About this Recording
8.573418 - GREAT COMEDY OVERTURES (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Friedel)

Great Comedy Overtures


Comic opera originated in eighteenth-century Italy as opera buffa and was soon taken up in France as opéra comique and, later, French operetta. Other countries assimilated these Italian and French forms into their own musical traditions, resulting in, for example, the Viennese operetta and the German Spieloper. This disc presents popular overtures to comic operas from all the aforementioned distinctive genres.

French composer Ferdinand Herold (1791–1833) died at the height of his success as a composer for the stage. First performed at the Opera-Comique in May 1831, Zampa, ou La Fiancée de marbre is one of the composer’s final pieces and retained its popularity for many years. The brilliant overture is a model of its kind, satisfying as a self-sufficient curtain-raiser with its formal balance and orchestral colour, whilst also setting the scene for the opera’s melodramatic tale of seduction and the supernatural. Two slow passages, the first featuring a chorale-like idea for woodwind and the second a freely rhapsodic clarinet solo, contrast effectively with the dashing Allegros for full orchestra, whilst the deft transitions between these different sections show Herold’s dramatic flair.

Though his output ranges from church music to songs and piano pieces, the Prussian-born Otto Nicolai (1810–1849) is chiefly remembered today for just one work, The Merry Wives of Windsor, which had its premiere in March 1849 at the Berlin Opera under the composer’s baton. Tragically, Nicolai died just two months later, aged only 38, aware of only the initial stages of its international success. Distinguished by its attractive themes, the overture rapidly established itself as a staple of the concert repertoire. The slow introduction, based on the famous moonlit chorus, and the spirited main Allegro, present the romantic and comic elements of the opera, respectively. As a counterweight to the extended opening section, the sparkling coda is delightfully prolonged.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876–1948) was born and died in Venice but settled in Germany where most of his operas were first produced. His one-act comedy Il segreto di Susanna (Susanna’s Secret) was given its premiere at the Munich Hoftheater in 1909. The ‘secret’ in the title refers to Susanna’s furtive enjoyment of an occasional cigarette and her essential innocence is conveyed by the almost Mozartian grace of Wolf-Ferrari’s score. Notable for its delicate, chamber-like textures, the sparkling little overture achieves a contrapuntal feat in that its four themes, presented in quick succession at the start, are heard all together towards the end.

Ambroise Thomas (1811–1896), an instinctive man of the theatre, was also a key figure in the French musical establishment and became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. His output ranges from Hamlet (1868) to the popular Raymond, ou le Secret de la reine, first performed at the Opera-Comique in 1851, whose overture has retained a foothold in the repertory. Perhaps the composer’s greatest success, however, was the opera Mignon, which had its premiere at the Opera-Comique in November 1866. An adaptation of Goethe’s novel of abduction and mistaken identity Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, it received many performances in France and beyond. The overture serves to acquaint opera-goers with the work’s main themes with quintessentially Gallic precision and elegance. Alive with anticipation, an elaborate introduction consisting of florid solos for clarinet, flute and harp, precedes a memorable theme for horn before a vigorous polonaise signals the overture’s lively principal section.

Born in Vienna, Emil Nikolaus Freiherr von Rezniček (1860–1945) was a theatre composer, active in Graz, Berlin and Mainz, among other cities. He conducted a Prague military band and the Court Orchestra in Weimar. Among his works are several operas, orchestral works, songs and chamber music but his name is remembered today solely for his second opera, Donna Diana (1894), and, more specifically, for its brief, vivacious and superbly crafted overture. Unusually for a comedy overture, it is in strict sonata form with a repeated exposition presenting the two key contrasting themes, followed by a short but eventful development section, heralded by triangle, and finally a terse recapitulation. Expertly scored, this overture is graced with an almost classical sense of formal proportion and a subtle, painterly use of the orchestra.

Martha, or Richmond Fair, given its premiere in Vienna in November 1847, was a great success for its German composer Friedrich von Flotow (1812–1883). Based on a ballet pantomime produced in Paris in 1844, Martha effectively blends elements of German Singspiel with Parisian opéra comique. Flotow’s adroit handling of his orchestral forces is evident in the brief overture, an engaging potpourri of some of the opera’s key themes. A memorable horn theme in the substantial introduction (later heard as Lyonel’s prayer in Act 3 of the opera) is restated imposingly near the end.

For more than half a century Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber (1782–1871) maintained a position at the forefront of French musical theatre. Admired by Wagner, his La Muette de Portici (1821) established the medium of grand opera as adopted by Meyerbeer, among others. Auber’s most typical works, however, are in the field of opéra comique, where his natural melodic flair has free rein. Of these the most celebrated is Fra Diavolo, ou L’Hôtellerie de Terracine (1830), telling the story of an Italian robber-chief. Unexpectedly, the overture’s preamble opens with a side drum solo, succeeded by a military march that starts with solo strings and gradually builds to a fortissimo climax before dying away again. The droll main section is full of vitality.

Albert Lortzing (1801–1851) was the leading composer of the Spieloper, the German equivalent of the Italian opera buffa or the French opéra comique. He scored his most important international success with his three-act comic opera Zar und Zimmermann (Tsar and Carpenter), for which he also wrote the libretto. Within a few decades of its premiere at the Leipzig municipal theatre in December 1837, it had secured a place in the repertoire of most German opera houses and achieved performances throughout Europe. The overture boasts a number of vivid ideas. Among its felicities of instrumentation, the main theme at the start of the Allegro section is given to first violins accompanied by chiming triangle underpinned by the cellos’ rustic-sounding drone.

The foremost Italian composer of the second half of the eighteenth century, Domenico Cimarosa (1749–1801) wrote over 65 operas, in addition to instrumental music and works for the church. Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage) is his most celebrated piece. It was first performed in Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1792, just two months after Mozart’s death. Three arresting chords launch the overture but any sense of solemnity is immediately dispelled by the ensuing playful Allegro.

Perhaps best remembered today for his ballet Giselle (1841), the prolific French composer Adolphe-Charles Adam (1803–1856) was a melodist of distinction. His oriental opera Si j’étais roi (If I were King) achieved considerable success following its first performance at the Theatre-Lyrique in Paris in September 1852 and its fresh and lively overture has retained a place in the light music repertoire. Adam exploits fully the resources of a large orchestra, including piccolo, trombones, triangle, side drum, bass drum and harp.

Peter Cornelius (1824–1874) was born in Mainz into a theatrical family. He wrote many songs and three operas, the last of which, Gunold, was completed after his death. Der Barbier von Bagdad was written in 1858 to a libretto by the composer himself which he based on a story from The Arabian Nights. This sparkling two-act German comic opera received its premiere in Weimar in December 1858 under the baton of Franz Liszt, the theatre’s music director. Following the first performance, Liszt suggested to Cornelius that he write a fresh overture to replace the short prelude but the composer died before he was able to make an orchestration. Several arrangements of Cornelius’s overture exist, including one by Liszt himself; the D major version heard here is by the conductor Felix Mottl. Packed with incident, the overture uses several themes heard later in the opera.

Paul Conway

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