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And to top it all off, the volcano erupts

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.

45 comments

  • grimoaldo says:

    Bassoprofundo, should you see this, here is your own very special version of the above review, just for you -

    This is a very enjoyable recording on two CD’s of a powerful and melodious opera of historic importance. I think you should get it.

    • armerjacquino says:

      Hahaha, that made me laugh.

      (pedant’s corner: ‘The girl from Portici who couldn’t talk’ is less syntactically ambiguous. Smashing review though)

  • Batty Masetto says:

    Grimmy, thank you for the entertaining review. I love the Vegas story and am a fan of deep background -- there are always details one hasn’t come across before.

    (Also, many Neapolitans with dodgy phone service would surely sympathize with the heroine even today -- they can’t talk from Portici either.)

  • Camille says:

    Excellent job, grim and mucho spasibo. The Vegas story as an opener was very funny, at least to me.

    Reading along, it was blithely assumed this would turn out to be the recent installation of the opera at L’opéra Comique, but I see it wasn’t.

    Maybe I will dig out that excellent book in French opera of that period later on to see if there is anything to contribute regarding the first production of the opera.
    Regarding the Belgian uprising, our American friend who is resident in Antwerp did not know these facts about the opera’s spectacular revolutionary history, and was quite interested to learn the story.

  • grimoaldo says:

    Thank you Batty and Camille!

  • here is some more background information that I thought was very interesting.

    *Both tenors are Mexican, though not related.
    *We have already had an encounter with Diego Torre’s work in Parterre. Lat october Henson Keys reviewed a Boheme under the title The blood of a Poet in these very pages.

    and here are a couple pf vids for those who want to listen:

    Diego Torre, singing E lucevan (I could not find a video of him in Muette. The other video I found of him is not a good rendition of Ma se me forza, so I opted for this one.

    and then the ending of Che gelida from the video reviewed in Oct:

    Here is Oscar de la Torre singing “Ah! Ces cris d’allégresse” from La muette. Not sure it is the same performances that inspired the recording.

    And Ecco ridente:

    (Personally, I am not terribly impressed with either, though less so with Oscar. His voice and style grate my nerves.)

    • marshiemarkII says:

      Lindoro, and then there is the also Mexican and gorgeous Diego Silva, who sang the zarzuela program earlier this year (replacing Mario Chang who singing in Parsifal) with the fabulous Eglise Gutierrez! a voice to watch!!!! fabulous sound! and gorgeous boy!

    • grimoaldo says:

      Yeah, how weird is that that there are two Mexican tenors on that recording, both with a last name “Torre” though one is “de la Torre” so I figured it must just be coincidence.

    • grimoaldo says:

      Diego Torre looks much better in that Herheim video than he does in the production still of La Muette in the CD booklet, which made me feel I would rather listen to him than see him, at least in that :

      http://www.operamagazine.nl/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Portici2.jpg

      • grimoaldo says:

        And btw there is a little confusion in the review, it is Diego Torre, not Oscar de la Torre, who I refer to as “a rather short and tubby looking fellow”.

      • OK, there has to be one explanation for that monstrosity. Pick the best option for possible costume designer/stylist

        1. A blind person
        2. His mother (“he looks good in anything”)
        3. His worse enemy
        4. A jilted lover

  • marshiemarkII says:

    grimo, great review! and I had no idea that Fanny Elssler was that famous, I only knew her from the sublime operetta Die Tanzerin Fanny Elssler with the gorgeously beautiful Wienerlied (Draussen in Sievering) I got Emalie Savoy to sing it at the Metropolitan Club last June, in memory of you know who :-) who sang it spectacularly beautifully in her day……

    • grimoaldo says:

      Thanks Marshie and I did not know, or forgot, that Strauss wrote an operetta about her, so we both learnt something!

      • grimoaldo says:

        Oh it seems that the operetta is an arrangement by others of music by Strauss, I will still try to have a listen.

    • Nerva Nelli says:

      “I got Emalie Savoy to sing it at the Metropolitan Club last June, in memory of you know who who sang it spectacularly beautifully in her day……”

      Ruth-Margaret Pütz? :)

      • marshiemarkII says:

        Nerva there was a GLORIOUS version from a Viennese Palace that someone uploaded after her passing but it seems to be gone for a while. But this version is only half of the aria (CBS News requirements :-( I was there with her of course)but still her usual glorious self, and the music so sublime:


        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yt8_CQ88BJA

        The pianist is the glorious Ken Noda, who also played for Emalie Savoy in June, and taught her the music using Hildegard’s score….

  • grimoaldo says:

    “MICHAEL SPYRES “Mad Scenes” from LA MUETTE DE PORTICI”

    Actually only the second scene is really the mad scene but the production has obviously re-interpreted some things.

    • oedipe says:

      It is unfortunate that l’Opéra Comique did absolutely nothing with its Muette, no DVD, no CD, considering that it was such a rare opportunity. Not everybody was top notch, but Spyres and a couple of others were excellent.

      It is such a pity that several wonderful productions from the Opéra Comique -with the exception of Atys and David et Jonathas- never got recorded to be published: Ciboulette, Mârouf, Les Brigands, and a few others.

      • Chanterelle says:

        Oedipe, I thought that production values for Atys and David et Jonathas were much stronger than the others (thought I didn’t see Les Brigands). I adore the Opera Comique but there’s often a feeling of “Hey kids, let’s put on a show”, a certain amateurish quality. La Muette wasn’t amateurish but IMO you had to be a fan of Emma Dale (who directed the La Scala Carmen a few years back). Sets reminded me of Bartlett Sher (lots of detached doors), and the real stars were Dale’s troupe of saltimbanques. Very entertaining on their own but little to do with the story! I didn’t make notes on the singing, but Spyres created a real buzz. When will he get hired for this rep in the US?

        • oedipe says:

          Maybe so, but I personally loved Ciboulette and Mârouf, which I think compare quite favorably with some ballyhooed productions from German or British theaters, and which get international publicity.

          But I agree with you about the Muette production. I hate Emma Dante’s style, it always makes me think of “la fête de l’Huma” (if you know what I am referring to). In the case of Muette I was mainly talking about the musical values.

          • Chanterelle says:

            Dante, thanks for the correction, Oedipe (there IS an Emma Dale, whom am I thinking of?). Ciboulette was utterly beguiling, especially Julie Fuchs; Marouf charmed me less — like some of OC’s production it was a little too cartoonish. However, on balance I get more pleasure from Opera Comique productions than from those at Opera de Paris.

            Muette’s music had plenty of visual competition but the performance was definitely worth seeing twice (Somehow I’ve managed to miss any fete de l’Humanite manifestations).

  • phoenix says:

    I don’t remember hearing the Opéra Comique performances, but I liked this bdcsst from Bari very much -- and it was in good sound when I captured it (I assume it is still available at el Castello di Bobolinka):

    Teatro Petruzzelli di Bari
    Auber: La Muette de Portici (en français)
    8 Marzo 2013

    Fenella -- Elena Borgogni
    Alphonse -- Maxim Mironov
    Elvire -- Maria Alejandres
    Masaniello -- Michael Spyres
    Pietro -- Christian Helmer
    Borella -- Domenico Colaoanni
    Selva -- Mikhail Korobeiniko
    Direttore: Alain Guingal

    • Chanterelle says:

      As mentioned above I have no notes with me on the singers I heard but it looks like the Opera Comique cast.

      • oedipe says:

        No, there are important differences. Here is the Opéra Comique cast:

        Fenella, Elena Borgogni
        Alphonse, Maxim Mironov
        Elvire, Église Gutiérrez
        Masaniello, Michael Spyres
        Pietro, Laurent Alvaro
        Borella, Tomislav Lavoie
        Selva, Jean Teitgen
        Lorenzo, Martial Defontaine

        Direction musicale, Patrick Davin

  • Gualtier M says:

    In 1916, the legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova made a silent film of “La Muette de Portici” -- with dance sections added for her:

    • -Ed. says:

      Gawd. Based upon these short films, I could dance The Dumb Girl of Portici tomorrow. It’s a question of stumbling and huge skirts. And may we please call her The Mute from Portici, please, before I go mad?

      Love review, grimoaldo.

      • manou says:

        I love the irony of making a silent film of Muette.

        I think we should go for a modern translation: “The Portician Dumb Broad”.

      • Often admonished says:

        It’s a question of stumbling and huge skirts

        shall we agree on “The Mule of Portici”

      • grimoaldo says:

        Thanks, -Ed! A lot of comments on the way I translated the title, aj was right when he said it should have been “The girl from Portici who couldn’t talk” not “The girl who couldn’t talk from Portici”. I avoided “dumb” as the word has connotations of foolishness, especially in US usage, and “mute” as that can mean something you put on an instrument to make it quiet, but the thing about the character in the opera is that she has a handicap in an inability to speak.

  • MontyNostry says:

    OT, but dontcha just love this promo copy for the new Così ‘album’ from DG — and they way it prioritises the label’s deeply underwhelming contract vocalists?

    “Così fan tutte is the second album in a series of seven Mozart operas conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and initiated by Rolando Villazón. It also stars a thrilling cast of both young and experienced Mozart opera stars including Mojca Erdmann as Despina, Miah Persson and Angela Brower as the emotionally manipulated sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella.”