OFFENBACH: La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein
BRITTEN: Les Illuminations, Op. 18. Serenade, Op. 31. Nocturne,
The subject matter could not be different, but these two releases are extraordinarily special in their respective fields. And since both are vocal works, ergo their pairing in the interest of conserving space. But which to consider first? No disrespect is meant much less implied if we throw a chapeau in the air first for a painstaking critical edition by Jean-Christophe Keck of the libretto by Meilhac and Halévy for Jacques Offenbach’s political satire disguised as a jeu de’esprit, created for Napoleon III’s Grand Exhibition of 1867. La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein behind its fictive facade (from which Léhar borrowed not a little for The Merry Widow several decades later) is a send-up not just of Catherine the Great’s appetites but of politics as these were contemporaneously practiced throughout Europe. Hardly any visitor to Paris of importance stayed away. But what makes La Grande-Duchesse so bewitching 138 years later is the musical setting of a jocular and ribald libretto. As a co-production of the Théâtre du Chatelet and Radio France, this revival, recorded in December 2004, was the toast of Paris where Felicity Lott, who sings the title role, was so successful that French audiences have adopted her as their own. More Offenbach is forthcoming, which whets the appetite without distracting us from the fun at hand. Gilbert & Sullivan should have been so beguilingly worldly.
No Mikado courtiers or Penzance Pirates here. We have instead Le Général Boum (François Le Roux), two Princes, Puck and Paul, a Baron Grog, and juvenile lovers Wanda (Sandrine Piau) and Fritz (Yann Beuron). The latter becomes a temporary favorite of Le Grande-Duchesse, but she is fickle as well as clever (if not too smart). Everyone in the cast sings á la mode under the direction of Marc Minkowski, who puts the chorus and Musiciens du Lourve–Grenoble through Offenbach’s musical hoops like a ringmaster, with unlimited energy. As for Miss Lott, she is no longer a youngster but can still do the coloratura (and always did have an edge on certain of her middle-register tones); better than that, she is a musical-comedy actress of great range and charm. No wonder the French covet her. The level of Offenbach productions on discs has matured greatly since the Met recorded excerpts for RCA from La Périchole back in the Bing era (with Cyril Ritchard both over-directing and camping as the governor of – was it Peru?). EMI raised the standard with La Belle Hélène starring Jessye Norman, but rather too gaudily conducted by Georges Prêtre. Minknowski, Lott and the Chatelet company seem to have a natural affinity for Offenbachiana and we are greatly richer for Virgin Classics’ preservation (not to overlook a handsome program book with the complete ur-text in the original and a racy English translation).
Onward to EMI’s treasurable new collection of three Britten song cycles that tenor Peter Pears made his own (although Les Illuminations was composed in 1939 for Sophie Wyss on texts by Rimbaud). But the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings in 1943, and the Nocturne for Tenor, Seven Obbligato Instruments and Strings in 1960 were written for Pears, Britten’s life-partner. Now Ian Bostridge has made them his own for this generation, and added a provocative program note as well. He performed them with Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker at this year’s Salzburg April Festival, and immediately after recorded them – not, however, in Berlin’s Philharmonie but in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in the suburb of Dahlem, where so many pre-Philharmonie recordings were made by EMI. The acoustic in John Fraser’s production is very close to ideal, and so are the performances, although hornist Radek Baborák, for all his suavity, does not efface the memory of Dennis Brain, who made the first recording with Pears and Britten. Bostridge can summon a variety of vocal moods including anger despite the singular pitch of his high tenor voice, at moments almost a echo of Pears but somehow more beautiful per se. His diction in both French and English is impeccable, and he is accompanied by Rattle and a quorum of players with perhaps even more finesse than the composer’s accompaniments for Pears both in the original version of Serenade and a stereo remake with Barry Tuckwell as hornist, still available on a Decca CD along with Les Illuminations and the Nocturne. Representative collectors can now have both, and should. Bostridge and Rattle have given us one of the treasures of the year.
R.D. (December 2005)