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Robert PLANQUETTE (1848-1903)
Les Cloches de Corneville (The Chimes of Normandy) operetta (1877)
(complete, abridged; with dialogue in French)
Ernest Blanc (ten) Marquis de Corneville, Huguette Boulangeot (sop) Germaine, Jean Giraudeau (ten) Grenicheux, Louis Musy (bar) Gaspard, Colette Riedinger (sop) Serpolette, André Balbon (bar) Le Bailli.
Pierre Dervaux, conductor
Rec. Universal (Decca) Studios, Antony, France 1955.
Mono (2CD set for the price of single CD)

This attractively boxed CD set is taken from a 2LP set issued in the 1960s at a time when Decca in France were building a large catalogue of operetta. The set competes well with the other available set from EMI.

Robert Planquette was a Parisian of Norman origin, the son of a singer and attended the Paris Conservatoire. He was a poor student and preferred to exploit his talents as a café accompanist and singer.

In 1876, Planquette was given a commission to compose an operetta and Les Cloches de Corneville was the result. It followed lukewarm receptions of Offenbach's La Foire Saint-Laurent and Chabrier's L'Étoile. When premièred on 17 April 1877 the piece ran for 580 performances. When translated into English and performed in London it upstaged HMS Pinafore by chalking up a staggering 708 performances. In the first run, a very young Juliette Girard as Serpolette went under the name of Simone Girard to later become a well-known singer.

Les Cloches de Corneville, was Planquette's first full operetta score, and followed the writing of individual songs. With little background experience in composing for the stage, it is amazing how this first operetta flows with such melody, strong rhythm and interesting orchestral colour.

The chorus parts are written with energy and the work sparkles with lively motifs. Planquette’s skill in getting melodies to blend and flow can be heard in the Act 1 finale (CD1 tk.11) where catchy rhythms and vibrant colour hold the listener's attention.

Les Cloches de Corneville survived until the 1940s in Britain and was probably the most popular French operetta of all time. The storyline is similar to that of ‘La Dame blanche’ and ‘Martha’

The plot surrounds a supposedly haunted castle with an heir who returns incognito. An abandoned girl who thinks she is a princess meets a fake ghost who is in fact an old miser trying to profit from the riches of his elderly employer. When to this one adds a flavour of Gaelic tradition as well as tuneful, well-crafted music one is assured of a success.

I always think Planquette's music should be taken at a reasonable pace: here conductor Pierre Dervaux does just that. The overture contains accelerandos that although not in the score are effective, but at times Dervaux takes passages so fast that the players do well to keep up with him.

The soloists are excellent: Huguette Boulangeot is powerful and is likely to have considerable charisma on stage. She is well matched by Ernest Blanc as the Marquis who is sensitive to the Viennese waltz idiom. But I found him too forwardly miked in the hit song 'J'ai fait trois', however, and this masked the orchestra to some extent. Of the other singers, Jean Giraudeau is a light tenor who provides marked clarity of voice and provides good dynamics. His elegant arched phrases and ability to hold long top notes with ease made listening to him a joy. Colette Riedinger is a confident soprano who again has crystal clear diction.

This is a good recording with all sections of the orchestra nicely separated in the overture and under Dervaux's direction a sprightly and energetic performance is provided. A need to squeeze the score onto four LP sides has inevitably required some material to be edited out: but all the important songs are here.

There is a reasonable balance between singers and orchestra, but I found the recording engineer habitually starts choir tracks with distant miking to give an effect that the villagers are approaching. Although nice when heard once, this becomes repetitious, however.

Short notes on Planquette and the plot are provided, written in French.

Raymond Walker

Operette series from Universal Accord reviewed by Ray Walker

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