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Meyerbeer nord 8660498
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Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)
L’Étoile du nord
Catherine – Elizabeth Futral (soprano)
Peter the Great – Vladimir Ognev (bass)
Prascovia – Darina Takova (soprano)
Danilowitz – Aled Hall (tenor)
Gritzenko – Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Georges – Juan Diego Flórez (tenor)
Wexford Festival Opera Chorus
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, October-November 1996, Wexford Opera Festival, Ireland
NAXOS 8.660498-500 [3 CDs: 174]

L’Étoile du nord is almost the forgotten Meyerbeer French opera. This is a welcome re-release of the 1996 Wexford production, first issued under Naxos’ Marco Polo label in 1997. The album has been long out of print, and fetches staggering sums on eBay but it is not entirely satisfying; we are still awaiting a recording that reveals the brilliance of The Northern Star.

Meyerbeer’s first opéra-comique adapted six numbers from his Singspiel Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (1844), a Prussian nationalist opera written for the reopening of the Berlin Opera House. It was a success in Paris, performed more than 400 times by 1887. The rest of Europe was less taken by it; Eduard Hanslick objected to the cannibalization of the German work, while a London production left Henry Chorley cold.

The Star of the North is Catherine, a Finnish peasant girl who ends up marrying Peter the Great. When Catherine’s younger brother is called up for army service on his wedding day, she takes her brother’s place, disguising herself as a young man (a story more familiar to modern audiences from Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment). But army life does not quite suit her; she is sentenced to be shot for insubordination, and escapes by diving into a river. Her ordeal causes her to lose her wits, but her sanity is restored at the end when she discovers that Peter loves her. The tsar himself works incognito as a carpenter (as in Grétry’s Pierre-le-Grand, Donizetti’s Borgomastro di Saardom, and Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann), before revealing his true identity in Act II and quashing a rebellion.

In the last quarter-century, there has been an explosion of Meyerbeer: his other French works have all received major productions, based on new critical editions; many have had new video or audio recordings; and his most obscure Italian and early German operas have materialised. However, this remains the only commercial recording of L’Étoile, and the only fully theatrical staging. (The 2017 Finnish production, watchable on YouTube, was a concert version in costume.) Even Meyerbeer’s other opéra-comique, Dinorah (Le pardon de Ploërmel), has a DVD (2002 Compiègne) and a CD on CPO starring Patrizia Ciofi (review), but while L’Étoile was a bigger hit in Paris, Dinorah was performed more widely throughout Europe, and it never quite left operagoers’ consciousness. It features, of course, the Shadow Song, the soprano’s waltz-cum-mad scene.

L’Étoile has no similarly famous number; perhaps the closest it comes are the beautiful prayer and barcarolle from the end of Act I, or the prima donna’s mad scene, duetting with two flutes (to outdo Lucia di Lammermoor). Both were recorded by Joan Sutherland, like Amelita Galli-Curci before her.
Here, the role of Catherine is sung by the American coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral, at the start of her career. Her bright and elegant singing takes Meyerbeer’s virtuosic vocal writing in its stride. Her Ronde bohémienne sparkles with malice; she is equally at home in the more sentimental or pathetic moments, such as the invocation to her dead mother or the mad scene.

The others in the young cast are variable. Russian bass Vladimir Ognev has a sonorous voice, seen at its best in his Act III romance, but struggles with French diction. Welsh character tenor Aled Hall rather camps it up as the pastry-chef Danilowitz, while Bulgarian Darina Takova makes the most of the thankless part of Prascovia. Her boyfriend (a small role) is played by the young Juan Diego Flórez; in the same year, he made his breakthrough in Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran at Pesaro.

While easily the weakest of Meyerbeer’s six French operas, the music is often catchy, imaginatively orchestrated, and the ensembles cleverly written. The picturesque story, encompassing village festivities, army rebellions, and an extended mad scene, gives Meyerbeer scope for Cossack choruses, peasant marriages, fortune tellers, a battalion of military genre pieces, conspiracies, drunken ensembles, and a riot of onomatopoeia: La la, tra la la, tic tac, glou glou, zon zon, plan plan; the drums go trrrum! and dice go trrr!

Berlioz declared that the score was one of Meyerbeer’s most polished: “marvellous for its variety, elegance, freshness of ideas, wit, audacity, and happiness. Alongside the prettiest, most flirtatious musical caresses, there are hair-raisingly complex combinations, passionate expressions of striking truth”. Fétis in the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris and Viel in Le Ménestrel each devoted a series of enthusiastic articles to reviewing the new opera, while Félix Clément considered it one of Meyerbeer’s richest scores, perhaps the one in which he was most lavish with harmonic and rhythmic combinations, and singular orchestral effects.

Unfortunately, much of the detail is lost. This is a live recording; the orchestra is clear and well to the fore, notable at once in the Beethovenian overture, with its march tune and dialoguing instruments, but the singers (principals and chorus alike) are often some remove from the microphones, and can be hard to hear, particularly when singing from the back of the stage. As a result, the recording lacks immediacy and often feels overlong. Some ensembles turn into mush, while metallic clinking, foot-stamping, and rushing about distract from the music. Nor, unfortunately, is it a complete recording; the last ten pages of the Act II finale are cut: a masterly contrapuntal ensemble weaving together a chorus and three marches in different keys.

We need a studio recording using Ricordi’s critical edition. Meyerbeer enthusiasts are also dismayed that Naxos has not yet released Dario Salvi’s recording of Jephtas Gelübde, the composer’s first opera, currently only available through the Naxos Music Library.

Nick Fuller

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