Riding in a car down the strip on my first and, so far at least, only visit to Las Vegas a few years ago, I noticed what to me was a most unexpected sight and startled my companions by pointing out the window and shouting “Auber! AUBER??!! OMG, that’s a bust of AUBER! What is a bust of Auber doing on the Las Vegas strip?” Determined to solve this mystery, I could not rest until I found out that there is a hotel/casino on the strip in Las Vegas called “Paris” which incorporates a copy of part of the facade of the Palais Garnier and therefore yes, a bust of Auber presides, most incongruously it somehow seemed to me, over part of the strip in Las Vegas.
Not exactly a household name anywhere these days, Daniel François Esprit Auber (1782 – 1871) achieved such stature in France that the Rue Auber leads up to the Paris Opera House and the nearest railway station is called “Auber”. Composer of many operas, quite a number of them in collaboration with Eugène Scribe, a few are still performed from time to time, and some are remembered for being predecessors of more famous works – a Manon Lescaut before Puccini, Le Philtre, the libretto of which was translated into Italian and used for Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and the grand opera Gustave III, which did similar service for Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.
His most popular opera, with a libretto by Scribe, Fra Diavolo, served as what seems now a rather odd vehicle for a Laurel and Hardy film with almost all of the music cut.
Now comes an Auber opera, La Muette de Portici (“The girl who couldn’t talk from Portici”) which gets a mention in history books that have no connection to opera or music at all. At the first performance of the opera in Brussels, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie on 25 August 1830 ( two years after its first performance in Paris, also with the great tenor Adolphe Nourrit as Masaniello) during the patriotic duet calling for revolution, “Amour sacré de la patrie”, demonstrations broke out in the auditorium even though the opera was being given for the King’s birthday. (Belgium was then part of the Netherlands.)
The first night audience left the theatre at the end of the show, swarmed out into the square and started smashing things up, riots spread throughout the city, and led to the Belgian War of Independence. The opera is still such potentially incendiary material politically in Belgium that when a new production was created by the Théâtre de la Monnaie last year, it could not be performed in the country at all, but only at the Opera-Comique in Paris.
La Muette de Portici is also important historically as the first true example of French Grand Opera, a genre that was enormously influential through the 19th century. The libretto in five acts by Germain Delavigne and Eugène Scribe set the pattern for many that followed, with a story of personal dramas set against a background of political strife loosely based on historical events, in this case a revolt in Naples against their Spanish rulers in 1647 led by a fisherman known as Masaniello.
Enormous attention was paid by the scenic and costume designers at the Paris Opéra to realistic costumes and breathtaking stage decor reproducing actual locales and Mediterranean vistas, in contrast to the practice of operas in Handel’s time, for instance, or many of Rossini’s operas for Italy, when stock stage sets—the throne room, the Royal Gardens, a prison—would be used and reused for many different operas. The opera culminates in a volcanic explosion, with Mount Vesuvius belching fire and smoke while the titular heroine immolates herself in despair in the burning lava, a spectacular stage effect that impressed Wagner among many others. Nor is that the only thing that Wagner admired about the opera: he commented on the novel integration of the chorus into the action. the chorus represent the people in this work and play an active role, not mere spectators.
And perhaps most uniquely of all in this opera, the title role is that of a girl who cannot speak—or sing, played by a ballerina, and therefore there are many passages in the music during which the orchestra accompanies the mime and action of the ballerina with no singing, blending orchestral and vocal music in an opera in a way I do not know that any other opera has ever done.
Creating the roles of the tenor and soprano leads were two great stars, Adolphe Nourrit and Laure Cinti-Damoreau, who also created leading roles in Le comte Ory, Guillaume Tell and Robert le Diable. The role of the mute girl was created by Lise Noblet and later taken by famous ballerinas such as Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler, as well as the actress Harriet Smithson, later wife of Hector Berlioz.
Auber’s music has an individual sound, although one can hear the influence of Rossini and a classical basis too in some of the marches and choruses which have a Gluckian or Mozartean tinge. Very tuneful and varied music, written for a big orchestra with grand orchestral effects and numerous choruses, a lot of them very rousing and one can easily see how an audience would be stirred to revolution on hearing them, but there is also a quiet choral prayer of stunning beauty in the finale to Act Three. There is no ballet on this recording, which despite the five acts is quite concise on two CD’s, and the previous recording I am familiar with also did not include a ballet, but there must have been one in the original performance, and I am unable to say if any other cuts have been made.
There are two tenor leads in this opera. The lighter, more lyric one sings Alphonse, the son of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. He has seduced Fenella, the girl who cannot talk, before the action begins and promised to marry her, but ditched her when a marriage is arranged for him with a Spanish princess, Elvire. Not only has the cad Alphonse had his wicked way with the poor mute girl then abandoned her, he has been keeping her locked up so she can’t make any trouble, but she manages to escape and, with the aid of a scarf he made the mistake of giving her, tells her sad story to his horrified fiancee.
Meanwhile Fenella’s brother, the fisherman (and heroic tenor) Masaniello, learning of the way his sister has been abused, vows vengeance and rouses his fellow workers and countrymen to revolt against their Spanish overlords. Fenella still loves Alphonse, though, and Masaniello himself is horrified by the bloodshed the revolt causes.
When Alphonse and Princess Elvire, fleeing the violence, fall into Masaniello’s hands, he lets them go, to the fury of his confederates, who give him a slow-acting poison. Though maddened by the poison, when he hears that a Spanish army is advancing on his people, he organizes armed resistance—but dies saving Elvire’s life. In the midst of this, Vesuvius explodes. Hearing the news of her brother’s death, Fenella jumps from a terrace into the burning lava.
This excellent performance comes from the Anhaltische Theater Dessau, which I am surprised and sorry to see is currently facing a threat to his continued existence due to severe cuts in its subsidy from the state of Saxony-Anhalt. I found the recording most enjoyable all the way through with a splendid contribution from the chorus in their many important passages and fine orchestral playing under conductor Antony Hermas. The recording was obviously made in association with staged performances of the opera but does not seem to be a live performance, there is no stage noise or applause. I have never heard of any of the singers before, but the three leads all do a good job.
Alphonse is creditably performed by Oscar de la Torre, with singing that is always a pleasure to hear. Angelina Ruzzafante is Elvire and manages her florid entrance aria with aplomb, the occasional harshness in parts of her voice through the opera is only a minor flaw. The Mexican tenor Diego Torre as Masaniello is really quite superb in my opinion, flaunting a very heroic ping and ringing high notes to burn. He can also manage soft singing, as, for instance, in the beautiful lullaby he sings to his ravaged, despairing, handicapped sister.
Photos of the stage production in the booklet that accompanies the CDs (which has a libretto in German and French but only an English synopsis, which is quite sufficient really) reveal that de la Torre is perhaps more of a pleasure to listen to than to watch, he seems to be a rather short and tubby looking fellow, but that doesn’t matter on a CD. “Rather listen than watch” perhaps applies to the production too, as photos show the characters in jeans and the ballerina part played by a girl with a punk hair style and clothes.
The only other recording of this opera I am familiar with was made in the 1980s under Thomas Fulton with a much more starry cast of Alfredo Kraus, slightly past his best but still excellent, June Anderson and John Aler, but as much as I love Anderson and admire Kraus I have to say I prefer this new recording, which is more exciting, I think due to the superior orchestra and chorus.