Whether it’s opera buffa, opéra comique or
Spieloper you’ll find it all in this mouth-watering
box of bon-bons. The last time I was so tempted was by a
2-CD Eloquence set entitled Overtures in Hi-Fi, with Albert
Wolff conducting the Orchestre de L’Opéra-Comique, Paris and
the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; it features much of the repertoire
recorded here (review).
It’s said that French ensembles tend to play this music better
than anyone else, but then the RSNO have been described by The
Times as ‘the best French orchestra north of Calais’.
The conductor here is Lance Friedel, an American who has a fairly
wide repertoire that embraces the likes of Carl Nielsen and Bohuslav
Martinů. His only other Naxos recording to date is a Josef Bohuslav
Foerster collection, which Jonathan Woolf welcomed back in 2006 (review).
Is Friedel slumming it here? Perhaps, but seconds into Hérold’s
Zampa overture it’s clear he is having a ball; after
all, there’s nothing like a bit of seduction and flirtation
with the supernatural to get the pulse racing. And that’s exactly
what happens in this feisty overture, played here with tremendous
brio and bite.
Keep the sal volatile handy, though, for there’s a
lot more where that came from. We move to Germany for Nicolai’s
Merry Wives, which finds the RSNO in sparkling, fun-filled
form. Friedel paces the music well and ensemble is crisp throughout.
This rep needs a light touch – even a feel for comic timing
– and by and large this conductor is up to the task. The sound
is decent, with a brightish treble that suits this music; the bass
is fairly well extended, too. A little more warmth and body wouldn’t
have gone amiss, but that’s a minor quibble when the music-making
is as infectious as this.
The Venetian-born composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari settled in Germany,
where much of his work was first performed. Susanna’s Secret
is that she enjoys the occasional puff, and in Friedel’s hands
this overture is witty and spirited. As so often with themed compendia
of this kind not all the material is of such good quality; for me
at least the French composer Ambroise Thomas’s opera Mignon
tends to outstay its welcome. That said, there are some diaphanous
harp sounds in this overture; also, the RSNO play elegantly and with
The Austrian Emil von Rezniček’s buoyant overture to his
1894 opera Donna Diana gets a robust reading –
shades of Suppé, surely – and the RSNO are as nimble as one
could wish. I miss the Gallic hauteur that Wolff brings to
the piece, though; the vintage Decca sound is pretty good too. As
for the German Friedrich von Flotow, his overture to Martha
occasionally reminds me of his compatriot Giacomo Meyerbeer, who did
very for himself in Paris. The side drum is nicely caught and there’s
some fine horn playing. Oh, and what a grand, grand finale.
The side drum that opens François Auber’s Fra Diavolo
is even more thrilling. Now this really is grand opera, and
Friedel and his players give the music all the amplitude it needs.
Those memorable, Rossini-like tunes and the overture’s martial
passages are superbly rendered. As for Albert Lortzing’s Tsar
and Carpenter it's a good example of the German Spieloper,
which combines elements of the French opéra comique and the
Italian opera buffa. It can seem a little po-faced at times,
but Friedel gives it plenty of bounce, especially in that most emphatic
We go back to the late eighteenth century for the Italian composer
Domenico Cimarosa’s Secret Marriage. It’s classical
proportions are nicely preserved, and Friedel makes no attempt to
dress the work in Romantic garb. Rhythms are pin-sharp, climaxes are
sensibly scaled and the whole thing proceeds at a very pleasing pace.
After that Adolphe Adam’s If I were king adds a soupçon
of exoticism to the programme; the RSNO dispense it with charm and
spontaneity. The pounding tuttis are a tad relentless, but otherwise
this is a very entertaining performance of a surprisingly danceable
The Mainz-born Peter Cornelius’s The Barber of Baghdad
was premiered in Weimar under the baton of no less a luminary than
Franz Liszt. Cornelius died before he could complete an overture to
replace the original prelude; the overture played here is an arrangement
by the composer Felix Mottl. It's an attractive piece, although I
find it workmanlike at times. Still, it’s one of the few sub-par
items on this otherwise well-planned album.
A most enjoyable confection; I wouldn’t be without the Albert
Wolff set, though.
Naxos offer this release in a number of forms; on their high-resolution
streaming service, as a CD, as a Blu-ray Audio disc and as a download
(mo3, 16/44.1 and 24/96). Anyone in the recorded-music business knows
that maximising consumer choice can’t hurt, although the slow
take-up of BD-A suggests that format could soon go the way of DVD-A.
What puzzled me was the simultaneous release of a 2xHD
download of this album on eClassical, at identical resolutions and
prices. There is a difference though; 2xHD convert Naxos's
24/96 files to analogue and then to 24/192, before issuing the results
in downsampled 24/96 form. No doubt the presence of DXD, DSD and tube
pre-amps in the audio chain shapes the resulting sonics.
That's a rather convoluted process, but does it actually enhance the
sound? Well, I’ve only reviewed
one of 2xHD’s Naxos re-masters before and I was much impressed
by the gains in general dynamism and sparkle. Intrigued I downloaded
the 2xHD version of Zampa and Susanna's Secret and
did a quick A/B comparison. Straightaway I noticed instrumental separation
is better and that the bass is slightly extended; the latter was confirmed
by spectrum analysis. Also, the 2xHD files are slightly louder. Overall,
there’s an increase in clarity, and that underlines the crispness
I wouldn’t say the difference is vast, but it is perceptible.
On the evidence of those two tracks I’d probably opt for the
2xHD download, as I prefer the way the music is presented. However,
it's worth remembering that in general the original Naxos files are
nowhere near as subtle or as sophisticated as those from more upmarket
labels. In that respect both the Naxos and 2xHD downloads are expensive
for what they are. On eClassical they're priced at the equivalent
of £14.38, whereas on Qobuz the
high-res Naxos files are pitched at a mere £6.83. So, it really
does pay to shop around. DM