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Louis VARNEY (1844-1908)
Les Mousquetaires au Couvent (The Musketeers in the Convent) (1880)
Operetta (complete, with abridged dialogue in French)
Colette Riedinger (sop) Simone; Pierre Blanc (ten) Gontran; Gabriel Bacquier (bar) Brissac; Louis Musy (bar) Bridaine; Mireille Lacoste (sop) Louise.
Robert Benedetti, conductor
Rec. Universal (Decca) Studios, Antony, France 1957.
mono (2CDs for the price of one)

This set is from the Universal France/Accord series of 1950s-1960s re-releases.

Louis Varney as a composer of operetta following on the heels of Offenbach who had popularised opéra comique for the previous two decades. As a name he is forgotten now yet in his day he composed a number of successful opéra comiques, of which Les Mousquetaires au Couvent is the most celebrated. Varney's father was a small time composer as well as conductor for the Bouffes Parisiens, a theatre noted for its light musical entertainment. A young Varney helped the director there (Louis Cantin) in setting up some of his productions. Cantin suggested that he write an operetta based on an early vaudeville by Saint-Hilaire and Duport called The Habit doesn’t make the Monk (1835). This was to become The Musketeers in the Convent, which is picturesquely set in Louis XIII's reign. In its funny libretto, two musketeers disguise themselves as monks. (A similar comical device would be used five years later in Princess Ida by Gilbert and Sullivan.) The plot is cleverly contrived and helped give this work an immediate success, so much so that the production saved the closure of the theatre. The other Varney operatic works sadly died with him and the titles that followed, Fanfan la Tulipe (1882) or his last work, L’Age d’Or (1905), are not known today.

I find Varney's music romantically charming where the first violins dance along with the melody line. It is not far removed from the familiar formula of Offenbach with maybe a touch of Rossini. There are not particularly memorable tunes like those found in Orpheus or Belle Hélène, but what Varney lacks here he amply makes up with effective chorus numbers. The score is lively, full of colour and rhythm.

From the moment when the curtain rises one's attention is assured [CD1 tk.2]. Try the breezy trio [CD2 tk.2] or laughing chorus of Act III [CD2 tk.16]. The entr’acte to Act 2 is based on the captivating waltz tune first heard in an Act 1 chorus number. The Act 3 Offenbachian-style entr’acte is particularly charming. The energetic pace provided by Benedetti gives a zippy feel to the music.

The role of Simone is played by Colette Riedinger: with a good 'top' and pleasant coloratura, she has a habit of unnecessaily exaggerating certain notes. This provides a shrillness in her delivery and in CD1 tk.12 seems to be linked with a lack of breath control. The men are more secure and good performances are given by Louis Musy, Gabriel Bacquier and in particular Pierre Blanc. His light lyrical singing helps lift the piece. The chorus work is not always crisply delivered, but this does not detract from one's enjoyment.

Brief notes in French are provided in the attractive card case. It would have been nice to have the track list showing which characters deliver the dialogue.

Raymond Walker

Operette series from Universal Accord reviewed by Ray Walker

Other sets in the Accord 'Operette' series:

Audran, La Mascotte [465 877-2];

Benatzky, L'Auberge du Cheval Blanc [465 880-2];

Christiné, Dédé [461 961-2] Phi-Phi [465 886-2];

Dumas, Ignace [472 877-2];

Ganne, Les Saltimbanques [465 868-2];

Goulblier, La Cocarde de Mimi Pinson [461 964-2];

Lecocq, La Fille de Madame Angot [465 883-2] Le Petit Duc [472 874-2]; Lehár, Paganini [472 868-2] Rose de Noel [472 871-2];

Maillart, Les Dragons de Villars [472 865-2];

Messager, Véronique [465 864-2];

Offenbach, La Belle Hélène [461 954-2] La Fille du Tambour Major [461 673-2] La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein [465 871-2];

Planquette, Les Cloches de Corneville [465 861-2];

J Strauss, Trois Valses [461 958-2];

Yvain, La-Haut [461 967-2].

Further reading: "Operetta", Traubner (Oxford 2003); ‘Musicals", Ganzl (Carlton 1995)

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