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Mostly a real yawnfest with a few highlights
on 11 March 2013
I have in the past on Amazon fallen foul of a tiny but dedicated and almost fanatical band of Meyerbeer enthusiasts who review only their Master's works and have even resorted to assuming alter-egos in order to post encomiums of their own books on him - and I fear history is about to repeat itself, as I try as I might - and I do indeed keep trying - I cannot hear anything other than a second-rate composer at work in the majority of Meyerbeer's operas. The best and last of them is "L'africaine" but apart from some justly celebrated and very singable arias beginning with "O, paradis!", "Ô, prêtres de Baal" and some showpieces from "Les Huguenots", I am pushed to find much beyond some very workmanlike and predictable music-making which has not worn well. The great "Gramophone" voice critic J.B. Steane was accused by one Meyerbeer admirer of having an animus against Meyerbeer. Nothing of the sort; he simply had good taste.
However, apart from those devotees, other respected reviewers on Amazon have praised this work so it clearly demands open-minded consideration. One is instantly excoriated for making "unfair and irrelevant" comparisons with other composers active from 1830 to 1860 but as far as I am concerned Donizetti, Verdi and Wagner were better opera composers and that's that. But let's consider this opera on its own merits and eschew otiose juxtapositions.
This is a live recording of a performance given at the Teatro Verdi, Salerno not even a year ago at the time of reviewing. It is very well played by a "provincial" orchestra which hardly sounds like it, with a decidedly better than provincial cast, including both rising and established international artists such as Carmen Giannattasio - arguably the star of the show - American tenor Bryan Hymel who sang the role of Robert recently at Covent Garden (in a production which, to put it kindly, was not critically well received), Italian lyric-coloratura soprano Patrizia Ciofi and British bass Alastair Miles.
There is some good singing here amongst some less impressive. I have already mentioned Giannattasio's vibrant, mezzo-ish voice. Ciofi often sounds strangely hoarse and worn although her flexibility is still apparent. Hymel has a neat tenor with a good top C and the suggestion of a Top D but he has some glottal mannerisms and the voice is quite small. Miles is imposing but the dreaded wobble is beginning to obtrude in his bass. There seems hardly to be a singer these days immune to this affliction.
It all rumbles along nicely but virtually nothing interesting happens musically speaking and most of the time I am very conscious of listening to a composer who regards opera as an excuse for his singers to deliver their "numbers" to be admired by an audience of canary-fanciers. As in "Le prophète", the action is dramatically inert and I defy anyone to whistle me a truly memorable melody - so much is very humdrum stuff. One CD in and I was bored by the stock gestures and formulaic exchanges. To take but one example, the opening of Act 3 with its insipid duet for Bertram and Raimbaut is the epitome of banality - and poorly sung to boot, hence the lack of applause.
There is a slight, muffling veil over the proceedings but by and large the sound is very good: clean, balanced and largely free of audience noise. Applause in general sounds muted to me, indicative of polite approval.
My apologies to reviewers who find delight in this music; that baffles me. This is my last attempt to review a Meyerbeer opera and I shall not return to his music; it's not worth the investment - as the Royal Opera recently re-discovered to its cost - nor is it worth the grief I'll get from the Band of Brothers. Meyerbeer's operas have fallen into desuetude for a reason and you can hear it for yourself; our ears have been spoiled even by raw and comparatively unsophisticated early Verdi which has more melodic invention and psychological insight in one scene than you will find in this entire opera.