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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Offenbach Colorature
Jodie Devos (soprano)
Adèle Charvet (mezzo-soprano)
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Laurent Campellone
rec. 2018, Studio 1, Bayerischen Rundfunk, Munich
French texts with English translations provided
ALPHA CLASSICS 437 [60.57]

The two hundredth anniversary of Offenbach, one of the most important stage composers in the nineteenth century, is celebrated in 2019. On Alpha Classics, Belgian born soprano Jodie Devos has recorded an album of Offenbach airs (arias). It’s a highly appealing mix of works, some well-known and many others now in relative obscurity. This is a programme suggested by the Centre de Musique Romantique Française, an organisation housed in Palazzetto Bru Zane, Venice, concerned with the rediscovery and international promotion of the French musical heritage of the period around 1780-1920. Amongst her roles, Devos has sung in a number of French stage works including the title role in Offenbach’s operetta Geneviève de Brabant in 2016 at Opéra national de Montpellier. I notice the soprano is engaged to sing Olympia in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) at Opéra de Paris.

Cologne born, although French by adoption, Offenbach wrote principally for the stage. Highly prolific, he left over one hundred operettas and light operas most of which are hardly known, and his single opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann, a masterwork which was left incomplete at his death. Today Offenbach is best known mainly for the Can-Can (originally titled Infernal Galop) taken from his operetta Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld); the Barcarolle, a duet from Les Contes d’Hoffmann, is also much loved.

Devos’ album contains sixteen tracks (fifteen of them sung) taken from twelve of Offenbach’s stage works. Eight of the operettas are represented here by a single aria and there are three arias from Boule de neige, two arias from both Fantasio and Les Contes d’Hoffmann, and from Les Bergers a single overture. Alexandre Dratwicki, in the booklet notes, writes about the specialist female voice category having the vocal virtuosity needed to perform Offenbach’s coloratura arias from his early single act works with small casts to mature full scale operettas. In his opéra comiques of a more serious emotional vein, for example Fantasio to Les Contes d’Hoffmann, in the manner of a grand opera, Offenbach requires remarkable vocal technical and emotional artistry of his coloratura sopranos together with a strong lyrical element and for these challenging demands Jodie Devos fits the bill.

This is a striking collection from the hugely talented Devos, who makes a direct and significant impact. Devos is able to reproduce the very essence of Offenbach’s sound world from which I have chosen four particular highlights. The first work ‘Couplet de la dompteuse: ‘Je suis du Pays vermeil’’ from the three act opéra bouffe, Boule de neige to a libretto by Charles Nuitter and Étienne Tréfeu premièred in 1871. Devos sings gloriously, technically sound and expressive, mirroring the underlying mood in this light and frivolous aria. Fantasio a three act opéra comique using Paul de Musset’s libretto was premièred in 1872. In Elsbeth’s romance ‘Voilà toute la ville en fête’ Devos’ attractive, bright soprano is tenderly expressive, displaying her reliably impressive coloratura. One of the most prized arias in the entire coloratura repertoire is ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ known as the Doll Song from the opéra fantastique in five acts Les Contes d’Hoffmann. To a libretto by Jules Barbier and premièred in 1881, the opera is set in a world of the fantastic, the uncanny and the magical. As Olympia, the singing clockwork doll, in the amusing Doll Song (to harp and flute accompaniment) Devos gives a memorable and assured performance, demonstrating a stunning aptitude for coloratura display. Probably the most famous piece from the opera is the Barcarolle, ‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour’ a duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano. It is beautifully sung here, with the bright sunny tones of Devos blending impressively with the dark-edged timbre of French mezzo-soprano Adèle Charvet. Under Laurent Campellone, Münchner Rundfunkorchester excel, giving a sparkling performance of considerable momentum yet maintaining sufficient poise. The only purely orchestral work here, the overture to Les Bergers an opéra comique premièred in 1865 – a colourful mix of Suppé and Verdi – is played with a rousing enthusiasm which is irresistible.

From the studios at Bayerischen Rundfunk, Munich there are no problems whatsoever with the recorded sound which is especially satisfying, having first class clarity and balance. Written by musicologist Alexandre Dratwicki, the booklet notes are an interesting read, yet more information on the actual stage works and individual arias wouldn’t have gone amiss. Thanks are due to Alpha Classics for providing full French texts with English translations placed alongside. At only sixty minutes another aria or two would have added to the appeal.

In terms of content the closest album to this collection that I know is the outstanding release ‘Anne Sofie von Otter Sings Offenbach’, an attractive programme of arias taken from eleven stage works. Recorded live at Théâtre du Châtele, Paris in 2001, Otter is joined by Les Musiciens du Louvre under Marc Minkowsky, on Deutsche Grammophon (review). For those wishing to explore Offenbach’s masterpiece I can’t praise highly enough Stefan Herheim’s remarkable production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann from Bregenz Festival in 2015 on C Major DVD/Blu-ray (review).

Alpha Classics have a winner here. This memorable album of Offenbach’s coloratura arias so expertly performed by Jodie Devos is a must for lovers of French Romantic operetta and opera repertoire. One wonders how many worthy arias there are yet to be rediscovered amongst Offenbach’s prodigious output.

Michael Cookson

1. Boule de neige (1871), ‘Couplet de la dompteuse ‘Je suis du Pays vermeil’’ [2.03]
2. Vert-Vert (1869), Air de La Corilla ‘Les plus beaux vers sont toujours fades’ [4.04]
3. Orphée aux Enfers (1858), Invocation d’Eurydice ‘La mort m’apparaît souriante’ [2.22]
4. Un Mari à la porte (1859), Valse-tyrolienne de Rosita ‘J’entends, ma belle’ [4.02]
5. Fantasio (1872), Air d’Elsbeth ‘Cachons l’ennui de mon âme’ [5.13]
6. Les Bavards (1862), Air d’Inès ‘Ce sont d’étranges personnages’ [2.50]
7. Mesdames de La Halle (1858), Rondo de Ciboulette ‘Quel bruit et quel tapage’ [4.51]
8. Le Roi Carotte (1872), Romance des fleurs ‘Le voilà… c’est bien lui’ [4.06]
9. Les Bergers (1865), Ouverture [4.39]
10. Fantasio (1872), Romance d’Elsbeth ‘Voilà toute la ville en fête’ [4.03]
11. Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881), Couplets d’Olympia ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ [6.01]
12. Robinson Crusoé (1867), Valse d’Edwige ‘Conduisez-moi vers celui que j’adore’ [3.47]
13. Boule de neige (1871), Romance d’Olga ‘Souvenance’ [2.26]
14. Boule de neige (1871), Chanson d’Olga ‘Allons ! couché’ [3.59]
15. Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881), Prélude & Barcarolle ‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour’ [4.03]
16. Le Voyage dans la Lune (1875), Ariette de Fantasia ‘Je suis nerveuse’ [2.22]

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