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Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: La Muette de Portici
Diego Torre (Masaniello), Angelina Ruzzafante (Elvire), Oscar de la Torre (Alphonse), Angus Wood (Lorenzo), Ulf Paulsen (Selva), Anne Weinkauf (Lady-in-waiting), Wiard Witholt (Pietro), Kostadin Arguirov (Borella), Stephan Biener (Moreno), Operchor des Analtishes Theaters, Helmut Sonne (chorus master), Anhaltische Philharmonie, Antony Hermus (conductor)
Recorded in the Grosses Haus des Anhaltischen Theaters Dessau (May 24-26, 2011) – 135’09
cpo 777 694-2 – Booklet in English, French and German; libretto in French

Auber’s La Muette de Portici (“The Mute Girl of Portici”) is an opera more written about than performed. Premiered in 1828, it is considered the first grand opera and provided a template for the most ambitious new works to enter the repertory in Paris, the centre of the opera world, for decades to come. There had been a trend of works like Cherubini’s Médée featuring mythological and/or noble people in tragic situations, and a lighter tradition treating common people in comic situations. Auber combined elements of both. For La Muette he and his librettists mined a set of historical events featuring common people in conflict with nobles, specifically a short-lived revolt in Naples (1647) headed by a fisherman known as Masaniello. A major innovation lay in making the chorus into a character deeply involved in the action. Another singular innovation lay in making the title role mute; as a result the title character, Fenella, must communicate using gesture, mime, and dance.

The opera was an immediate success but achieved an extra degree of celebrity (or notoriety) in 1830 when performed in Brussels on an evening when there were street demonstrations in favour of what is now Belgium separating from Dutch rule. After the rousing opera many audience members joined the demonstrations which soon led to Belgian independence. (Legend has it that the opera was the decisive cause of the successful revolt. Well, it makes a good story.)

Although in five acts, the work is less than two and half hours long. Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne’s libretto is remarkably concise considering the material it encompasses. Each act features characters engaged in personal and political conflict. These conflicts are in continual flux due to changing circumstances, giving rise to continuous dramatic juxtapositions. In Act I, the Spanish noble lady, Elvire, joyously anticipates her imminent marriage to Alphonse, the son of the Spanish viceroy. She is accosted by a distressed mute girl, Fenella, who indicates she is fleeing prison after being traduced by a highly placed noble. Elvire sympathizes and offers her protection. The wedding proceeds and only when it is concluded does Fenella indicate to Elvire that her seducer was Elvire’s new husband. This leads to a final ensemble in which mixed emotions are expressed - as happens throughout the work.

Act II takes place on the shore where we finally meet the hero of the opera, the charismatic Masaniello, who is Fenella’s brother. The carefree opening scene is interrupted by his friend Pietro bringing news of Fenella’s travails. Masaniello instantly declares vengeance and the rousing duet “Mieux vaut mourir que rester misérable” (“Better to die than remain miserable”) contains echoes of La Marseillaise. Fenella arrives and Masaniello’s indignation increases. The act ends with Masaniello and cohorts discussing their planned rebellion amidst a carefree chorus of young women.

Act III takes us to the palace and confrontation between Elvire and Alphonse; he expresses contrition for his past behaviour; Elvire forgives him but wants Fenella brought there so that they can make amends. The next scene opens with a joyful dance in front of the palace. Selva, the man pursuing the fleeing Fenalla in Act I, spots her and seizes her. Masaniello enters and sings a grand, inflammatory aria (worthy of Berlioz’s Enée), stirring up the crowd. What abruptly follows is a beautiful a capella prayer; then a tocsin rings out and battle erupts.

Act IV opens with Masaniello voicing regret at the violence he has stirred up. He and Fenella are exhausted and he sings a lovely “Air du sommeil”, a piece that deserves to be on every lyric tenor’s recital disc. His raging followers enter and he tries to calm them. Who should show up but Alphonse and Elvire requesting refuge. At this point Fenella’s dancing has to show us that she still loves Alphonse and is envious of Elvire; yet Elvire has offered her protection, so Fenella encourages Masaniello to offer them refuge, which he does. The rebels aren’t pleased at his apparent turnabout. Citizens rush in to present Masaniello with the keys to the city and they all depart to a march much like one from Verdi’s Nabucco (composed 13 years after the Auber work).

Act V opens in the palace vestibule. Pietro sings a serenade but, in a aside, tells how he has poisoned the new tyrant - Masaniello. There is more fighting while Mount Vesuvius erupts. It is reported that Masaniello has gone mad; he enters, crying for vengeance; the chorus pleads for guidance; Masaniello, laughing, calls for dancing; the enemy advances and Masaniello flees. We soon are informed he has been killed - and Fenella leaps into the flowing lava.

This recording is taken from a production of the opera in Dessau, Germany. Photos in the booklet show it to have been a modern dress production showing perhaps members of an Occupy movement in full revolt. Conductor Antony Hermus most definitely brings forward the rousing nature of the work, although more lyrical moments such as the choral prayer and the “Air du sommeil” are performed with ample spaciousness.

The running time is 15 minutes shorter than the only other complete recording. There is an indication in the booklet that just one short, arguably redundant vocal passage is not sung. Perhaps the dance sequences have been tightened up a bit.

Diego Torre gives a remarkably vigorous performance in the challenging role of Masaniello. He manages both the rousing passages and the quieter moments; in addition, his French is notably clear. Angelina Ruzzafante, a Dessau regular, does a fine job as Elvire, notably in her big introductory aria. The weak link among the three main singing roles is Oscar de la Torre who shows a degree of vocal strain as the remorseful Alphonse. The six smaller roles (Masaniello’s followers and henchmen of the ruling Spaniards) are all decently sung. The orchestra and augmented chorus show evidence of a high degree of professionalism and thorough preparation.

La Muette de Portici remained in the Paris repertory for many years even though it was soon eclipsed by even grander works, notably those by Meyerbeer, all of which clock in at four hours or more. Today the most widely performed grand opera is Verdi’s Don Carlos even though its ballet (one of the absolute requirements of the genre) is almost always omitted.

I see that La Muette was recently performed at the Opéra Comique in Paris. It is, however, not an opéra comique - i.e., a work with spoken dialogue. It is through-composed.

For anyone interested in learning more about this opera’s place in history I recommend Sarah Hibberd’s French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination (Cambridge University Press). It is aimed at an academic readership but is written in jargon-free English.

I recommend this recording for anyone who wants insight into a vital but unfairly overlooked work. I can’t hail it as a masterpiece so much as a lively (very!), masterfully-constructed entertainment. It’s a pity so much creative energy is poured into productions of the core repertoire which turn out to be routine, mannered or perverse when viable works such as this languish unperformed.

The fact that the accompanying libretto is in French only will be a hindrance to many who wish to get acquainted with the work. There is a rival version, dating from 1986, under Thomas Fulton with Alfredo Kraus and June Anderson. Arguably not as incisively conducted as this new release (it comes in at 149 minutes, but still on two CDs), it includes the libretto in French and English.

Michael Johnson




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