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Daniel Francois Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
La Sirène, opéra comique. Libretto by Augustin-Eugène Scribe
Le Duc de Popoli – Jean-Fernand Setti (bass)
Bolbaya – Benjamin Mayenobe (bass)
Scopetto – Xavier Flabat (tenor)
Scipion – Jean-Noël Teyssier (tenor)
Pecchione – Jacques Calatayud (baritone)
Zerlina – Jeanne Crousaud (soprano)
Mathéa – Dorothée Lorthiois (mezzo)
Les Métaboles Choir
Orchestre des Frivolities Parisiennes/David Reiland
rec. 2018, Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne, France
NAXOS 8.660436 [69:49]

I welcome this release of La Sirène, as its unknown music became a curiosity to me after I noticed that its overture regularly appeared in Victorian programmes of Hallé concerts. It opened their very first 1858 concert and, quite remarkably, continued to be played every six months for the next two years and thirteen times until 1889; Hallé clearly liked the piece and wanted to make good use of the band parts they had bought. With the release of this CD, it is time to judge the value of this music. Despite the popularity of many of Auber’s theatre works like La muette de Portici, Fra Diavolo and Les diamants de la couronne, this piece seems to have been totally forgotten throughout the 20th Century. Although it is presented as a Three Act operetta, there hardly seems to be enough music to fill three Acts when it fits onto a CD of less than 70 minutes. Consequently, there is much spoken dialogue to carry the comedy along and unhelpfully this is available only in French on the Naxos website so its comedy will be appreciated only if you speak French. The title La Sirène (meaning ‘The Mermaid’) seems unusual for a comedy as it generally has associations with operas such as Lurline, Loreley, or Undine.

The plot concerns situations relating to love, betrayal and ruses bound in comedy where only a topsy-turvy rearrangement of order can allow a satisfactory conclusion. It must be said that none of this is evident in the music we hear. Jolly as some of the themes are, there is a conventional eloquence to its busy, likeable score.

Of interest to a study of the piece is the fact that Auber developed his score with particular singers in mind. The most notable was Louise Lavoye, the coloratura soprano who originally played Zerlina. She had great technical agility and a wide vocal range up to a high D, a demanding note to sing for anyone recreating the role. Jeanne Crousand here is an excellent match and very successfully meets the challenges of the vocal fireworks, being impressive in Number 11 and the finale to Act III (Number 14). Equally effective is the fine expression and secure strength of the singing of Xavier Flabat as Scopetto, especially when coupled with Zerlina in their charming waltz duet, ‘C’est quel qu’ouvrier?’, which became the hit number of the operetta.

The principals sing confidently throughout and the orchestra accompanies with fine attention to detail. David Reiland sets a good pace to retain the energy and flow in the music. We find that Auber gives an unusual abrupt ending to Zerlina’s ‘Prends garde, Montagnarde’ (Number 5) with only one bar’s lightly-played strings after the voice finishes. This sounds odd yet is played as written. A trio and couplets of some 210 bars (Number 7) have been omitted from the recording, which is a pity. Also missing is a short choir number (No. 11) of a mere 28 bars, but this is perhaps understandable since the music is not special and does not advance the plot. The cast performs well in this live performance and the acoustic is satisfactory, but the voices, especially the choir, tend to be recessed in places, which may not be to everyone’s liking.

In the 1840s, French music publishers were generous enough to print full scores as well as vocal scores of operas by their famous composers, and Auber and Balfe happened to be two of them. Copies can be found online so it is nice to be able to follow the performance with the orchestration. It has been particularly useful to see how the surprise ending to Number 5 finishes. Detailed notes in English about the background to this and other operas by Auber are provided by Robert Lettellier. The addition of a synopsis helps provide some understanding of the plot; the libretto (in French only) can be found on the Naxos website.

Raymond J Walker

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