Zémire et Azor, Grétry
Huguette Boulangeot (Zémire), Arda Mandikian (Fatmé), Claire Duchesneau (Lisbé), Michel Sénéchal (Azor), Michel Hamel (Ali), Bernard Lefort (Sander), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, c.Thomas Beecham. Somm BEECHAM 030-2 (two CDs)
This is a most delightful release, and an instructive one—a live BBC recording of a performance of Grétry‘s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ opera in May 1955 at the Theatre Royal, Bath. Beecham’s affinity with 19th-century French music is well known, but while in Paris during the early 1900s he studied, and seriously studied, 18th-century opéra comique, and his understanding of—and sympathy with—the genre shines through in this enchanting performance.
Grétry’s idiom has in the past been considered rather primitive, but his was an art that concealed art, simple, almost naïve on the surface but with many a hidden depth. Beecham catches to a tee both the surface charm and the less obvious compositional skill lying behind it. As the informative booklet notes admit, he ‘edited and arranged’ the score. Orchestral textures are filled out; just one number is cut, and there are internal snips within other numbers that one shouldn’t get too worried about—Grétry could be over-generous with repeats. Anyway, there are precedents: Adolphe Adam re-orchestrated the whole piece in the 19th century.
Beecham draws alert, pointed and disciplined playing from the Bournemouth orchestra and emphasizes the work’s swiftly changing moods. Much of it was very funny, to judge from the (unobtrusive) audience laughter, and the producer Anthony Besch obviously hit the mark, as he did with his later staging at the Camden Festival in 1980.
The sound has been brilliantly engineered, forward and ideally clear. The cast is remarkable and provides a demonstration of how French artists sang in those days—off the words and with clean-toned precision. Bernard Lefort, of course, went on to bigger things, but he was a first-rate baritone. The young Michel Sénéchal is in beautifully fresh voice and delivers some succulent soft passages—he was still singing nearly 50 years later. Huguette Boulangeot’s soprano tone is rather ‘white’, but she is very musical and has all the notes, up to a top D. Arda Mandikian, no less, sings Fatmé very sweetly, and with warmer sound.
One of the delights of the set is the spoken dialogue, taken at a fair lick and eliciting much of the laughter, thanks mainly to Michel Hamel’s Ali, as wittily sprightly in song as in speech. The French dialogue text and English translation are included in the booklet. Most warmly recommended.