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Louis-Aimé MAILLART (1817-1871)
Les Dragons de Villars, operetta (1856)
(abridged with dialogue in French)

Susanne Lafaye (mezzo) - Rose; Andrée Esposito (sop) - Georgette;
André Mallabrera (ten) - Sylvain; Julien Haas (bass) - Belamy; Pierre Heral (bass) - Thibault
Orchestra and Choir directed by Richard Blareau
Rec. Universal (Decca) Studios, Antony, France
2 CDs for the price of one


This realisation by Max de Rieux is an interesting component in this series, principally because it is one of the earliest examples of the genre. It also fascinates because it was composed by a competent musician, now almost forgotten and not mentioned in the usual operetta books. The overture also appears in a modern recording (2000) by the BBC Phil on a concert CD 'French Bonbons' (CHAN 9765) with three other rarities and an odd mix of other pieces. One popular aria 'Ne parle pas' is available in two 1930s recordings. Apart from this there are no other entries of Maillard's music in the CD catalogue.

The CD notes of Jean Ziegler tell us that Louis-Aimé Maillard was born at Montpellier, France, the son of a provincial actor who founded an artistic agency, and an actor brother. Maillard was a talented yet lazy student who at sixteen entered the Paris Conservatoire where he learnt composition under Halévy. He won the Grand Prize of Rome for writing a cantata, Lionel Foscari and spent two years in Rome before returning to Paris. His first opera, Gastibelza was a great success and opened the doors to the Opéra-Comique Théâtre where two other works appeared and preceded Les Dragons de Villars. This is the only work for which he is now remembered.

The librettist, Cormon, had delivered good books for Maillard's previous operas and here with Lockroy delivers an unusual plot. The opera takes place in a farm courtyard and at a mountain pass.

A substantial overture (5 mins) is as lovely as those popular overtures, Zampa and Merry Wives of Windsor. Its novel opening with dramatic staccato chords moves seamlessly into an elegant pizzicato passage, later to be interrupted by good rhythmic material and a fanfare section that carries more than a passing likeness to the Entrance of the Peers (Iolanthe).

The opera opens with the villagers picking fruit at the farm of Thibault, a rich farmer. A corps of dragoons is soon spotted approaching the village. Knowing their dubious reputation Thibault, with his wife Georgette, decides to lock up the farm girls in their spacious dovecote. Tambourines and trumpet announce the colourful arrival of the soldiers with their officer Belamy in charge. The absence of women and wives takes them by surprise, but then Rose Friquet, with mules, appears. Friquet’s introductory aria has a touch of Tchaikovsky about it. With a reputation as a witch Friquet finds that a group of Protestant fugitives are hiding close by in the mountain and tells Sylvain, Thibault's farmhand about the help they need. Between them they work out a stratagem that involves the tolling of a bell from nearby monastic settlement to help the fugitives cross the border to safety. The soldiers are plied with wine and fruit to help them forget the absence of women. In Act II, Rose and Sylvain are found in the mountains where they develop their love affair. She is later proved innocent of her sorcery and they marry in Act III.

Susanne Lafaye as Rose has a strong voice with pleasant timbre and in her opening aria effortlessly handles a wide vocal range. Andrée Esposito as Georgette makes the most of her small part and has a warm low register. The officer, Belamy (Julien Haas) is ideal for the part with his robust, resonant voice and comes across with the determination fitting his role. André Mallabrera as Sylvain handles his romance (CD1 tk.8) with good emotion and has a timbre well fitting the breezy phrases of a simplistic tune. His 'Proscrits, c'est l'esperance' (CD2 tk.1) is sung with engaging innocence and his strong vibrato does not mask his sensitivity to the aria. Pierre Heral as the farmer, Thibault, provides strong support throughout. Under Blareau's direction the music breathes life and sounds well with the large orchestral forces.

I liked my first hearing of this composer and felt that it is such a pity so little of his music is known. He is inventive with colour, and from the evidence here incorporates lush harmony, catchy rhythms and novel decorative phrases. If you like Offenbach, Lecocq, or Sullivan you'll enjoy this music. In the Act I finale (CD1 tk.13) I clearly detected a section that might have been lifted wholesale from one of the Auber operas written twenty years earlier. I also wonder whether Sullivan studied Maillard's material when he was in Paris in Spring 1882, just before he commenced writing for Iolanthe.

The clear recording is more than a studio version of a stage performance for it successfully attempts to take you into the farmyard with realistic sounds of hens, mules and birds like a radio play. The second CD opens with mountainous atmospherics, which may be mistaken for track noise or a bad transfer. Why it disappears at the commencement of track 3 (whilst still in the mountains) is a mystery.

This CD set, like the Petit Duc, is a rare find. Brief notes in French are provided in an attractive card case that matches the rest of the series. The illustration of dragoons certainly gives no indication of the effervescent nature of the contents.

Raymond Walker

Operette series from Universal Accord reviewed by Ray Walker


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