Tuesday 15 March 2022

Surprising style, elegance and imagination: Auber Overtures volume five

Auber - overtures, entractes & ballet music from Zanetta, Zerline; Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, Dario Salvi; Naxos

Auber - overtures, entractes & ballet music from Zanetta, Zerline; Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, Dario Salvi; Naxos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 March 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Naxos continuing series devoted to Auber's music reveals a composer of surprising style, elegance and imagination

In 2012 we caught Auber's La muette de Portici at the Opera Comique in Paris, a rare outing for the opera with Patrick Davin conducting a cast including Michael Spyres. And if you think it strange that the Opera Comique should be performing Grand Opera written for the Paris Opera, it is worth bearing in mind that the pre-Palais Garnier opera occupied a building on the site of the present Opera Comique, so dimensions are probably very suitable. There has been a slow revival of French Grand Opera in the last 20 years, operas by Meyerbeer are becoming more frequent, it is possible to catch performances by other composers. Auber, however, still seems to be somewhat languishing.

Naxos seems to be doing its admirable bit to make us think again about the composer and its series of Auber overtures has reached volume five. In this volume, Dario Salvi conducts the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra in the overtures and ballet music from Zanetta (1840) and Zerline (1851) plus Philippe Musard's Quadrille based on themes from Zanetta.

The problem with Auber, of course, is that he wrote so many operas. His first opera comiques were youthful works, and his first work for the Opera Comique came in 1813. His first Grand Opera came in 1823, and from then on he was busy until 1869. His librettist on La muette de Portici (which debuted in 1828) was Eugene Scribe. The two's partnership began in 1822 and was a long one and they effectively came to define French Grand Opera. With La muette, Auber and Scribe helped to create an operatic form that helped define opera in Paris in the period 1830 to 1860.

The works sampled on this disc give us Auber in two different modes, one written for the Opera Comiqe the other for the Paris Opera. Zanetta was premiered at the Opera Comique, featuring some dazzling coloratura writing for Laure Cinti Damoreaux (who created two Rossini roles in Paris and premiered Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable). The record's cover image is an engraving of Cinti Damoreaux in the title role of Zanetta.

Zerline is not quite such a contrast as might be expected, though written for the Paris Opera it came at a time when the government wanted the political themes in opera played down, and wanted the works shorter. So Zerline is, for a work written for the Paris Opera, relatively slight. But then, studies have shown that the French Grand Opera form proved far more flexible than we often give it credit for. And, apart from the overture to Zanetta, the remainder of the disc is devoted to world premiere recordings which, in a way, is rather shocking.

Auber (and Scribe) might be suspected of running something of an opera factory, but the music on this disc offers some sophisticated pleasures. Play either of the overtures and you are delighted and intrigued, and perhaps tempted to wonder what the music might be like. And what first struck me, listening particularly to the overtures, was quite how modern the music sounded, certainly not what you'd expect from a man who was born five years before Mozart died and whose early experience and training was during the post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras.

There is an elegance and style to the orchestral writing, lyricism certainly but also imagination. The orchestrations are all light, but full of ideas with plenty of great charm. This is music that is far more sophisticated than we might at first believe. The Entractes and the ballet music is very direct, each short movement has a clear aim, a particular style but even here Auber does not make us feel he is not spinning, there is plenty to keep you interested with a series of short yet characterful movements.

The performers on the disc are, at first sight, slightly unlikely. A Scotland-based Italian-born conductor and a Czech Orchestra. But Dario Salvi has a feel for this style of music; he has made operetta an 19th century ballet something of a field of study. And he certainly is able to charm the orchestra into some surprisingly stylish playing.

The catalogue is not over-brimming with music by Auber. The complete operas rather rely on live performances and the occasional historic recording and you struggle to find recordings of anything more unusual that La muette de Portici, Fra Diavolo, Le cheval de Bronze, Manon Lescaut, Gustave III, Le domino noir, and (a real rarity) Marco Spada. Certainly nothing like Zanetta or Zerline. Overtures and ballet music are not the complete opera, but Naxos is to be congratulated on reaching volume five of this series, with Dario Salvi and his forces continuing to find delight and wonder in the music. The opera factory chez Scribe and Auber seems a long way away.

Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber (1782-1871) - Zanetta, overture and entractes (1840) [13:07]
Philippe Musard (1792-1859) - Quadrille No. 2 sur l'opera Zanetta de D.F.E. Auber (1860) [8:40]
Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber - Zerline, overture, entracte, introduction, airs de balet (1851) [55:50]
Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra
Daria Salvi (conductor)
Recorded 30 November - 5 December 2020, The House of Culture, Ostrava, Czech Republic
NAXOS 8.574335 1CD [77.39]
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