11 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Daniel-François-Esprit Auber - LA MUETTE DE PORTICI (D. Torre, O. de la Torre, A. Ruzzafante, W. Witholt; cpo 777 694-2)

Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: LA MUETTE DE PORTICI (cpo 777 694-2)

DANIEL-FRANÇOIS-ESPRIT AUBER (1782 – 1871): La muette de Portici—D. Torre (Masaniello), O. de la Torre (Alphonse), A. Ruzzafante (Elvire), W. Witholt (Pietro), A. Wood (Lorenzo), U. Paulsen (Selva), A. Weinkauf (Dame d’Honneur), K. Arguirov (Borella), S. Biener (Moreno), G. Gilardi (Fenella – dancer); Opernchor des Anhaltischen Theaters; Anhaltische Philharmonie; Antony Hermus [Recorded in the Großes Haus der Anhaltischen Theaters Dessau, Germany, in conjunction with a production by André Bücker; cpo 777 694-2; 2CD, 135:09]

Many operas have legends that have taken root in the rich soils of their music, the circumstances of their creations and first performances, and traditions and superstitions that have evolved throughout their performance histories, but few if any operas can rival the claim, even if it is somewhat hyperbolic, of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s La muette de Portici to have been the catalyst of a revolution that won a nation’s independence.  Acknowledged as one of the earliest examples of true French Grand Opera, La muette de Portici—based upon the exploits of Masaniello, the Neapolitan fisherman-turned-revolutionary who led his native city’s uprising against her Spanish Habsburg overlords—was first performed at the Opéra de Paris on 29 February 1828: perhaps there was some enchantment in the opera being premièred on a leap day.  Thirty months later, during a performance of the opera at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels on 25 August 1830, a revolt was launched in earnest, eventually leading to Belgium’s independence from the Netherlands.  As in most such intersections of opera and politics, there was more than met the eye to the involvement of Auber’s opera with the revolution.  Rather than being spontaneously inspired by La muette de Portici as some sentimentalized accounts suggest, underground revolutionaries had agreed upon using the duet ‘Amour sacré de la patrie’ in the opera’s Second Act as the signal to raise arms, prefiguring the manner in which Italian patriots would adopt ‘Viva Verdi’ as a clandestine rallying cry in support for Vittorio Emanuele that had little to do with the composer.  Though the actual link between Auber’s score and revolutionary activities is tenuous despite Richard Wagner’s espousal of the opera’s Romanticized history, it was at least a witness to the birth of a nation.  All of this external drama swirls about an opera which ends with its voiceless heroine plunging to her death in the Gulf of Naples whilst Vesuvius erupts!

The genuinely revolutionary elements of La muette de Portici are musical in nature.  With its five-act structure, penchant for large choral scenes, and prominent use of ballet, the opera effectively created the prototype for French Grand Opera that Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Auber himself would further refine with operas like Guillaume Tell, Robert le diable, Les Huguenots, and Gustave III (Auber’s precursor to Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, which distills the essence of several elements of French Grand Opera in its considerably shorter span).  Offering the public a title operatic heroine who dances rather than sings was an innovation, and framing ensembles with large-scale choruses continued the legacy of Gluck that would come to its greatest fruition in the operas of Berlioz.  Wagner somewhat overstated his case for the opera’s originality by suggesting that arias and concerted numbers are virtually indiscernible: though often employed in new ways, there are formulaic elements in La muette de Portici.  Musically, Auber craftily combined the styles of Cherubini, Weber, and early Italian bel canto into a curiously effective hybrid that, rather than sounding like a patchwork, created a new path that, with modifications and doses of genius, led to the mature operas of Verdi and Wagner.  Like many operas of its era, La muette de Portici contains music that makes considerable demands upon the soloists, so performances of the opera have for the past 150 years have been sporadic.  Fortunately, cpo’s engineers seem to turn up wherever something of musical merit transpires in German-speaking Europe, and they have met their own high standards with a recording of La muette de Portici that sounds great, the acoustic lively and credibly theatrical but clear, detailed, and spacious.

Dessau is perhaps not the first city that comes to mind when one contemplates opera in Germany, but the overall excellence of this performance by the Opernchor des Anhaltischen Theaters and Anhaltische Philharmonie suggests that the city’s musical life deserves greater attention than it receives.  The Opernchor singers out-sing the choruses of many of the world’s most important opera houses, the preparation that they received under Helmut Sonne’s direction showing in every scene in which they sing.  For Germans singing in French, they are wholly credible as revolting Italians, their expressions of patriotic fervor voiced with gusto.  Their colleagues in the orchestra pit are no less in the swing of things, their playing correct and stylish without being dull.  Dutch Maestro Antony Hermus, at the age of forty already a veteran of numerous operatic productions in all corners of Europe, conducts the performance with the zeal of a man who knows that he is presenting music that deserves to be heard more frequently.  Auber’s bel canto lines in concerted numbers are paced with no little elegance, and the extroverted choral scenes are permitted to be winningly raucous within the boundaries of musical integrity.  The music in the opera’s finale—a coup de théâtre if ever there was one—is whipped into a frenzy that never gets out of control.  Maestro Hermus’s straightforward approach, shaped by careful study of the score, would be welcome in any of the bel canto operas that now too often fall victim to conductors who feel that the scores need their ‘help’ in order to be palatable to the sensibilities of 21st-Century audiences.

This is another of cpo’s recordings in which the commendably well-chosen cast contains no singers who are incapable of fulfilling their appointed tasks.  As Lorenzo, Alphone’s confidant, tenor Angus Wood offers firm singing and a lively presence.  Elvire’s lady in waiting is voiced with charm and audible concern for her mistress by mezzo-soprano Anne Weinkauf.  The officer Selva receives from baritone Ulf Paulsen a confident, steady-toned performance of suitably martial uprightness.  Masaniello’s associates Borella and Moreno are strongly sung by baritone Kostadin Arguirov and bass Stephan Biener, both gentlemen possessing voices of distinction.  Baritone Wiard Witholt, a stalwart member of the Anhalt Company, provides virile, masculine singing as Pietro, his voice cutting through ensembles impressively.  It must be assumed that Gabriella Gilardi’s dancing as Fenella, the mute girl of the title, is as lovely as her quite musical name.

Alphonse, the son of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples, is a cousin of Verdi’s Duca di Mantova, a philanderer who has seduced Fenella but found it in his heart to regret his actions, and he is introduced with an aria, ‘O toi, jeune victime,’ that in spirit is not unlike the Duca’s ‘Parmi veder le lagrime.’  Mexican tenor Oscar de la Torre sings the aria with lovely, reedy tone, only the interpolated top note at the scene’s end troubling him.  In ensembles, Mr. de la Torre proves an engaging singer who responds convincingly to his musical partners.  His stirring duet with Elvire in Act Three, ‘N’espérez pas me fuir,’ draws from him singing of boundless energy and emotion, and throughout the performance he embraces the conflicting sentiments of his character.  The voice is a lyric tenor of modest proportions, and there are occasional signs that Mr. de la Torre is forcing his natural instrument, particularly at the extreme top of the voice.  The voice has a pleasing timbre, however, and it is to be hoped that he ultimately can achieve with projection what he here sometimes musters with pressure.

Soprano Angelina Ruzzafante has thus far pursued a varied repertory that has included few of the bel canto rôles that might be thought to be the vocal realm of a prospective Elvire.  Having sung Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust to considerable acclaim afforded Ms. Ruzzafante an apt introduction to the musical environment of La muette de Portici, however, and the same technical attributes that undoubtedly contributed to her success as Marguerite serve her well as Elvire.  Elvire’s aria ‘O moment enchanteur!’ is a lovely inspiration, and Ms. Ruzzafante sings it eloquently.  Throughout the performance, she sings capably, combining the attractive timbre of her voice with a sharply-drawn portrait of the character.  The ease of Ms. Ruzzafante’s voicing of top lines in ensembles contributes to the overall effectiveness of the performance.  Ms. Ruzzafante connects with the drama of her rôle with disarming immediacy.  In an early draft of La muette de Portici, both Fenella and Elvire were mute rôles: Ms. Ruzzafante’s performance of Elvire’s music inspires gratitude for Auber’s second thoughts.

The rôle of Masaniello was created by Adolphe Nourrit, which to the observer who is familiar with Nourrit’s legacy in bel canto and early French Grand Opera will indicate much about the nature of Auber’s music for Masaniello.  Masaniello is the opera’s most interesting character by a considerable margin: his pursuit of justice and freedom is tempered by a deep devotion to his sister, Fenella, that is the impetus for his seeming betrayal of his revolutionary comrades.  Auber lavished the best of his gifts on his music for Masaniello, and the character enjoys fantastic music throughout the opera.  Especially in Masaniello’s aria ‘O dieu! toi qui m’as destiné,’ young Mexican tenor Diego Torre sings the part gloriously.  Mr. Torre possesses a tightly-focused lyric tenor with a cool, penetrating timbre.  In Masaniello’s Barcarolle with chorus, ‘Amis, la matinée et belle,’ Mr. Torre’s singing aptly conveys the character’s description of the beauty of the scene before him, and his voice rings out impressively in the duet with Pietro that culminates in the famous ‘Amour sacré de la patrie.’  As is expected with a rôle created by Nourrit, Masaniello’s music frequently takes Mr. Torre to the top of his range, where the young singer is occasionally stressed but never overwhelmed.  Indeed, in ‘O dieu! toi qui m’as destiné,’ though some of the top notes do not come with great ease, they come excitingly, and Mr. Torre’s top C is an incandescent tone.  He gives himself over to his rôle wholeheartedly, even his most rabble-rousing lines touched with a suggestion of poetry, and his concern for his sister is movingly depicted.  Vocally, there can be no greater praise than to state that Mr. Torre holds his own in comparison with his predecessor in the rôle of Masaniello on records, the inimitable Alfredo Kraus.  Mr. Torre’s timbre is reminiscent of Kraus’s, and the younger singer seems destined for a successful career in the repertory in which Kraus’s artistry remains the gold standard.

When the world’s largest, most famous opera houses are struggling to effectively cast the standard repertory of Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini operas, it is both marvelous and, in contrasting their work with their better-funded counterparts, slightly sad to discover that smaller, regional companies are producing so much exceptional work.  Unless, at some unforeseen moment in future when opera companies have refocused their attention on voices, a star singer with infallible marketability takes up its cause, La muette de Portici is unlikely to be heard in houses like the Metropolitan Opera or the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.  With singing that shames the efforts of larger companies, this Dessau production of La muette de Portici is a stirring reminder of Auber’s intrinsic gifts for creating melodious, dramatically effective scores, as well as of the potential of smaller opera companies to offer rewarding productions of operas that are unjustly neglected.  Thanks to the efforts of cpo, the high standards achieved in Dessau in La muette de Portici can be enjoyed by opera lovers throughout the world.