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Great Comedy Overtures of HEROLD, NICOLAI, WOLF-FERRARI, THOMAS, REZNICEK & Others – Royal Scottish National Orch./Lance Friedel – Naxos

Great Comedy Overtures = HEROLD: Overture to Zampa; NICOLAI: Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor; WOLF-FERRARI: Overture to Il segreto di Susanna; THOMAS: Overture to Mignon; REZNICEK: Overture to Donna Diana; FLOTOW: Overture to Martha; AUBER: Overture to Fra Diavolo; LORTZING: Overture to Zar und Zimmermann; CIMAROSA: Overture to Il matrimonio segreto; ADAM: Overture to Si j’etais roi; CORNELIUS: Overture to Der Barbier von Bagdad – Royal Scottish National Orch./Lance Friedel – Naxos 8.573418, 79:44 (3/30/15) ****:

The flourishing genre of the comic opera had its roots in eighteenth-century Italian opera buffa, whose irrepressible brio soon exported outside the country’s borders. In France it produced opéra comique and operetta, and in German-speaking countries Spieloper and Viennese operetta. Friedel and his Scottish ensemble perform (rec. 14-16 January 2014) some of the world’s most popular comic opera overtures, filled with gorgeous tunes, brilliant orchestration, and excited flourishes. They include staples of the concert repertoire such as Hérold’s dramatic Zampa (1831), the brisk, textual delicacy of Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna (1909) and the vivid string colors of Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann (1837).

Although each of us has his favorite renditions of particular overtures – say, Malko’s or Toscanini’s Zampa! – these Friedel readings impress for their sonic response and clarity of execution. Sterling string response, in tandem with excellent woodwind playing, sets the tone for a potent series of readings, beginning with Herold’s Zampa!  Ever since my first experience with Emil von Reznicek’s Donna Diana (1894) under the baton of Frederick Stock, I have remained impressed with the craft of the Overture with its deft trumpet and flute work, in melodiously strict sonata-form. Sir Thomas Beecham and Hans Knappertsbusch enlightened me as to the glories of Otto Nicolai’s Overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor (1849), and then Fritz Wunderlich sold me Fenton’s amazing aria. Friedel’s astute, flexibly warm singing line competes well with my classic standards. The Thomas Overture to Mignon (1866) exudes its own rarified delicacy of instrumentation – in horn, flute, and harp – and melodic charm via a polonaise, which Friedel’s strings carry with aplomb.

Having been long familiar with various arias from Flotow’s 1847 opera Martha, the Overture had remained unknown to me, so its smooth fusion of German singspiel and French opera comique impulses arrested my attention. Flotow works in several arias, especially a horn rendition of what becomes Lyonel’s Act III prayer.  The familiar motif of brigands supplies the context for Auber’s rousing Overture to Fra Diavolo (1830), whose spirited, often militant orchestration – opening with an offstage snare drum – came to me first via Jean Fournet. Friedel’s reading certainly carries an airy punch that highlights his wind, brass, and battery sections. Domenico Cimarosa’s 1792 opera Il matrimonio segreto Overture divides into a solemn opening and a supercharged Allegro much in the lyrically energetic Mozart style. If the title Si j’etais roi means anything to me, it resonates less with Adolphe-Charles Adam’s 1852 than with the movie If I Were King, directed by Preston Sturges. The light scoring of the musical piece quite disarms anyone with an ear for melody in transparent coloration, much more inspired than (for me) the relatively bland score Giselle. Last, Peter Cornelius wrote his clever opera Der Barbier von Bagdad in 1858 on an Arabian Nights libretto, and Liszt premiered the work in Weimar. Liszt suggested a replacement overture to the original prelude, but Cornelius died before he orchestrated his new version. The D Major Overture Friedel performs comes from conductor Felix Mottl.  The rather dreamy, extended opening material yields to a playful series of colorful tunes and effects that feature easy, warbling banter among the woodwinds.

—Gary Lemco

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