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Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Overtures and Entr’actes from the French Operas
Full track-listing at end of review
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Darrell Ang
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 6-8 June 2013
NAXOS 8.573195 [71.22]

This May (2014) marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Giacomo Meyerbeer. It’s an anniversary that has, it seems, been mostly overlooked … but not by Naxos. This disc emerges with perfect timing and is the third Naxos recently devoted to this now rather unfashionable figure. The others, recorded and listed on the back of the jewel case, being Ballet Music from the operas (review) and Il Crociato in Egito (review).
If I thought about Meyerbeer at all I might have considered him rather prolix, pompous, even dull — all that without having ever seen or hardly heard much of his work. All very unfair but it could be that you might feel the same way. Well this disc may well help disabuse you — and certainly me — of such biased views. In fact in the early twentieth century all of the great singers liked to have an aria or two from Meyerbeer’s operas in their repertoire. The tenors Marcel Wittrisch and Jussi Björling are just two examples.
What is especially good about this recording is first, that we have music from right across the composer’s career including his last opera Le Prophète. Secondly there are excellent notes by Robert Ignatius Letellier, which not only describe the music but also discuss the often quite complex plots. These are made clear although some are a little eccentric. They do however demonstrate Meyerbeer’s ability to tap into the concerns and sensibilities of contemporary audiences through the work of his outstanding librettist Eugène Scribe.
Perhaps it was the fact that 14 July - Bastille Day - was never really out of the minds of nineteenth century Frenchmen that found Meyerbeer most commonly preferring use plots which included war. Add to this a mixture of romance, heroism, striving for justice and the rest as in Les Huguenots and Le Prophéte. That’s not to rule out comedy however and there are some examples of that.
Another remarkable thing is that a young conductor Darrell Ang takes this music totally seriously. He does this without overplaying his hand which must sometimes have been very tempting especially with Meyerbeer’s ‘full-fat’ orchestration. The orchestra are clearly enjoying themselves and often let rip but play with clarity and judgement. It’s quite possible that this music has never sounded so good.
Let me give you a few pertinent examples to whet your appetite. The longest Overture is for the opera Dinorah. This is a miniature tone poem and at the end of it you might feel that you don’t have to attend the opera at all. It’s actually a comic opera set in Brittany about a goatherd in search of treasure trove and the adventures she undergoes. It is in various sections contrasted in moods of drama and heart-warming melody. As a contrast the Overture to L’Africaine, first produced posthumously, with its opening, overlapping horn-calls, is short and dreamy and acts purely as an atmospheric scene-setter. The earliest Overture is different again. The Weberesque Robert le Diable is exciting and suitably wild. It makes you yearn for the action to commence. Similarly so for the Overture L’Etoile du Nord, the composer’s first comic opera. It’s about Tsar Peter who goes in disguise as a shipwright. It has a gorgeously romantic tune at its midway point.
Alongside many of the overtures, various entr’actes have been recorded. Especially well known is the last track - a good ending to the disc – the Coronation March from Le Prophète. Meyerbeer was well able to orchestrate charmingly and with colour. That he also had a sure sense of melody is ably demonstrated in the lovely Entr’acte to Act II of Les Huguenots with its felicitous, almost Tchaikovskian flute solo.
So this is vibrant music, well worth exploring. Its’s performed with a depth of understanding which allows the music every chance of presenting itself at its best.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Dan Morgan

1. Overture – Robert le Diable (1831) [3.24]
2. Overture – L’Ètoile du Nord (1854) [9.08]
From Les Huguenots (1836)
3. Overture [4.48]
4. Orgie – (Drinking Song from Act I) [3.36]
5. Entr’acte to Act II [1.33]
6. Entr’acte to Act III [3.44]
7. Ballet in Act V [2.02]
From L’Africaine (1865)
8. Overture [4.33]
9. Entr’acte to Act I [1.33]
10. Entr’acte to Act III [3.44]
11. Entr’acte to Act V [1.24]
12. Grande scene du mancenillier – Act V [1.41]
From Dinorah (Le Pardon de Ploërmel) (1859)
13. Overture [13.16]
14. Entr’acte from Act II [2.55]
15. Entr’acte – Act III [1.45]
From Le Prophète
16. Overture (1849) [11.06]
17. Coronation March (Act IV) [3.17]