Both casts: The Mayor of Padua – Bernard Lefort, Véronique, his wife – Fanély Revoil, Laurette, his daughter – Claudine Collart, Captain Silvio – Alexander Young, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Leader, David McCallum) c. Stanford Robinson, p. Jacques Brunius
Cameo Classics CC9113 [103:00]
The influence of Offenbach’s one-act operettas – and those of French composers of the succeeding generation, led by Charles Lecocq – on Isabelline zarzuela was patent. Edward Halsted takes a look at a pair of Miracles which are typical of Parisian lyric theatre of the time…
In 1856, Jacques Offenbach, director of the Bouffes-Parisiens theatre, instigated a competition for young composers to write a one-act comic opera, the winner to get the piece staged. The obligatory text was based on Sheridan’s St Patrick’s Day by way of commedia dell’arte, and the joint winners were Georges Bizet (aged 18) and Charles Lecocq, six years his senior but a contemporary at the Conservatoire. Both operas had successful premieres but neither has been heard much since.
We now have a chance to have another listen thanks to Cameo Classics issuing a double CD of BBC studio recordings, broadcast in 1954 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanford Robinson, and the sound is remarkably good. This is the first time both these operas have been released together. Both have the same cast of four, and there is no chorus.
I listened first to the Bizet. The overture is chirpy, a bit rum-ti-tum, and what follows is the story of young and lovely Laurette. She is in love with Captain Silvio despite the opposition of her father the Mayor, who won’t have a soldier in the family. By means of a couple of disguises – reminding us of The Barber of Seville – he wins the hand of his beloved. There are no big surprises along the way, but some lively ensembles, notably a touching romance beautifully sung by Claudine Collart, plus an ‘omelette quartet’! Prepared by Silvio (the elegant tenor Alexander Young) in his first disguise as a servant, it turns out to be a gastronomic disaster. In Bizet’s hands the quartet is dramatic rather than comic – the stakes are high as Silvio will return as a doctor to cure the mayor (the light lyric baritone Bernard Lefort, later a well-known administrator, at the Paris Opera and elsewhere) who believes he has been poisoned – and it feels as if Bizet is having a go at a pastiche of grander opera altogether. Perhaps even at that same Paris Opera!
It all ends just right of course, after an appealing 51 minutes. There is much spoken dialogue, all delivered with gusto and excellent diction. A good time is clearly being had by all (not least by Fanély Revoil as the Mayor’s wife) and that gives this youthful piece some bite and plenty of charm.
According to the CD notes by Christopher Webber (compact and witty like the operas), Lecocq’s version was the more enjoyed. His overture is more muscular than Bizet’s and the music throughout seems to show a composer more settled in his own style. He went on to write dozens of opera-comiques and operettas – many very successful – in a notably more ‘genteel’ vein than those more enduring works by Offenbach, the giver of the prize. The ‘omelette quartet’ here shows the individual characters well, the dish presented with brio by Alexander Young, boasting that it’s been cooked ‘bien soigneusement’ (which Google translates as ‘very carefully’). The whole piece may be said to have been created in the same spirit.
Anyone interested in these composers and French operetta of the period – Bizet had already composed his cracking symphony the year before – would do well to investigate this set, and enjoy a couple of hours in the company of such enthusiastic, sophisticated performers, under Robinson’s stylish baton.
© Edward Halsted and zarzuela.net, 2019