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8.573553 - AUBER, D.-F.: Opera Overtures, Vol. 1 (Orchestre Régional de Cannes, Dörner)
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Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (1782–1871)
Overtures • 1


Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (1782–1871) was one of the most amiable and successful French composers of the 19th century. Auber’s creative life was intimately bound up with the famous librettist, Augustin-Eugène Scribe (1791–1861) who provided the composer with 38 libretti, and helped to shape the nature of Auber’s musical inspiration—overwhelmingly in the genre of opéracomique. Auber’s equable temperament was reflected in his artistic attitudes. While working almost exclusively for the operatic stage, he avoided any excess of emotion, reflecting his own very particular Parisian elegance. Auber died during the Siege of Paris at the time of the Commune, having refused to leave the city which he loved. His restrained art, his pared style, with its fleet rhythms and controlled emotion, was once a byword for taste and the focus of a universal affection. His overtures were once as popular as those of Rossini and Suppé, and sound as fresh and charming as ever.

[1] La Circassienne (1861)

The plot, set in the Caucasus and Moscow, concerns a young officer, Alexis, and his adventures while dressed as a woman. The overture captures something of the pert and satirical aspects of the louche plot, reflecting an appropriate tone for the subtle inversions of expectations and values endemic to this storyline. It unfolds the central themes of the opera, nearly all of them taken from the extended Act 2 finale—the Harem Scene, where Alexis and the young heroine Olga have been confined. It opens with the beautiful andante that is later revealed as the odaliques’ invitation to voluptuousness, but is dominated by the redowa—a teasing, even saucy motif also devoted to sensual pleasure. Reference to the love duet for Olga and Alexis in Act 3 forms a lyrical interlude, and the final mouvement de marche, returning to the act 2 finale, reinforces the military theme that is the other thematic pole of the opera.

[2] Le Cheval de bronze (1835)

Auber’s fairy opera proved very popular. The story concerns a mysterious bronze horse, standing on a rocky cliff near a Chinese village, with the magic power of riding into the air, and revealing wonderful sights in other realms. It transports some of the characters to a strange fairyland on the planet Venus, but later returns them to earth. The overture divides into two unrelated sections: the vigorous opening serves as a rondo theme, and is that of the Bronze Horse itself. It leads into a graceful flute, clarinet and violin melody in B flat major, the theme of the enterprising heroine Péki’s Act 2 allegretto couplets. After the return of the rondo theme, a processional passage of reiterated bass chords briefly introduces two new ideas: a bouncing descending triplet figure with strong fermate (related to the mandarin Tsing-Sing’s enchanted sleep in Act 2), and a rushing passage for the strings (taken from Prince Yang’s Dream Narration in Act 1). These are briefly developed and recapitulated, before giving way to a long silence. The second section starts in 6/8 with a jaunty dotted tune in the strings from the Act 1 finale when Prince Yang decides to mount the Bronze Horse and travel into the enchanted unknown. This melody representing the Horse’s magical powers, is worked up into a big upwards surging climax with the whole orchestra playing fortissimo in a final brilliant coda.

[3] Le Domino noir (1837)

This proved to be Auber’s most popular opera, with 1209 performances by 1909. The heroine Angela, a noblewoman, is abbess-elect of a fashionable convent in Madrid, but still enjoys attending parties masked in a black domino. The first act takes place at just such a party given by the Queen of Spain herself. The overture, which falls into two parts, sets the festal mood with a chain of rather formal dance tunes in waltz-time. A processional ritornello in A flat major frames three contrasting episodes in F minor in a small set of theme and variations (including some rapid string playing and attractive woodwind writing), inducing an air of anticipation and mystery. A falling sequence of dotted chords introduces a second framing device. The syncopated melody that follows in C is the principal motif of a duet for Angela and Count Horace in Act 1, who has fallen in love with the masked beauty. This leads on to a lively Aragonaise in F major that Angela, disguised as a servant girl, Inesille, sings for the entertainment of a bachelor party in Act 2. This theme, with a marked change of rhythm, is developed into a lively dance-like peroration, the dotted framing figure returning in the coda to conclude the work. In the end Angela is released from her vows and becomes free to marry Horace, whose love she returns. The unexpected transformation of expectations is presaged in the overture which finishes not in the tonic key, but that of the submediant. The shifting interplay of tonal variation and disposition of the scales, as well as the buoyant character and lightness of orchestration, make this Auber’s most subtle and refined overture.

[4] Fra Diavolo (1830)

This opera was played continually and established itself worldwide as Auber’s most loved and enduring work. Fra Diavolo was a notorious robber-chief who terrorized the neighbourhood of Terracina in Campania where the action takes place. The opera presents a series of memorable characters: the mercurial and debonair villain-hero, Zerline the resourceful heroine of humble background, her idealistic and romantic lover the brigadier Lorenzo, and the travelling English aristocrats, Lord Cockburn and Lady Pamela, great comic creations. The overture begins with the quiet beat of a side drum, and gradually the whole orchestra joins in, creating the effect of an approaching procession which then passes on into the distance. A trumpet call initiates a strenuous passage, leading into a sprightly tune for the woodwind over pizzicato strings, that is followed by a dance-like section for the whole orchestra. Both these themes come from the Act 1 finale where the carabinieri bring the news that many of Fra Diavolo’s band have been killed in a fight, a success for the young officer Lorenzo who is now able to marry Zerline, the innkeeper’s daughter. After another fanfare the themes are repeated and lead into a presto coda.

[5] La Fiancée (1829)

This light work, anchored in the very French traditions of the opéra-comique, embraces the essence of Auber’s artistry. Most of the subject matter, from Michel Masson and Raymond Brucker’s Contes de l’atelier, turned out to be one of Scribe’s most moving and best handled plots, set in Vienna immediately after the Napoleonic Wars. Fritz, an upholsterer serving in the National Guard, is disappointed that Henriette, his fiancée, loves the nobleman Frédéric von Lowenstein. She marries him, while Fritz falls easy prey to the wily couturier, Madame Charlotte. Dotted rhythmic patterns, characteristic of Auber’s earlier period, are illustrated in the very opening of the overture, in a brisk version of the Tyrolienne that became the most famous number in the opera. Here the melody is couched like a military march, a motif appropriate to the era of prolonged warfare and the ethos of the National Guard recalled in this work. But the overture also captures the mood of the urban pastoral, so integral to this intrigue of marital aspiration and social advancement. Immediately the softer lyrical theme of the second subject of the Tyrolienne is unfolded. The central section, buoyed along by relentlessly busy, rushing violins, provides a fleet sense of motor propulsion. This presents themes from Henriette’s nodal ballad (Si je suis infidèle) and the Act 1 finale. At the heart comes a wistful rising and descending theme (with an emotional melodic turn) associated with Fritz. After a foreshortened development, the recapitulation leads into a breathless exhilarating coda. The work was particularly popular in Germany (as Die Braut), and was performed regularly there until 1861.

[6] Les Diamants de la couronne (1841)

This is another of Auber’s most popular works. The story is set in Lisbon in 1777, and the plot centres around the young Queen of Portugal, Catharina, who substitutes counterfeit gems for the crown jewels in order to save the economy. After a serene opening, an aria for the first violins supported by wind chords and plucked strings, a more rhythmic figure leads into the main subject of the overture. This begins quietly in the brass, soon joined by the woodwind, but rather strikingly without any string support. This theme is from the finale, a chorus in praise of the young queen. Suddenly the strings enter forte, the music becoming alternately stormy and delicate, until brass fanfares herald the return of the main theme, now reinforced by the strings, to bring the overture to a rousing conclusion in C.

[7] Marco Spada (1852)

The eternal brigand re-appears in this work. The story, set near Rome in the late-18th century, features bandits, soldiers, nobility, much disguise, and love triumphant just when all seemed lost. The hushed opening, the gently melancholic and beautiful introductory theme, uses the music from the moving death scene at the end of the opera, the sombre mood achieved by the particular effect of combining the upper register of the cellos with the lower register of the first violins. The restrained reflection of this introductory theme is particularly affecting. It then moves via descending semiquaver figures on the strings into themes from the opening scene of Act 3, so focusing on the life of banditry and romance. The dominating A major subject of the overture—lyrical and soaring, fervent but serene—over a pulsing bass, is from the concerted finale of Act 2: Angela’s sorrowful outcry at her beloved Federici’s expedient engagement to the Marchesa Sanpietri.

[8] L’Enfant prodigue (1850)

This work in the tradition of grand opéra was Scribe’s imaginative adaptation of the Biblical parable (cf. Luke 15). The prodigal Azaël leaves his father Reuben in the fields of Judah to seek out the Egyptian fleshpots of Memphis, but eventually, disillusioned, returns home where his forgiving father awaits him. The dance music from Act 2 was used by Constant Lambert for the ballet Les Rendezvous (1933). The overture is Auber’s longest (466 bars), divided into three main sections. The first part reflects the tragic aspects of the story. The opening Allegro maestoso divides into three: the A major first section fixes attention, but the C major middle section depicts the departure of the prodigal Azaël from his father and beloved Jephtèle (using the sweet, slightly reedy nature of the flute in its lower register), as is the prophecy of divine wrath towards an ungrateful son from the Act 1 finale. This movement introduces the Neapolitan chord with its flattened root third and melancholy languishing flavour, a motif recurring throughout the opera. The Allegro non troppo section in C major begins with the Marche de la caravane, quoting from Azaël’s Dream Vision with his subsequent agonies of conscience and decision to return to his father—a beautiful clarinet solo. The third climactic part of the overture has a thematic shift of emphasis. The dangerous glamour of Egypt is conjured up in the impetuous sweep and timpani of the A minor bacchanal that accompanies the Festival of Apis at Memphis in Act 3, and is worked up into a powerful emotive peroration—a beautiful theme introduced on the trumpets, and developed into a climax underpinned by robust writing for the trombones. The triumph celebrated is, ironically, not for the Egyptian revels, but for the Prodigal Son himself, safely returned home to his promised land.

Robert Letellier

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