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Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947)
Ô mon bel inconnu, comédie musicale in three acts (1933) with a libretto by Sacha Guitry
Thomas Dolié – Prosper Aubertin, a Parisian hatter
Véronique Gens – Antoinette, wife of Prosper Aubertin
Olivia Doray – Maria-Anne, their daughter
Éléonore Pancrazi – Félicie, their maid
Yoann Dubruque – Claude, admirer of Maria-Anne
Carl Ghazarossian – Jean-Paul, admirer of Antoinette / Hilarion Lallumette, a family friend, who is mute.
Jean-Christophe Lanièce – Monsieur Victor / Shop Boy
Orchestre National Avignon-Provence / Samuel Jean
rec. 12-14 September 2019, Auditorium du Grand Avignon, Le Pontet, Avignon, France
BRU ZANE BZ1043 [60:49]

Hats off to the cultural foundation Bru Zane for its new Opéra français release. Reynaldo Hahn’s musical comedy Ô mon bel inconnu (O my handsome stranger) is volume 27 in the series. They are committed to rediscovering, reviving and promoting the French Romantic musical heritage. They occasionally go beyond the Romantic era of the long nineteenth century (1780-1920), and champion the music of the interwar years. This is what they did here. After all, the generation of composers working mainly in Paris at that time, for example Reynaldo Hahn and his older contemporary André Messager, were the inheritors of the French Romantic tradition, handed down by teachers such as Saint-Saëns, Gounod and Massenet.

In the wake of the acclaim given to Hahn’s opera L’Île du rêve (volume 26), Bru Zane has returned to his musical theatre works with Ô mon bel inconnu. It had its premiere on 5th October 1933 at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Paris. It has waited eighty-six years for this most welcome and long overdue first complete recording.

Hahn composed for the stage in different forms: opera, operetta, musical comedy, comic opera and lyric comedy. The demand from theatre-loving Parisian audiences during the interwar years made him concentrate on operetta and musical comedy. In 1923 he had great success with his first light score, the operetta Ciboulette premiered at Théâtre des Variétés in Paris. This masterpiece of the genre helped him establish his reputation as a composer of substantial repute.

Hahn’s musical comedy Le temps d’aimer premiered in 1926 at Théâtre de la Michodière, and the operetta Brummell in 1931 at Théâtre des Folies-Wagram. He next focused on Ô mon bel inconnu to a libretto by Sacha Guitry (1885-1957). This was the second time they collaborated. Guitry had supplied the libretto for his acclaimed musical comedy Mozart premiered in 1925 at Théâtre Édouard VII. Maintaining his stance of probity, Hahn was adamant that Guitry should not place anything vulgar in the libretto.

Guitry and Hahn were both aware that Ô mon bel inconnu would be performed by singing actors at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. As a humorous stage play with sections set to music, it proved difficult to classify which type of musical theatre Ô mon bel inconnu fell into. Hahn’s writing contains a range of styles, from easy listening café-concert style to more serious music of a romantic character with a flavour of the popular music of the day. Eventually the duo settled on the term “musical comedy” (comédie musicale) rather than “operetta”.

Aspects of life had changed following the horrors and chaos of the First World War. During the economic boom of the nineteen-twenties, a new freedom prevailed in many countries in the arts and wider cultural society. Hot spots included Paris, Berlin, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and London. Broadly speaking, Paris had its Années Folles (The Crazy Years); the Weimar Republic lived through the Glückliche Zwanziger (The Happy Twenties or Golden Twenties); and America and Britain experienced The Roaring Twenties. Ô mon bel inconnu and several other of Hahn’s stage works – such as Ciboulette and Mozart – are products of The Crazy Years. In the opening essay of the book, the Bru Zane team describe the work as a ‘jewel of the Années Folles’.

On this recording, all of Hahn’s music remains intact but it was decided to leave out all the spoken dialogue in Guitry’s lengthy libretto that runs for page after page. This is a missed opportunity to appreciate the intricacies of the witty narrative in the context of the performance but the book includes all the dialogue. Guitry was an incorrigible joker, so his brand of comedy would frequently inform his libretti. As one might expect, some of the humour, such as puns and double meanings, is unavoidably lost in the English translation.

The work centres on the chaotic escapades of Prosper Aubertin, a Parisian milliner. Fed up with his humdrum existence, he fantasises about having romantic liaisons with other women. Posing as a bachelor of means looking for a ‘soulmate’, Prosper places a personal ad in the lonely-hearts page of a magazine. He receives a deluge of replies. Amongst these letters are separate declarations of love from his wife, his daughter and their maid. Curious about their intentions, Prosper invites the three women, who are eager to meet the handsome stranger, down to a villa in Biarritz on the Bay of Biscay.

It was a smash hit for all those involved, with what many deemed an ideal cast. Jean Aquistapace as Prosper and Arletty (stage name of Arlette-Léonie Bathiat) as Félicie were singled out for special praise. There were ninety-two performances but the work never returned to Paris. In November that year, it was broadcast live from Bouffes-Parisiens by Radio Paris. Around that time, a recording of musical excerpts was released by the Pathé label.

Several of Bru Zane’s roster of singers are experienced in French musical comedy. This may be music of a lighter vein but the finest of the singing is a genuine treat. Thomas Dolié sings the protagonist, a milliner with pretensions of becoming a middle-aged Lothario. A baritone with a broad vocal range, the assured Dolié sings with style and a responsive technique. Especially entertaining is the act one air Je suis celle que vous cherchez (I am the lady you are looking for). Prosper quotes from one of the letters his lonely-hearts ad elicited. Dolié successfully and stylishly renders the air with calm authority and fine enunciation, and is readily able to darken his tone.

Soprano Véronique Gens is a renowned exponent of French opéra baroque, grand opéra and mélodie. She takes the role of Prosper Aubertin’s wife Antoinette. For this recording, she received special preparation for singing comédie musicale, and it pays off. A highlight of the album is C’est très vilain d’être infidèle (It is very naughty to be unfaithful) from act two. Antoinette contemplates the delights and possible consequences of having an affair. Gens takes full measure of the demanding the text, sings with an admirable focus and clarity, and comfortably produces an authentic sense of drama.

Prosper and Antoinette’s daughter Maria-Anne is sung by soprano Olivia Doray with sincere heart and suitably girlishly. Her couplets from act one Allons, Monsieur, laissez-moi faire… (Come now Monsieur let me help you…) are very fine. The salesgirl is expressing her frustrations of working in the shop. Baritone Yoann Dubruque commands attention as Claude; he has an engaging tone in prime condition. Claude is an admirer of Maria-Anne. His couplets from act two Je veux d’abord un chapeau beige (First I want a beige hat), when she serves him in the shop, perceptively bring the character to life.

Félicie, the Aubertin family’s maid, was created by Arletty, a celebrated actress rather than a singer. Mezzo-soprano Éléonore Pancrazi sings the role successfully. She is enjoyable in her first act air Miel, sel, thé... (Honey, salt, tea…). Félicie sets the table for breakfast and bemoans how she cannot do anything right for her employers. Pancrazi’s smooth and clear diction provides a pleasing comedy character, making it easy to visualise the sparky maid preparing the breakfast table. There also is a very successful act two trio Ô mon bel inconnu (O my handsome stranger), performed by Doray, Gens and Pancrazi. They deliver a spine-tingling charm as they sing about how the handsome stranger has won over their hearts.

Tenor Carl Ghazarossian takes the roles of Jean-Paul, an admirer of Antoinette, and Hilarion Lallumette, a family friend. Lallumette who is mute does find his voice before the end. Ghazarossian gives pleasing if brief portraits that feel committed and sincere. Baritone Jean-Christophe Lanièce sings small parts of Monsieur Victor, the villa owner in Biarritz, and of the shop boy. He does all that is asked of him, and is particularly convincing as M. Victor. Another highlight is the thrilling act two finale. All seven singers come together for the festivities with Partons! (Let’s go!). The ensemble, sung brilliantly, is fun and uplifting.

Samuel Jean conducts the Orchestre National Avignon-Provence, trimmed here to thirty-one players comprising strings, flute, two clarinets, saxophone, bassoon, timpani and piano. The intention is to match the size of a typical pit orchestra which Hahn would have had at his disposal in a French theatre. It is a pleasant surprise how the addition of a saxophone enhances the theatrical experience. The orchestral playing of reliable unity has vivacity and colour. There is a simply delightful short act two Entracte where Hahn’s big melody is played with silky tenderness.

The studio recording at Auditorium du Grand Avignon has successful sound quality with an especially satisfying balance. The bilingual book is up to the usual impeccable Bru Zane standard: a synopsis, the full sung and spoken libretto, and five essays. Reynaldo Hahn’s historical essay ‘On singing in general’ is especially interesting.

Reynaldo Hahn’s engaging scoring and Sacha Guitry’s delightful libretto combine profitably. Admirers of musical comedy will surely agree that Ô mon bel inconnu is an uplifting experience from start to finish.

Michael Cookson

BruZane Opéra français CD-book series, Volume 27.
One CD + a book of 216 pages (texts & libretto), bilingual edition in French & English.
Limited and numbered edition of 3,500.
Book Contents
Palazzetto Bru Zane team – ‘Getting to know a Bel Inconnu
Christophe Mirambeau – ‘Sacha, Reynaldo and the Bel Inconnu’
Alexandre Dratwicki – ‘Operetta: mother or sister of musical comedy?’
Historical Texts:
Paul Le Flem et al. – ‘The evening of the premiere’
Reynaldo Hahn – ‘On singing in general’

Track list
Act 1
1. Ouverture
2. No. 1 Air: Miel, sel, thé... (Félicie)
3. No. 2 Ensemble: Cette fille n’a pas menti (Marie-Anne, Antoinette, Félicie, Prosper)
4. No. 3 Couplets: Allons, Monsieur, laissez-moi faire (Marie-Anne)
5. No. 4 Duo: Mais! vous m’avez pincé le derrière! (Antoinette, Jean-Paul)
6. No. 5 Air: Je suis celle que vous cherchez (Prosper)
Act 2
First Tableau
7. Entracte
8. Lever de rideau
9. No. 6 Strophes: C’est très vilain d’être infidèle (Antoinette)
10. No. 7 Air: Au lieu, vois-tu, de les confondre (Prosper)
11. No. 8 Couplets: Je veux d’abord un chapeau beige (Claude)
12. No. 9 Duetto: Allons, Monsieur, veuillez finir!... (Marie-Anne, Claude)
13. No. 10 Couplets: J’connais l’rayon d’la bonn’t’rie (Félicie)
Second Tableau
14. Intermède
15. No. 11 Trio: Ô mon bel inconnu (Marie-Anne, Antoinette, Félicie)
16. No. 12 Air du coup de téléphone: Eh! bien mettez d’abord un A (Prosper)
17. No. 13 Finale: Partons! (Marie-Anne, Antoinette, Félicie, Prosper, Claude, Jean-Paul, Le Garçon de magasin)
Act 3
18. Entracte
19. No. 14 Couplets: Monsieur, c’est la maison rêvée (M. Victor, Prosper)
20. No. 14 bis Entrée d’Antoinette
21. No. 14 ter Entrée de Félicie
22. No. 15 Chanson à deux voix: Qu’est-c’ qu’il faut pour être heureux? (Félicie, M. Victor)
23. No. 15 bis Entrée de Marie-Anne
24. No. 16 Colloque: Le mariage! Ah! ben, voyons (Antoinette, Prosper)
25. No. 17 Couplets: Est-c’ qu’il est mal? (Marie-Anne)
26. No. 17 bis Entrée de Claude
27. No. 18 Dialogue: Mais oui, se taire (Marie-Anne, Claude)
28. No. 19 Air et Ensemble: À ma naissance (Lallumette, Marie-Anne, Antoinette, Félicie, Prosper, Claude)

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