Bizet’s music for L’arlésienne, like Grieg’s incidental music to the drama Peer Gynt, has achieved success independent of its roots. While the dramas have gathered dust, the music is alive and well. But, did you ever wonder what the play L’arlésienne was all about? Alphonse Daudet dramatized some of his Lettres de mon moulin (“Letters from my mill”) that depicted life in rural Provence. The story concerns Frédéri who loves a young woman from Arles (L’arlésienne), who never appears on stage. Frédéri learns that she has been (are you ready to be shocked?) her guardian’s mistress for two years. Frédéri tries to forget her and fall in love with sweet Vivette, who has loved him sinceRead more they were children. (Do we see the genesis of José, Carmen, and Micaëla here?) But, alas, Frédéri is obsessed with L’arlésienne, so, while all his friends are dancing a farandole on St. Eligius’s feast day, Frédéri crashes the party, so to speak, by throwing himself out of a barn loft window and smashing his head open on the pavement below. Is that an entrance or an exit?
Paris audiences were not particularly troubled by the girl from Arles’ relationship with her guardian, or with Frédéri’s suicide. Instead, they found the “farmyard love tragedy” risible and Bizet’s score a distraction. Daudet was heartbroken that people laughed at his tender drama, but Bizet licked his wounds, rescored four of the selections for symphony orchestra, and premiered L’arlésienne Suite a year later to great success. After Bizet’s death, Ernest Guiraud (who wrote the recitatives for Carmen) took three additional items from L’arlésienne plus a minuet from La jolie fille de Perth and created Suite No. 2.
There have been many recordings of the two suites, but this album gives us all 27 numbers, including those with chorus. Some sources claim there are 25 numbers, the difference seems to be whether to count such items as “Pastorale” (entr’acte et choeur) as one number or two. This recording batches many of the numbers together into 11 tracks.
It is something of a revelation to hear the complete score, not only for the inclusion of all the music but also to hear the original arrangements. Bizet was limited to 26 musicians. The textures are very clean, with a transparency that reveals a wealth of imaginative and expressive details. Bizet captures moods and emotions in the most economical way. Michel Plasson and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse invite and encourage us to stop what we’re doing and listen to this wonderful score and savor the details. If you’re only familiar with the suites, the original orchestrations might initially sound anemic—Bizet-lite—but once the ear adjusts, many rewards are to be had.