Notes and Editorial Reviews
La Muette de Portici
Antony Hermus, cond; Diego Torre (
); Oscar de la Torre (
); Angelina Ruzzafante (
); Wiard Witholt (
); Anhaltische PO & Op Ch
CPO 777694 (2 CDs: 135:09
French only) Live: Dessau
Hard for us to believe nowadays, but in its time Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s opera
La Muette de Portici
(The Mute Girl of Portici) was to the Belgian fight for independence what Verdi’s
was to become a dozen years later for Italy—possibly even more so, since its Brussels premiere led directly to a public revolution on the very night the opera was given. The rebel leader tossed his red Jacobin cap into the air at the sight and sound of every appearance of the rebel Masaniello and his followers onstage; immediately after the performance, huge, unexpected mobs formed in the streets and marched into the office of the government newspaper
smashing windows. All night long the victorious rebels loudly sang the passage from the opera declaring that nothing is more glorious than dying for one’s fatherland. Talk about a wildly successful premiere!
Very briefly, the plot concerns Alphonse, son of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. He is in love with the mute girl Fenella, sister of a fisherman named Masaniello who becomes the leader of the peasants’ revolt (this is based on real events of 1647), but his father coerces him into marrying the more socially acceptable Elvire. Yet Fenella, imprisoned by Alphonse’s father, manages to escape and begs Elvire to help her. Fenella witnesses Alphonse’s marriage and is stunned to discover that Elvire is the bride, but the latter keeps her promise to help her and Alphonse, still in love with Fenella, also helps her escape. Masaniello and his fishermen plan for the revolution; when Alphonse and Elvire are captured, she begs the rebel leader to help them escape, and he does so before learning who they really are. When his actions are discovered, Masaniello is considered a traitor by the rebels and poisoned by his rival leader, Pietro; but this must be a rather odd, weak, and slow-acting poison, because Masaniello doesn’t die but just goes mad. Oddly enough, the peasants still trust him to lead them into battle, which he does. Fleeing from him this time, Elvire tries to convince Fenella to escape with her, but the mute girl learns that her brother was killed by his own men when he tried once again to protect Elvire and takes her own life.
Listening to the opera, especially as well and tautly conducted as it is by Antony Hermus, one is continually struck by the impressive and original music with which Auber graced this plot. Unlike so many Auber opera arias I’ve heard (think of “L’eclat de rire” from his
), this music demands that rare combination of vocal agility and flexibility with dramatic declamation. And let me tell you, this music is
to sing: just listen to Elvire’s act 1 aria, “O moment enchanteur,” and you’ll hear what I mean. Angelina Ruzzafante, like so many of her soprano sisters nowadays (think of Barbara Frittoli or Patricia Racette), has a good enough technique to cope with the music’s difficulties and acts very well with the voice (a real necessity in this opera), yet has an inconsistent and sometimes acidic tone in the upper register (which does improve tonally as the performance goes on). This, however, is not entirely a detriment to a role which, like the opera itself, calls for drama over sheer vocalism, and the almost relentless drive of Auber’s music, in this opera at least, is a major factor in determining the prescribed style in which it is to be performed.
Tenor Oscar de la Torre, as Alphonse, has slightly tight voice production but superb phrasing, excellent declamation, and high notes in abundance—and he needs every last one of them, as they are written into the score and not optional. The other tenor, Diego Torre as Masaniello, has a similarly light, bright voice, and to my ears a more even tone production. Both are excellent in what they do. In fact, the only really poor voice in the cast is that of Masaniello’s rival, Pietro, sung by baritone Wiard Witholt.
The only other complete commercial recording of this opera that I could track down was the one made in September 1996 (EMI) with a considerably over-the-hill Alfredo Kraus and, though she was much younger, an already over-the-hill June Anderson (who also had, in my estimation, ZERO excitement as an interpreter); this is therefore clearly the better of the two recordings. (Since Kraus wanted to sing Masaniello’s famous aria, “Du pauvre seul ami fidèle,” he took that role, giving the equally cruel tessitura of Alphonse to a good but not great tenor, John Aler.)
There are two negatives, only one of which really affects us as listeners: 1) the stage production seems to have been updated to represent a gang war, as Masaniello is wearing a do-rag and a sleeveless T-shirt with “FSBN Bulldogs” proudly printed on it, and 2) the libretto is in French only. Other than that, this recording is a must-get for any lovers of truly dramatic opera of the ottocento period. This music is so great as to almost beggar belief, driving forward with an impulse that is sheerly visceral and practically irresistible. After hearing it, I almost wanted to go out and smash a government newspaper window myself! Go for it!
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
La muette de Portici by Daniel-François Auber
Diego Torre (Tenor),
Angelina Ruzzafante (Soprano),
Oscar De La Torre (Tenor),
Wiard Witholt (Bass)
Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau,
Anhaltische Theater Opera Chorus
Written: 1828; France
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