About this Recording
8.553264 - French Overtures (Famous)


Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)
La vie parisienne (Parisian Life)

Adolphe Adam (1803-1856)
Si j'étais roi (If I were king)

Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (1782-1871)
Les diamants de la couronne (The Crown Diamonds)
Le cheval de bronze (The Bronze Horse)

Jacques Offenbach
La belle Hélène (Fair Helen)

Daniel-François-Esprit Auber
Masaniello (La muette de Portici)

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Le carnaval romain
Benvenuto Cellini
Le corsaire

Popular revolutions are not always good for Opéra, and the French Revolution had an immediately deleterious effect on standards at the Paris Opéra, where works of an overtly political and patriotic nature were for a time encouraged. Something of a revival took place towards the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century with the work of Spontini, followed by a younger group of composers that included Boieldieu, Herold, Halevy and Auber. The last of these, christened Daniel-François-Esprit, was the son of a royal huntsman and became a pupil of the redoubtable Cherubini after the staging of his first Opéra in 1805, a work that enjoyed little success. He began to make a name for himself only in the 1820s, with La bergère chátelaine, and thereafter in collaboration with the librettist Augustin-Eugene Scribe. The Opéra Masaniello, otherwise known as La muette de Portici (The Dumb Girl of Portici), with a libretto by Scribe and Delavigne, was first staged at the Opéra in February 1828. The hero of the piece, Masaniello, is a revolutionary leader in seventeenth century Naples. He succeeds in releasing his unjustly imprisoned dumb sister Fanella and seizing power, but is poisoned, driven mad, defeated and killed, while Fanella kills herself by jumping from her window into the volcano of Mount Vesuvius. Performance of Masaniello in Brussels in 1830 led to the Belgian revolution and establishment of independence. Scribe also w rote the libretto for Le cheval de bronze (The Bronze Horse), first produced at the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1835, and collaborated with Vernoy de Saint-Georges on Les diamants de fa couronne (The Crown Diamonds), successfully staged at the same house in 1841. The first of these, in its original form, was described as an opéra-féerique, later to be expanded into an Opéra-ballet. The second, a thoroughly French piece, was set in Portugal. Unlike Masaniello, these two Opéras are typically graceful and relatively light-hearted, qualities apparent from the overtures.

Adolphe Adam, son of a pianist and teacher whose pupils included Kalkbrenner and Herold, is best remembered for his ballet Giselle. A prolific composer, he w rote some eighty works for the stage and enjoyed considerable contemporary success, starting with his Pierre et Calherine, staged at the Opéra-Comique in 1827 as part of a double bill with Auber's La fiancée. Si j’élais roi (If I were king), with a libretto by Ennery and Brésil, was first mounted at the Theatre-Lyrique in Paris in 1852,the house that had taken the place of the Opéra-National, a venture bankrupted by the 1848 revolution, leaving Adam with heavy debts that he attempted to discharge by a remarkable increase in activity as a composer that ceased only with his death in 1856.

The composer Jacques Offenbach was the son of a cantor at a Cologne synagogue, his surname derived from his father's place of birth and his first name a French form of the original Jacob. In Paris he became one of the most successful composers of popular music of the nineteenth century, rivalled only by Johann Strauss in Vienna. Of his ninety or so operettas written principally for the Paris stage, La vie parisienne (Parisian Life) and La belle Hélène (Fair Helen) are among the most popular. The second of these, a frivolous version of Greek legend, with a libretto by Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, was first produced at the Variétés in Paris in 1864, and the first two years later at the Palais-Royal.

Bizet's Opéra Carmen was first produced at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1875. The French genre of Opéra-cornique had arisen in the eighteenth century as a Gallic counterpart of the Italian Opéra buffa, injecting an air of contemporary realism into Opératic form. The success of operetta in the nineteenth century offered a challenge to the form, which retained the characteristic of the German Singspiel, spoken dialogue taking the place of the recitative of Opéra seria or French grand Opéra, but increasingly lacked power or conviction. Carmen, in its original version with spoken dialogue, derived largely from Prosper Mérimée's novel on which the Opéra was based, created something of a scandal, and opened the way to a new form of Opéra. While nineteenth century French audiences at the Opéra-Comique might find in Micaela a recognisable character, Carmen, a vicious outcast from decent society , was not the ideal heroine for popular family entertainment.

Georges Bizet was born in Paris in 1838, the son of a singing teacher. He entered the Conservatoire at the age of ten and even in childhood had some lessons, at least, from Charles Gounod, and later became a pupil of Fromental Halevy, a prolific composer of Opéra, whose daughter, subject like her mother to intermittent bouts of mental instability , he married in 1869. Ludovic Halevy, a cousin, collaborated on the libretto for Carmen. As a student Bizet won the expected successes, culminating in 1857 in the first prize in the Prix de Rome, followed by three years at the Villa Medici, in accordance with the terms of the award, modified to allow him to remain in Rome for the final year, rather than move to Germany. In Paris, where he returned in September 1860 on receiving news of his mother's illness, he earned a living by hack-work for the theatre and for publishers, interspersed with more ambitious undertakings, including Les pecheurs des perles, staged with moderate success at the Opéra-Comique in 1863, followed, in 1867, by La jolie fille de Perth at the Théâtre-Lyrique. In 1872 the Opéra Djamileh, mounted at the Opéra-Comique, was a failure, as was the original score for the melodrama L'Arlesienne, a collaboration with Alphonse Daudet.

The projected Opéra on the subject of Carmen met many difficulties. There were natural objections to the subject on the part of the theatre management, followed by further objections from singers to whom the title-rôle was offered. Bizet himself was constantly involved with the demands of his wife and her mother, while handling practical difficulties during rehearsals, once the work was complete, with a chorus that found difficulty in singing and acting simultaneously and an orchestra that was used to lighter fare. The librettists Ludovic Halevy and Henri Meilhac were generally too busy to give much attention to a work they thought doomed, but did their best to modify the production to avoid offending the public. Galli-Marie, the first Carmen, and Paul Lherie, who sang the part of Don Jose, supported Bizet's intentions.

The first performance of Carmen, on 3rd March 1875, was received relatively coldly. The critics were equally shocked, condemning the licentiousness of, the characters and the alleged lack of melody in a score that they considered Wagnerian in its orchestral excesses. Gounod, who had congratulated the composer on his work, confided to friends in the theatre that the only decent melodies were ones filched from him, for Micaela in the third act, and the rest from Spain. There were those, however, who had some notion of what Bizet was attempting, praising this injection of realism.

There is no doubt that Carmen was at first a failure. It had a run of some 45 performances, and was able, at least as a succes de scandale, to attract the curious. The composer died on 3rd June. For years he had suffered a recurrence of a throat infection and now, weakened, it seems, by depression at the apparent failure of his new Opéra, he lacked the will to survive. The actual cause of Bizet's death was heart failure, coming after days of high fever, the immediate result of spending too much time in the water during a swim in the Seine. During a performance of Carmen on the day of his death, Galli-Marie had been seized by a feeling of strong foreboding, as she sang the words of the card scene - moi d'abord, ensuite lui, pour tous les deux la mort - and was overcome, as she left the stage. A few hours later Bizet, who had left Paris for the country air of Bougival in May, was dead.

Carmen was not repeated at the Opéra-Comique unti11883, when it was performed in an emasculated version that provoked as much hostility as the earlier version. By this time the Opéra had won an international reputation, particularly after its production in Vienna in October 1875, with recitatives written by Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraud, and audiences in Paris had learned what to expect. In the autumn of 1883 the Paris production was revised and Galli-Marie-engaged to sing the role she had memorably created and triumphantly repeated abroad. The Opéra was at last accepted by the French public as a masterpiece of French Opératic repertoire.

The story of Carmen is essentially a simple one. The gypsy factory-girl Carmen, the centre of male attention, flirts with the Dragoons Corporal Don Jose, who is attracted to her in spite of his long-standing love for Micaela, a girl from his own village. When Carmen is arrested for starting a brawl in the factory, Don Jose allows her to escape. She later induces him to desert and join her and her criminal companions, smugglers, at their mountain hide- away. Meanwhile Carmen has fallen in love with the toreador Escamillo. At a final scene outside the bull-ring in Seville Don Jose, frantic with jealousy, draws his knife and kills her. The Prelude to the Opéra includes music associated with the toreador Escamillo, immediately followed by the sinister Fate theme.

Hector Berlioz was born in the French province of Isère in 1803, the son of a doctor, in a family of some local substance. As a child he was taught principally by his father, and was swayed by various enthusiasms, including an overwhelming urge towards music that led him to compose, not for the piano, an instrument he did not play, but for a sextet that included his music teacher's son, a horn-player, and the flute, which he played himself. He later took the opportunity of learning to play the guitar. At the insistence of his father, he embarked on medical studies, taking his first qualification in Grenoble, before moving to Paris. Three years later he abandoned medicine in favourite music, his enthusiasm increased still further by the opportunities offered by the Opéra and by the library of the Conservatoire. In these earlier years he had not been idle as a composer, but in Paris he prudently took lessons from Lesueur, whose Conservatoire class he entered in 1826.

In 1829 Berlioz saw Shakespeare's Hamlet for the first time, with Charles Kemble as the Prince and the Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. The experience was overwhelming, accentuated by the performance of Romeo and Juliet that he saw a few days later. During the season he had the opportunity to see much more of the visiting English company, sharing in the popular adulation of Harriet Smithson, with whom he fell violently in love. Enthusiasm for Shakespeare was added to earlier enthusiasm for Virgil, while enthusiasm for Harriet Smithson led first to the Symphonie fantastique, in reaction to her rejection of his advances and then to a marriage that was to bring neither of the parties any great satisfaction.

Berlioz had made various attempts to win the Prix de Rome, a mark of distinction to which many French artists aspired. At his fourth attempt he won the prize and in 1831 took up residence, according to its terms, in Rome. On his return to Paris he courted and in 1833 married his now failing actress, to the dismay of his family, and supported still by the money allowed him by the Prix de Rome embarked on an ambitious career as a composer. Later financial needs were met by work as a critic, a role that Berlioz filled all too well.

In French music Berlioz was, even in his own time, seen by the discerning as the leading composer. The musical establishment, however, was often opposed to his ambitious and innovative attempts, with works of startling originality, sometimes devised on such a scale as to make performance prohibitively expensive. There was always recognition, however, both at home and abroad, coupled, all the same, with more variable reactions. J.W. Davison, critic of The Times of London, pointed out in a review that it is very possible to be ugly and original at the same time, while Hanslick in Vienna castigated him as the father of the tone-poets he so deprecated. Nevertheless in Vienna La damnation de Faust won considerable success, while the reputation of Berlioz in London as a conductor was high

Disagreement on the importance of Berlioz as a composer continued after his death in 1869, and even today his works are not greeted with universal approval. Through his own writing and a more objective view of his career he is seen as an outsider, a champion of the individual genius, the romantic artist par excellence, driven to excess by undisciplined enthusiasms and paranoid in reaction to criticism or opposition. The picture may be modified by a consideration of the very real achievement of Berlioz, his technical command of the orchestra, and, as even Davison admitted, the lucidity of his writing on the music of others.

The concert overture Le carnaval romain again represents a revision of an earlier work. The Opéra Benvenuto Cellini, on a character with whom it might be supposed Berlioz felt some affinity, was performed at the Paris Opéra in 1838. In 1844 he extracted from the Opéra the Roman Carnival overture, a tour de force of orchestration.

Benvenuto Cellini caused Berlioz a great deal of anguish, which he recalls vividly in his Memories. The overture, however, was apparently successful at the first performance of the Opéra on 10th September 1836, in spite of the alleged hostility of the conductor, Habeneck. The Opéra again defied Iconvention in its blurring of comedy and tragedy, serious and comic.

The overture, originally Le tour de Nice and later Le corsaire rouge, was written in 1844. Berlioz composed the work in Nice after the break-up of his marriage, staying in a tower above the sea and recovering from jaundice from which he had apparently suffered in Paris. The title of the work suggests Byron, although its second title, Le corsaire rouge, is the French translation of Fenimore Cooper's The Red Rover. Whatever its literary connotations, the geographical inspiration is clear enough in the energy of the music.

Close the window