My friend Marco was mentioning how globalization is ruining traditions here in Italy – the commercialism of Halloween supplanting the solemnity of All Souls, Santa Claus with a load of presents pushing aside La Befana with her simple gifts. And no matter what city you go to the stores all seem to be the same – nothing unique to buy that says “You can only get this in …fill in the city/country.
While I tend to agree with him I am guessing Berlin is one of the few places where you can buy a piece of the “Wall” encased in plastic. And I was able to find a few items that just didn’t seem to be attainable anyplace else in what my friend Ben calls the Aladdin’s cave of CD-DVD stores – Dussman. That included a 1952 recording of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène conducted by René Leibowitz. Its a companion piece to his marvelous recording of Orpheus in the Underwood and is just as captivating. Its hard to believe that even after more than 55 years the joy, frivolity and sly sensuality can still jump out of the groves and make you want to laugh, dance and maybe even have an affair.
But listening to it had made me realize more than ever that the world of opera has been hard hit by globalization. There were once very recognizable national styles of singing – French, German, Italian, Czech, Russian even English – most of which its seems are either disappearing or have already become extinct. One of the first to go was the French style.
The Gaelic sound was distinctive and not always to everyone’s taste. There could be a certain acid quality to some of the sopranos and – to non-French ears – an irritating nasality to a lot of it. The voices also tended to be lighter – less “substantial” than their other European cousins. But they fit French music perfectly – as indeed they should as the vocal style and the music developed hand in hand.
On the Leibowitz recording – and it has to be called that because the plucky Pole knew how this stuff should be played and is the driving force behind it all – the voices are the old school. I have no idea who Janine Linda or André Dran are – I couldn’t find out much about either one of them on Google and I don’t know if in real life they were a beautiful and sexy couple on stage – but their performances on record exude charm and, for me at least, Gaelic sex appeal in spades. Here they in the delightful “dream duet” from Act 2.
Just to set it up: the operetta is a spoof on the Helen of Troy legend with sly digs at Napoleon III and the decadent Second Empire of the time. Paris has been promised Helen and plans to spirit her away. She is more than agreeable but wants to be seen to be doing the right thing in the eyes of society. He visits her bedchamber at night but tells her that he is only part of a dream she is having; she, of course, is more than happy to go along with the ruse.
The scene that follows has to be one of the wittiest in all opera. As Paris and Helen embrace her husband Menelaus returns unexpectedly from a trip to Crete. The poor bewildered man is made out the guilty one for returning unannounced: after all a truly loving husband would have advised his wife of his return so that embarrassing situations like this would not arise. Pure Gaelic logic!
The success of La Belle Hélène followed very quickly on the heels of Offenbach’s greatest hit Orpheus. Part of it was due to the cut and thrust of Henri Meihac and Ludovic Halévy’s brilliant libretto, part of it was due to the presence of popular favorite Hortense Schneider (right as Offenbach’s Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein) as “the most beautiful woman in the world” and most of it was due to Offenbach’s glorious music. It became an instant hit and traveled around the world. Though its was popular in early American musical circles it seems to have dropped out of favour there. But in the Europe of the 1920s-30s there were celebrated revivals and recent revivals have proved that the libretto and music still pack a satirical and sensual punch.
This one has gone on the IPod and has been brightening up the last few days.
18 novembre – Dedicazione delle basiliche di Santi Pietro e Paolo apostoli