> Hidden Treasures of French opera [CF]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Hidden Treasures of French opera

Arias from:
SAINT-SAËNS: Henry VIII/Etienne Marcel
MASSENET: Hérodiade/Le Cid/Marie Magdeleine
MEYERBER: Les Huguenots
HALÉVY: La Juive
GOUNOD: Sapho/Faust
FAURÉ: Pénélope
REYER: Sigurd
Anne-Sophie Schmidt (soprano)
Orchestre Failoni de l’Opéra Hongrois/Jean-Luc Tingaud
Recorded at the Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne, 2001, DDD
MANDALA MAN 5002 [71.06]

The attraction here is the relatively unusual repertoire, mainly from the nineteenth century from operas by Halévy (1835) onwards and concluding with Fauré (1913), although to describe Gounod’s Faust as a ‘hidden treasure’ (no, it’s not the Jewel Song either) is somewhat disingenuous on the recording company’s part. It all gets off to a shaky start with Saint-Saëns’ Henry VIII, the opening of Act 4, leading into the pastiche 17th century dance played by an offstage brass band (meant to be accompanying a chorus … but not here) followed by Catherine of Aragon’s aria. The problem is Anne-Sophie Schmidt’s soprano voice; she is no dramatic soprano and frankly this is sub-standard singing. She fares better in later, more lyrical, arias requiring less weight to the voice, such as Salomé’s aria from Massenet’s Hérodiade. This is a ‘milk and water’ figure compared to Richard Strauss’s characterisation in his opera of the same name, or Gounod’s Sapho (though the occasional approach to high notes is irritatingly flat even here). It is interesting to hear arias from unstaged works by Gounod, Bizet (Saraï’s aria could have been for Michaela in Carmen), Massenet, as well as Fauré and the Wagnerian Reyer, but the word ‘treasure’ is over the top, for this has been very much the repertoire in the British Isles of such enterprising groups such as the Wexford Festival, University College London Opera, the Royal Academy of Music, or Chelsea Opera Group over the years. It would be interesting to know if they are staged in France, probably not would be my guess.

The acoustics of the Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne are very dead, exposing the weaknesses of the Orchestre Failoni de l’Opéra hongrois (why on earth a Hungarian band - did they come cheap perhaps?) rather than its strengths, though from time to time there is some accomplished solo work (for example from the principal clarinet and the harpist). The result is a strangely old-fashioned bloomless sound as if from the 1930s. By the end Mlle Schmidt’s vocal inadequacies begin to irritate. Approach this treasure trove with caution.

Christopher Fifield

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