Thursday 1 December 2005

More Meyerbeer

Having just finished reviewing a book about French grand opera I thought that it was about time that I reacquainted myself with some of the prime examples of the genre. Like many people, I suspect, I am more familiar with operas written for the Paris Opera by Italian composers (Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Verdi’s Les Vepres Sicilenne and Don Carlos), than I am with the works of Meyerbeer, Halevy and Auber.

This quest is trickier than it sounds and has the potential for great expense. After all, 5 Act operas in this genre are not short so the CD’s do not always come cheap. Trawling through the internet, I discovered that the strongest available recording of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots is still the one with Joan Sutherland. The later Erato recording with a French cast including Francoise Pollet has dropped out of the catalogue, though Malibran has a couple of fascinating early recordings. Even stranger, there is no studio recording for Le Prophete available, the main recording I could find was a live one from Toronto in 1970. The only CD of L’Africaine is an historic German one from 1952.

The situation is similar with Auber; apart from Fra Diavolo his operas are heavily under represented in the catalogue. It seems strange that such an influential operatic form could have dropped so out of favour. What you can get, of course, are the estimable Opera Rara recordings of Meyerbeer’s Italian operas; oh, that they would start exploring early 19th century French opera. Still, I have their set of the BBC Les Vepres Siciliennes on my Christmas List and I am waiting with baited breath for the issue of the BBC Don Carlos. This latter is the only recording of Verdi’s first thoughts; the true grand opera Don Carlos, rather than the later Modena version with the odd patch. I used to have a cassette of the original BBC broadcast but somehow Act 1 went walkies, so getting the CD’s is essential.

Anyway, I managed to get the Erato recording of Les Huguenots out of the record library and we started listening to it last night. (1st Act and part of 2nd Act). What struck me was how light (for want of a better word) the music sounded. Given that this was a 5 act opera on a seriously serious subject, I had thought the sound world would be darker. But of course, I am falling into the same trap as everyone else and wearing my post-Wagnerian ears. So next time I listen, I promise to do better.

David commented that parts of it sounded, to him, like Offenbach and of course it is that composer’s parodies of grand opera that are often our only regular access to the genre. After all, in Spring this year we were in Paris for Offenbach’s La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein and that includes a scene parodying the blessing of the swords from Les Huguenots.

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