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Franz Ignaz BECK (1734-1809)
L’Isle déserte, Opéra comique in 1 Act (Bordeaux 1779)
Ana Maria Labin (soprano) - Constance
Samantha Gaul (soprano) – Laurette
Theodore Brown (tenor) - Dorval
Fabian Kelly (tenor) - Sainville
La Stagione Frankfurt/Michael Schneider
rec. live, 17-18 May 2019, Rokokotheater, Schloss Schwetzingen, Germany
CPO 555 336-2 [55:39]

Most reviews of music by Franz Ignaz Beck are prefaced by a summary of his chequered career so I will leave interested readers to look elsewhere on MusicWeb International for that. This is his one surviving opera. Apart from this, there is a stage work Pandora, a melodrama; all else seems to have been lost. We know that Beck, though originally from Mannheim, was much respected in his Bordeaux home and some of his work was even performed in Paris. His setting of this French version of Metastasio’s 1753 libretto L’isola disabitata has only recently been revived and preserved on the current disc. Because, like most of his vocal music, the libretto was lost, the connecting spoken dialogues have been reconstructed using our knowledge of the Italian original. This was set by several composers but most importantly by Haydn in exactly the same year as Beck, 1779. For the CD these narratives were cut, wisely from a listener’s viewpoint, and the plot summary given in the booklet is needed to string together the otherwise loosely connected arias, duets and recitatives.

We do, however, have the French libretto of these with parallel translations in German and English. They do not result in anything very comique from a modern viewpoint and the story is slender and typically unconvincing - this is classical opera, after all. Two sisters, Constance and Laurette, are cast away on a desert island for 13 years. Constance believes her husband left her there on purpose and probably then died, whilst Laurette was too young to care. When Constance’s husband and a friend turn up on the island, the friend Sainville falls conveniently in love with Laurette whilst Constance, after forgiving her husband for deserting her – which, in any case, he did not do - and accepting that he is still alive, is reunited with him. The accompanying essay by Thomas Betzwieser fits all this into the contemporary scene and goes some way to highlight the importance of Beck’s contribution to music at the time. It does indeed seem as though he was a composer of some consequence in a period dominated by Mozart and Haydn. Being based in Bordeaux, Beck succeeded as a big fish in a small pond. It is an interesting biography.

This performance was recorded at the Schwetzingen Festival in 2019 by the Südwestrundfunk. Michael Schneider and his La Stagione Frankfurt have recorded nine of Beck’s Symphonies for CPO and are thus ideally placed to resurrect this opera. They have engaged four excellent singers to bring a long-forgotten piece to life. It is well worth hearing, being tuneful and at times even a little dramatic. The recording has been decently handled though orchestra and voices sound slightly distant as if there wasn’t time to place the microphones better. I suspect a few retakes might have improved things but maybe circumstances did not permit. Full notes in German and English and a libretto in three languages, French, German and English, complete a generous package.

Dave Billinge

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