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le 22 juin 2014
With the 150th anniversary of Meyerbeer's death on 2 May 2014, the appearance of his ballet music and now some of his overtures provides a suitable celebration. The ballet music is a delight in its variety and vivacity. The overtures are obviously a much more serious and dramatic genre, that give us a special flavour of the works to follow, distilling in poetic summary something of the character of the scenario and its concerns. This collection focuses on overtures and entr'actes from Meyerbeer's famous French operas. Some of these pieces used to feature on old 78 rpm records, and there was an anthology from the 1950s conducted by George Sebastian and the Orchestra of the Paris Opera. Here the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra ,under he dynamic direction of Darrell Ang, provide resplendent sound, great brilliance and panache in presenting these technically challenging works.
Meyerbeer was famous for pruning the extended operatic overture to a more succinct prelude. We see this with his two first grand operas . Each captures the poetic heart of the scenario: ‘Robert le Diable', with its doom-laden trombones, embodies all the eerie mystery, the ‘cold deathless' quality of the great drama of redemption the opera depicts; ‘Les Huguenots', with its solemn tones, gentle romantic reflection, and military call to arms, paints the various characters and moods of the Huguenot protagonists as will unfold in the opera.
On the other hand, we have some longer works in the more extended operatic tradition. These pertain particularly to the two opéras comiques written in the 1850s. ‘L'Etoile du Nord' has military overture suited to the exploits Peter the Great, while the famous melody of the providential Star of the North will be recognized as the lyrical contrasting central section. The longest piece in the collection, ‘Dinorah' shows Meyerbeer at his most experimental, and responding to the contemporary musical development of the tone poem and the fashion for regionalism. (This is in the manner of Liszt who invented the form, and Smetana who came to associate the form with Czech nationalism.) This overture, a very considerable orchestral tour de force, tells the whole story of the opera, and serves as both prologue and epilogue to the action, as well as depicting the fay character of the heroine, the charm of rural village life, the piety of the Breton pilgrimage, a devastating storm, and the triumph of true love and kindness. The variety of the motifs, melodies, moods and instrumental colours are fascinating.
Nothing could be more different than the overture to the third grand opera, ‘Le Prophète'. The score was published without an overture, although the composer had written one. For various reason he withheld the piece which has been rediscovered and edited only in the past two decades. It is an overwhelming work, dark and almost frightening in its depiction of the troubled times of the Reformation in Germany. It is hardly surprising that the composer thought it would perhaps not be understood by his audience. It is a brilliant virtuoso work for the orchestra, but sombre and harsh, a study in the destructive power of fanaticism and violence, and certainly the most striking number in this recital, a real discovery! It is fascinating to hear the well-known themes of the famous Coronation March (capturing the aspirations of the famous Prophet), appear fleetingly in this exploration of the bonfire of human vanities. Let us hope this extraordinary work can be heard more in concert.
One of the most interesting and delightful aspects of the this programme is the inclusion of some of the entr'actes from the French operas. All the acts of Meyerbeer's operas have introductions, and here some of the longer self-contained ones have been chosen for performance. They are also miniature tone poems—that to Act 2 of ‘Les Huguenots', with its enchanting flute solo and bird-calls, painting the pastoral idyll of Queen Marguerite's court at the Chateau of Chenonceaux. By comparison, the introduction to Act 5, with the tolling bells impelling us into the horror of the Massacre of St Bartholomew, is filled with ominous foreboding. It leads straight into the glittering ball of the King of Navarre: here the ballet music is not a diversion, but part of the entr'acte, an ironic commentary on the sorrowful events now overwhelming the story. The dancing soon collapses into the bloody realities of intolerance.
At the heart of this collection is the overture and four entr'actes from ‘L'Africiane' (or ‘Vasco de Gama' in its restored original form), Meyerbeer's swansong. The overture is pure poetry, an elegy full of the sorrow of parting. Its lovely melodies, tender inner parts, and beautiful orchestration, especially the writing for the lower strings, are most memorable. The other pieces all share in this mood and poetry: the gentle horn solo of Vasco's dream (Act 2), the beautiful oboes of the Portuguese ships sailing through the night seas to new lands (Act 3), the wrench of loss and self-offering in the two from Act 5. The Grand Scene du Mancenillier is the famous unison prelude to the heroine's mystical death, and captures the vast expanse of the empty ocean. Heard as a consecutive suite, the pieces from ‘L'Africaine' make a deeply touching impression.
One the other hand is the pure joyfulness of the entr'actes from ‘Dinorah'. Like the extended overture to the opera, these miniatures paint the delight of the pastoral life: the happy carefree reassurance of the idyll that opens Act 2, a charming recital full of affecting harmonies. Then the rich part-writing of five horns and the presto coda that open Act 3 bracingly conjure up the age-old topos of the life of the hunter, and lead us into the happy resolutions of the story.
Like the Ballet Music, this recital of orchestral music from Meyerbeer's operas is both a revelation and a pleasure---something old and yet something most original, completely new and refreshing.