Maid of Artois
Since the early 17th century, Madrid and London have sometimes found themselves in the same musical boat. Strong verse-drama traditions proved powerful enough for both cities to resist La Opera's early siren-song, or at least to accommodate her on their own theatrical terms. Calderón's zarzuela, Dryden's semi-opera both stick to the ideal of sung and spoken word in harmonious equilibrium. Both show gods and princes rubbing shoulders with the peasant. That Calderón's form proved more influential may be down to the fact that he wasn't shackled to a composer of the personality of Purcell, whose score for King Arthur far outshone Dryden's fustian national anthem in five acts.
By the 18th century both cities had been swamped by the fashion of Italian opera in lavish production, though John Gay and the English ballad opera kept the native language flag flying as valiantly as did Ramón de la Cruz and the tonadilla in Spain. Whatever the dictates of society, the wider public continued to hanker after a more direct opera, with spoken dialogue in a language they could understand; and in both cities during the 1830's the ground was prepared for a renewed flowering of native work - Gilbert and Sullivan in London, the romantic zarzuela in Madrid - which was to put both cities firmly back on the theatrical map.
If 1830's zarzuela remains shrouded in mist, thanks to the initiative of Victorian Opera we can at least hear one missing link from the anthropology of its English equivalent. Like such pieces as Basili's 1841 El ventorillo de Crespo, Michael William Balfe's The Maid of Artois (1836) alternates grand movements in Italian operatic mode with simpler solo numbers in the native ballad style and spoken dialogue.
He sang in Bellini and Donizetti as well, composed operas for Palermo and Pavia - and Milan's La Scala itself, where he first met Malibran. Together they gravitated to Paris, where they sang Auber together at the Opera before heading back to the London honeypots. The 1835 Siege of Rochelle was their first barnstormer, cementing Balfe's "home" reputation. The Maid of Artois proved even more of a success both for its composer and his ill-fated star. Balfe went on to produce a string of popular successes in a somewhat lighter mode, including The Rose of Castille (1857). Most popular of all was The Bohemian Girl (1843) , which together with Julius Benedict's The Lily of Killarney (1862) and William Wallace's Maritana (1845) were quickly christened The English Ring by facetious critics. It was the Victorian music critic Henry Chorley, I believe, who wrote them off as "those tiresome English operas which have enjoyed the favour of the lower class of operatic audiences for so very long."
Eheu fugaces! Those fickle, low audiences soon deserted Balfe for Sullivan, Monckton, the American musical, and are now presumably gorging themselves sick on Andrew Lloyd Webber's Woman in White. A few ballads, notably the ubiquitous "I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls" from The Bohemian Girl remained popular, but the operas in toto disappeared from stage, screen and studio alike. Reasons aren't far to seek. Balfe's music, reflecting an easy acquaintance with Rossini, Bellini, Auber - and especially Weber, whose 1826 English-language Oberon anticipates much of the best music here - is suave, sweet and relaxed, its self-conscious harmonic audacities a mere nod to modernity. The Act 3 Finale "The rapture swelling through my breast", a staggering confection tailored to Malibran's three and a half octave range, exemplifies a style which chooses surface over substance. Even the best numbers, notably the sweeping, catchily quirky Act 1 Finale, are first and foremost interested in immediate effect rather than dramatic coherence.
The simpler, reflective ballads (such as the baritone's nostalgic "The light of other days") seem less cosmetic, rooted in a native tradition more Celtic than English. They still have power to touch the heart, though Sullivan was to harness their sentiment to more consistent theatrical effect and had a stronger feeling for character. Nor, alas, can Balfe's Bunn hold a candle to Gilbert as wordsmith-dramatist. But if much of The Maid of Artois sounds quaintly translated from the Italian, the fault isn't wholly the librettist's. Like his Italian mentors, Balfe was apt to hit the literary autopilot, responding to general sentiments rather than precise meaning; and musical charm however potent floats in the void unless yoked to verbal or emotional intelligence. Given this lack of dramatic continuity, it's easy to feel that The Maid of Artois fatally confirms Dr. Johnson's put-down of opera, as "an exotic and irrational entertainment."
The story is the eternal Manon motif familiar from Massenet, Puccini and Auber, and recycled more recently by Henze in Boulevard Solitude. An innocent country girl is abducted and kept by a wicked Marquis, but her feeling for a young man of her own age precipitates tragedy and transportation to French Guiana (cue for an Indian dance, black slave chorus and ballet.) Auber and Puccini have Manon die of thirst, abandoned in the American desert, and Balfe's Isoline looks all set to follow their example. The music certainly gives up the ghost in a bland duo-recitative, but to Isoline's and our relief an Italian banda march announces the timely arrival of the reformed Marquis. He forgives everyone, Isoline instantaneously revives and calls upon unsuspected reserves of strength to get through that jaw-stretching Grand National of a Finale. All of which holds less water than the American desert. The Bohemian Girl is just as graceful melodically, but tauter and better integrated, an Irish equivalent to Arrieta's similarly faded Marina in presaging the lighter style of the 20th century musical and zarzuela-operetta.
Lauded in his early years, Balfe had fallen victim to his own success even before his death in 1870. By 1860 he was pretty much played out as a vital force on the London scene. Theatre had moved on. What was fresh or original in his work was developed by more imaginative and technically finished composers such as Sullivan and Edward German, or absorbed back into the parlour ballad tradition. What was derivative remained all too plain to progressive young firebrands nurtured on Verdi and Wagner. As with comparable figures such as Oudrid and Hernando in Spain, much honour is owed Balfe as a pioneer in the field of native, romantic opera, somewhat less to the artist in his own right.
Much honour also to Victorian Opera Northwest, an amateur society stiffened by experienced semi-pros and young conservatory graduates. Their technical excellence needs no apology, their spirit puts many studio-bound professional efforts in the shade. Kay Jordan is no Malibran or Joan Sutherland, but though her light-grained soprano is stretched by that notorious Finale (whose would not be?) her Isoline gives considerable pleasure throughout, not least in the ballad "Yon moon o'er the mountains", Italianate Weber with a distinctive Irish inflection. Stephen Anthony Brown provides tastefully reticent tenorial ardour as her lover Jules. Jonathan Pugsley's baritone baddie boasts good diction, cutting edge and force, albeit at the expense of tuning in "The light of other days." George Hulbert's Inspector, whip in hand, contributes the pleasant, politically incorrect comedy song "Was there ever known a set of such slaves", on the cusp between Donizettian and Gilbertian patter and the most brilliantly sung number in the set.
Orchestral and choral standards are uniformly high, Philip Mackenzie's conducting is firm, alert but never heavy. The recording too is beautifully balanced, with just the right degree of resonant ambience. No pains have been spared to produce a reliable musical text, and although authenticity isn't slavish - as in most Sullivan performances, a modern trumpet takes the cornet solos - an indefinable rightness pervades the enterprise. The illustrated booklet is a model of its kind, and puts most mainstream companies' efforts to shame. Aside from contemporary prints and illustrations, beautifully reproduced, it features valuable essays from Raymond Walker and musicologist Valerie Langfield, as well as a note on Balfe and Malibran by Richard Bonynge and complete song texts.
Bravo! Such a rarity requires respect just as surely as Jugar con fuego or the more elevated masterworks of the period, and Victorian Opera have made quite sure that Balfe gets the fair hearing he deserves. Given two well-packed CDs it's understandable that no room could be found for spoken dialogue, although there are full synoptic links in the booklet describing the action. Otherwise I'm glad to have had the chance to hear this once-celebrated opera in such a very good performance, astoundingly set down in two days flat. I commend The Maid of Artois to listeners interested in renascent 19th century music theatre outside Italy, France and Germany; or indeed to anyone with a penchant for the curious "lights of other days" consigned to dusty shelves, all but forgotten by those much-derided (but ever-desired) "low audiences."
© Christopher Webber 2006