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Thursday, January 26, 2023



(Above: Celebrating Offenbach cover)

William Charlton-Perkins writes a regular feature for the media titled Classical Notes. This one is titled Parisian bon-bons.

Opera Rara, Britain’s ever-productive audio recording house, launches its 2023 roster of releases with a seven-CD compilation titled Celebrating Offenbach. Drawn from the independent label’s priceless back-catalogue, the set restores to circulation, in remastered sonic clarity, complete studio recordings of Robinson Crusoe and Vert-Vert, alongside Entre Nous, an enticing selection of arias, duets, and ensembles from more than twenty of Offenbach’s least-known works.

The third in the Opera Rara Classics series - following Donizetti in the 1830s and Rossini in 1819 - the set boasts a specially commissioned essay on Offenbach by musicologist Marco Ladd and features a stellar line-up of musical forces in each of its components.

Based on Daniel Defoe’s iconic novel of the same title, Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe (1867) was set to a French libretto by Eugène Cormon and Hector Crémieux and is presented here in a pithy English rendering by Don White. This famous recording, long out of circulation, takes up the first three discs of the highly welcome new compendium.

Given Mr White’s persuasive assumption of the Victorian vernacular, and his command of witty dialogue, it strikes me this version, recorded in 1980, makes a fine companion to Gilbert & Sullivan’s Savoy Opera canon.

The singers assembled for this feisty venture do it proud. Act 1 takes place inside the Crusoe household in Bristol. English tenor John Brecknock heads the cast with an ardent reading of the title role. Yvonne Kenny in sparkling voice as his cousin, and love interest, Edwidge, matches him all the way. Roderick Kennedy and Enid Hartle comfortably inhabit their parental roles as Sir William and Lady Crusoe, while Marilyn Hill Smith and Alexander Oliver fill the roles of the Crusoe home’s domestic staff components with zesty commitment.

We meet young Robinson again on the desert island in Acts 2 and 3, where we are also introduced to the fine Trinidadian mezzo soprano Sandra Browne as Vendredi/Man Friday, a role originally created by the celebrated Célestine Galli-Marié - best known as Bizet’s first Carmen. They are re-joined by Edwidge, Suzanne and Toby, who arrive in their timeous bid to rescue Robinson et al from being turned into Sunday stews, and sundry other gruesome outcomes.

To contemporary ears, the lush tonality of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra may sound a tad overblown in the face of Offenbach’s filigree writing - but there’s no denying the immaculate ensemble playing of Beecham’s famous orchestra, in its response to Alun Francis’ stalwart podium direction. Likewise, the Geoffrey Mitchell Choristers distinguish themselves with patent glee in their various guises as sailors, pirates, and cannibals.

Invidious to select highlights for sampling Offenbach’s luscious score. If pressed, I’d opt for virtually all of Act 1, certainly Edwidge’s famous Waltz Song (CD 2, Track 12), and virtually anything else along the way, both ‘fore and aft’.

Vert-Vert (1869), set within the closer confines of a girls’ convent boarding establishment, offers less exotic fare than Robinson Crusoe. Still, there are plums enough in this sophisticated, exquisitely crafted piece to satisfy all but the most gluttonous of appetites. Sung in its original French version, this three-act opéra comique was recorded in 2008 with David Parry at the helm of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Jennifer Larmore, Lucy Crowe, and Loïc Félix are three of the luminaries featured in the cast tasked with the challenge of bringing the piece’s zany plot to life. This revolves around a young man assuming the identity of a dead parrot, as the school mascot. Enough said.

Notwithstanding the inanity of the storyline, no shortage of melodic riches emanates from Offenbach’s unfailingly inventive pen. Incidentally, the impetus of Opera Rara’s committing this rarity to tape was sparked by the previous year’s recording project, its Entre Nous set of rare Offenbach excerpts. Comprising the final two discs of the current compendium, Entre Nous again features a powerhouse phalanx of celebrated singers, including Jennifer Larmore, Alistair Miles, Yvonne Kenny, Laura Claycomb, Dianna Montague, and Loïc Félix, with maestro Parry conducting the LPO.

In addition to the above, I offer retrospectives of two more Opera Rara ventures that delve into the intoxicating Parisian environment of light lyric entertainment of the 19th century. Both stem from the tenure of Sir Mark Elder as the company’s Artistic Director.

(Right: Fantasio cover)

Released in 2014, Offenbach’s Fantasio (1872) boasts a fine cast headed by Sarah Connolly, Brenda Rae, and Brindley Sherratt, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment bringing to life a score joyously orchestrated with wonderful wind writing, which goes a long way to blur the edges of the work’s impossibly convoluted plot of mistaken identities, et al.


(Left: La Colombe cover)

Finally, I urge readers to get acquainted with Charles Gounod’s La Colombe (The Dove), released in 2015. This enchanting opéra comique dates from 1860, a couple of years after Gounod completed his most famous stage work, Faust. The modest four-hander depicts a wealthy countess who tries to inveigle a young admirer into giving her his pet dove, for reasons too complicated and trivial to detail here, but which end satisfactorily. 

The salient point here is the score itself, which is one continuous, binge-worthy delight, performed with consummate artistry. and an unbelievable abundance of beauty, by a close-knit company, comprised of the American coloratura soprano, Erin Morley, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena, French mezzo Michèle Losier and baritone Laurent Naouri. With a score akin to an haute cuisine soufflé, La Colombe is filled with ravishing melodies that few could spin as wonderfully Gounod does.

Elder’s performance has precisely the right whimsical touch to carry its gossamer textures along with superfine fluency. As Andrew Clements opined in his review for Gramophone: “Modest though it is, a rarity like this couldn’t be served much better by a recording.”

For more information, and to purchase Opera Rara releases, visit the label’s website

William Charlton-Perkins