OFFENBACH: Orchestral Works = Various overtures, Tales of Hoffman music – Swisse Romande Orch. – Chandos

Estonian conductor finds the Paris experience of Jacques Offenbach entirely suited to his taste.

OFFENBACH: Orchestral Works = Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld; Overture to La Belle Helene; Overture and Ballet from The Voyage to the Moon; Overture to La fille du tambour-major; Intermede and Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann; Overture to Barbe-bleue; Overture to Le Mariage aux lanternes; Overture to La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein; Overture to Vert-Vert; Overture to La Vie parisienne – Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/ Neeme Jarvi – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5160, 77:45  (11/13/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

Neeme Jarvi assembles (rec. 23-24 June 2015) a series of scores by Jacques Offenbach, composed 1853-1881, that embrace diverse genres, from satirical, one-act pieces to more expansive theater works that offered lavish, historical or fantastical spectacles. Infectious themes and rhythms pervade these scores, many of which found their way into conductor-arranger Manuel Rosenthal’s popular Gaite parisiene in 1938 for the Ballet russe de Monte Carlo.

The program opens with the 1858 Orpheus aux enfers, Offenbach’s parody of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend, which features some lovely playing, first from the oboe, then the cello, and later the “lute” of Orpheus, intoned by violin principal Bogdan Zvoristeanu.  The eternal Galop – the familiar Can-Can – means to depict a celestial orgy, but we may recall Jose Ferrrer’s human treatment of its energies in John Huston’s wonderful 1952 epic Moulin Rouge.  The Suisse Romande battery section, alert and rousing, makes splendid points in the manner of Franz von Suppe.  The Overture to La Belle Helene (1864) sports a magical waltz tune, one of its three major themes for an operetta that mocks the fact that Menelaus cannot keep his wife Helen faithful to him.  The aria “Au mont Ida” from Act I figures prominently, and we might refer to the classic performance that Jussi Bjoerling inscribed for posterity.

Le voyage dans la lune (1875) takes its cue from Jules Verne, who imagined space travelers having been propelled by a huge cannon. Offenbach entitles his score “A Fairy Opera” in Four Acts. The moon itself evolves as a winter landscape for which Offenbach’s opera provides a characteristic divertissement. The infectious Allegro vivo of the Overture will provide an equally manic flourish to the end of the ballet, deftly and lightly rendered, I might add.  La Fille du tambour-major (1879) provides a political parody of the Austrian rule in northern Italy.  Trumpets and battery supply the militant note while the strings and woodwinds depict a ballroom scene.  The energetic Vivace coda serves to conclude Act II, while it displays the sheer (Rossini-like) bravura power of Jarvi’s forces.  For most of us The Tales of Hoffmann (1881) stands as Offenbach’s signature work of his maturity, and especially its Barcarolle. In this arrangement, we hear first the opening music, then a Gavotte, and onto the ubiquitous gondola-song.

Barbe-bleue (1866) recounts the infamous aristocrat who murders his wives, a subject equally compelling for Bartok as for Offenbach. Has anyone seen recently the 1944 John Carradine movie incarnation of this bit of guignol? Offenbach’s music treats the theme lightly, as an opera buffa ancestor for Sweeney Todd. The 1857 Le Mariage aux lanterns exemplifies the early Offenbach style of one-act opera with a rural setting. Built on the formula of three themes, the music finds its appeal in the near-Andante motif from the Angelus bell. The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (1867) mocks military ambitions, especially of those pretentious German states that incited the Franco-Prussian War.  The Andantino section marks the love scene of the Grand Duchess and the simple soldier Fritz. The lithe martial figures capture simultaneously the styles of the Strausses, Suppe, and Rossini.

The opera Vert-Vert (1869) takes its title from the name of a pet parrot at a girls’ boarding school.  Once more, Jarvi’s snare drum does some fancy foot work. The flute theme from Act III seems to mock Delibes’ Lakme. The Allegro marziale that concludes this colorful overture testifies to the resonance of the Suisse Romande brass and tympani, and to the gifts of Sound Engineer Ralph Couzens. La Vie parisienne (1866) means to serve as a high-energy, musical picture post-card for the city of Paris, conceived for the 1867 Exposition.  Paris Life here – especially its capacity for limitless song – includes a can-can to rival that from Orphee aux enfers. Toe-tapping and unabashedly infectious, this music caps a mad hour and more of delicious Gallic fare.

It’s nice to have these unusual and bouncy orchestral works in hi-res surround, and the two-channel hi-res version is pretty good too.

—Gary Lemco

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