ROLF LIEBERMANN: La Foret, comic opera in five acts -Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/vocal soloists/Jeffrey Tate – Migros Recordings MGB CD6266, 109’28” (Distr. by Qualiton) (2 CDs) ****:
Rolf Liebermann was a Swiss lawyer turned lounge pianist turned serious classical composer and conductor! That very eclectic professional career, that also included some military service, is reflected in his opera output, beginning with his “Leonore 40/45” an ‘updating’ of the same play used by Beethoven and ending in 1992, with his “Medea”, after the Greek legend. Additionally, Liebermann was the director of the Hamburg State Opera where he commissioned 24 new operas, including the “Devils of Loudun” by Penderecki. His own operatic output is not large, five altogether, but this comic satire: “The Forest”, after the play by the Russian, Alexander Ostrovski, indicates a composer with a keen sense for storytelling and a very skilled approach to orchestration and vocal writing.
“The Forest” tells the story of a wealthy widow who falls in love with a young boy, just a teenager. In order to hide the relationship, the widow, Regine, convinces the boy, Alexis, to become engaged to Regine’s niece, who – of course – is in love with a different young man, son of the wealthy woodsman who bought the whole forest that used to belong to Regine. There is plenty of fun and plot intertwining to try to follow while some points are made about the aristocracy taking advantage of those with less. This point in the Ostrovski play, and in Lieberman’s own libretto, is made mainly by the presence and actions of Regine’s nephew (the brother of the niece, Larissa) who is wonderfully named, Paul Malfortune.
Malfortune assists his sister and her love, Viktor, while scheming and railing against how unfair the wood merchant, Chateigner, is and how, in many ways, Regine is also to be scrutinized for trying to seemingly take advantage of the young boy as a way of getting back at Chateigner. As the story progresses – yes, in a very Chekhov like blend of people taking sides, using class as a bartering tool and money being exchanged haphazardly – it is clear that Malfortune is the central character. It is through him that some symbolism about the elders, especially the rich, like Chateigner, taking advantage of the young and the poor and that ‘true artists’ like Malfortune and his pals will always win is brought to light.
“The Forest” (itself a symbol for the shifting powers and changing ‘landscape’ of Russia, just before the Revolution) is, indeed, a bit convoluted and the comedy is satire, frequently very broad and not at all slapstick. Musically, though, this is a very interesting work, filled with very fine vocal writing that is frequently quite demanding, and spiced with some really nice orchestral moments and solo lines for the winds and percussion. Special compliments are due to all the principal singers. Anne Howells, as Regine Ravinier, gains our immediate attention with her opening monologue expressing her infatuation as an almost warbling, accompanied by flute. She shines throughout and has some very fine moments that run the gamut from tender to petulant to genuinely worried. Equally attention getting is the work of Jean-Philippe Courtis as Malfortune, whose role allows him to play the strong, somewhat bombastic hero as this farce plays out. I was also very impressed with Hellen Kwon in her somewhat unawares portrayal of Alexis (a ‘trouser role’ to depict the young boy) and with Ricardo Cassinelli as Viktor. Ultimately, this fairly short opera succeeds not so much from the storyline but at the musical level. Liebermann’s score is purely tonal but shifts in and out of keys and has some very unusual orchestral timbres that give the work an almost impressionist feel. It sounds almost like Ravel in places but is still hard to categorize. The listening experience is good, well worth hearing. The libretto and score are in French and the Migros label does not provide an English translation but not knowing every word does not hamper the enjoyment from just the listening and catching some things with booklet in hand.
The OSR, under Jeffrey Tate, plays very well and this is a live recording from the April, 1987 performance at the Grand Theatre in Geneva wherein the audience seems appreciative. I admit I knew little about Lieberman the composer until hearing this, but am motivated to go find another of his operas. I do believe most people would enjoy this work for the interesting, sometimes beautiful orchestrations, the impressive vocal writing and the excellent performances.
Sound production is quite good and kudos to Qualiton for helping to distribute little gems like this outside their home. Go explore “La Foret”! It is intriguing and fun to listen to.
— Daniel Coombs