seven Tableaux (1849)
Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Mogrelia
rec. 1996, ABC Studio, Brisbane
NAXOS 8.574302-03 [67:51 + 60:52]

Adolphe Adam’s best-known ballets appear to be quite comfortable with the issue of death. The eponymous heroine of Giselle, for instance, is left a corpse on stage at the end of Act 1 – even if it’s never quite clear whether she’s succumbed to a chronic heart condition or has deliberately stabbed herself with her lover’s discarded sword. Meanwhile, the same ballet’s second Act features a couple of dozen wilis – dead girls who’ve failed to find eternal rest. In similar fashion, if rather more prosaically, the plot of Le Corsaire sees several of its leading characters summarily dispatched, either by a well-aimed musket ball or by drowning at sea.

Those two ballets are, however, of the ballet-pantomime genre, where violence and death are relatively routine occurrences. La filleule des fees (“The fairies’ godchild”), on the other hand, is a ballet-féerie – a rather more light-hearted form characterized less by dramatic action than by its lavishly “magical” stage effects. While its main characters’ misfortunes may well be (melo)dramatic – they include, on this occasion, loss of sight, temporary lunacy and even petrification – they are rarely long-lasting and universal happiness is, as a general principle, quickly restored.

As far as I am aware, there have been no modern revivals of La filleule des fees. Whether that is accounted for by changing audience tastes or, as suggested by my colleague Raymond Walker in his review of this world premiere recording’s original release (review), by the prohibitive cost of staging its lavish special effects to today’s expected standards, is a moot point. Although, therefore, we might reasonably expect to be unfamiliar with its story, it actually turns out to exhibit some close similarities to that of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Most strikingly, in both ballets all the trouble begins when a wicked fairy, not invited to share in the jollifications attendant upon the birth of a child, puts a curse on the infant which will come into effect once she’s grown up.

While La filleule des fees is certainly unknown today as a danced ballet, that aforementioned earlier CD release has at least ensured that Adam’s music has been easily accessible. Although I have long had those earlier Marco Polo discs on my shelves, I can’t say that I have listened to them very often. Like, I imagine, many other people, I find it easiest to get to grips with ballet music if I have already seen a theatrical production of the work, for I find that the ability to picture the on-stage action in my mind’s eye better equips me to assess a score’s – and any particular performance’s - fitness for purpose.

Returning to this recording in its new Naxos pressing, I found its score rather more impressive than I had remembered. Composed at a point roughly mid-way between the premieres of the two Adam ballets that are most familiar today, Giselle (1841) and Le Corsaire (1856), La filleule des fees demonstrates aspects of the atmosphere and characteristics of each. While, for instance, the very opening of its Prologue (track 1) suggests the bucolic atmosphere of Giselle’s Rhineland village, just a few moments later dance #6 (track 4) brings to mind Le Corsaire’s pirates vigorously strutting their stuff en masse in the exotic environs of the Adrianople slave market. Although La filleule des fees’s precise setting is unspecified, its characters’ names suggest that the story takes place in Provence, so we ought not, perhaps, to be too surprised to find that, in their orchestration and rhythmic patterns, substantial sections of Adam’s score are more reminiscent of bright, sunny Mediterranean seashores than of misty meadows on the Moselle.

Complete recordings of four of Adam’s 14 ballet scores are or have been available on CD. If Giselle (review), Le Corsaire (review), La jolie fille de Gand (1842, review ~ review) and La filleule des fees are representative of the rest, then it is clear that the composer was immensely skilled at providing exactly what his audiences demanded – tuneful and colourful entertainments, not too demanding of theatregoers who simply wanted an enjoyable night out. They were clearly regarded as essentially ephemeral pieces, as demonstrated by the fact that no-one at the time seems to have thought it worth preserving the original orchestrations of Giselle. We are therefore, I suppose, fortunate in that so much of them has survived at all. In the absence of a staged production, we may have to work extra hard at appreciating the La filleule des fees score, but the reward is the discovery of some well-crafted and at times quite delightful music.

Conductor Andrew Mogrelia is a noted dance specialist, having worked as music director of San Francisco Ballet from 2003 until 2005 and subsequently with Queensland Ballet, where he was principal guest conductor between 2009 and 2013 and music director/principal conductor from 2013 until 2015. Even before those appointments, however, he had demonstrated complete mastery of Adam’s characteristic idiom in this recording, where the players of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra offer skillful and sympathetic support.

This well-recorded release is thus a welcome addition to the Naxos catalogue and perhaps it may not be too long before it is joined there by its old Marco Polo stablemate La jolie fille de Gand. The vast majority of pre-Tchaikovsky ballet scores remain, after all, relatively little known, even though they were often widely popular in their day. Naxos’s adventurous programmers could do far worse than investigate some of those long-forgotten stage works. As well as the ten ballets by Adam that have yet to be recorded, there are plenty of others by the likes of such accomplished tunesmiths as Cesare Pugni, the most prolific ballet composer in musical history but today remembered only because of Pierre Lacotte’s revivals of Esmeralda (1844) and The Pharaoh’s Daughter (1862) for Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. And let’s not forget Ludwig Minkus, for I refuse to believe that his extensive yet seriously under-explored oeuvre might not contain one or two other works just as delightful as Don Quixote (1869) and La bayadère (1877). While no-one would suggest that musical history might thereby be overturned, the results would certainly be, at the very least, interesting and quite possibly, I’d wager, highly pleasurable.

Rob Maynard

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