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Daniel Francois Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
La Muette de Portici - Opera in 5 acts (1820) [135:09]
Oscar de la Torre (tenor) - Alphonse
Angelina Ruzzafante (soprano) - Elvire
Angus Wood (tenor) - - Lorenzo
Ulf Paulsen (baritone) - Selva
Anne Weinkauf (mezzo) - Eine Holdame
Diego Torre (tenor) - Masaniello
Wiard Witholt (bass) - Pietro
Kostadin Arguirov (baritone) - Borella
Stephan Biener (bass) - Moreno
Opernchor des Anhaltischen Theaters
Anhaltische Philharmonie/Anthony Hermus
rec. 24-26 May 2011, Großes Haus des Anhaltischen Theaters, Dessau, Germany
CPO 777 694-2 [65:47 + 69:32]

This important French opera, the pinnacle of Auber’s success, has only received one previous recording. This was conducted by Thomas Fulton on EMI Classics (777 7492842, 1986) with Monte Carlo forces and a solo roster that included John Aler, June Anderson, Alain Munier and Alfredo Kraus. Collectors of Auber will know it well.
This new recording is superior in many respects and is welcome for revealing an extra dimension to Auber. The EMI recording tends to accentuate Auber’s rompy style and at times comes across as rushed. Hermus’s version tends to tease out some previously unobserved detail. There is more sensitivity to the flow of the score, with greater attention shown to dynamics both in the singing and playing. The powerful chorus - of more singers than usual - is supported by an excellent acoustic.
Those unfamiliar with this opera will probably be aware of its overture sometimes entitled, Masaniello - the title is taken from one of the characters. Here, the overture is by far the best recording of the three I have heard and provides the right footing on which to consider the music of the succeeding five acts.
The strong cast is led by the famous Mexican singer, Diego Torre (Masaniello). He is a vibrant and strong tenor, whose power nicely fits his brave fisherman image. His wide register and fine tone lifts the energy of the combat scene in Act V. Angelina Ruzzafante (Elvire) is a confident soprano who sings with delicacy in her main aria, 'Plaisir du rang suprệme' with its ting coloratura. Oscar de la Torre as Alphonse holds our attention with gusto in the first act where preparations for the approaching wedding with Elvire are taking place. Later he and Elvire sing admirably in the duet, 'N'espérez pas me fuir'. Wiard Witholt, a resonantly rich bass, makes an appropriately fiery Pietro and nicely widens the spectrum of ensemble singing in the third and fifth acts.
Despite the elegant sound and acoustics there is a slight problem of balance. There are times when the busy strings are severely recessed, particularly in the Act I finale where the excellent chorus is placed too far forward for us to hear orchestral detail. Again, in certain numbers the brass tends to swamp the wind section. Generally these are minor criticisms that for me do not detract from enjoyment of the music as a whole.
Anthony Hermus has given the listener a sensitive reading of Auber's score with admirable playing from the Anhaltische Philharmonie. It is a great pity that the short, yet charming, ballet has been omitted, presumably because it was deemed inappropriate for the stage production. However with a recording planned from the outset it would not have caused much difficulty to add it for completeness sake. After all, no French opera of the 19th century would have been staged without a ballet.
In this continental recording the 84 page booklet provides good background notes by Heribert Germeshausen and Sophie Walz, along with artist biographies in German, French and English. There’s also a full libretto but in French only; no translations.
Raymond J Walker