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 Recording of the Week  Mark Elder conducts Gounod's La Colombe

What is it about French comic opera and dead parrots? (There’s a sentence I’ve never written before). Last year I got to know Offenbach’s delightfully daft Vert-Vert (which opens with the funeral of the avian mascot of a girls’ school, and his replacement by the hero – also available on Opera Rara), and this week I’ve been enchanted by a short Gounod rarity which boasts some equally appealing music as well as an equally silly plot: peeved by her rival’s acquisition of a parrot, a Florentine society lady schemes to get her hands on a pet dove belonging to a cash-strapped nobleman who’s in love with her. Spoiler alert: things don’t end well for the parrot.

Sir Mark Elder
Sir Mark Elder

This is Opera Rara’s second recording of the year, following their superb revival of Donizetti’s Christian-and-lions epic Les martyrs, which came out in May and which we covered in these pages. Initially we were chary about reviewing another French opera from the same team so relatively soon, but the two works could hardly be more different, and we were all so charmed by the wit and tunefulness of Gounod’s score and the superbly virtuosic singing on display that I couldn’t pass up the chance to tell you about it.

Premiered in 1860 and with a cast of just four, La colombe is worlds away from the proto-Verdian sound-world of Les martyrs, and indeed from Gounod’s two best-known operas Faust and Roméo et Juliette: I must confess that I’d never really thought of Gounod as an opéra comique composer before hearing this, but much of the writing here would have Offenbach looking to his laurels. He’s particularly good in mock-serious mode, as with tenor’s serenade to his beloved dove (which has become a sort of bizarre substitute for the woman he loves – he even names it after her!) and the furious anti-woman rantings of the hero’s valet.

The Mexican tenor Javier Camarena is all grace and ardour as the lovelorn, spendthrift aristo Horace: a rival for the bel canto crown of Juan Diego Flórez, Camarena recently became only the third singer in history to get an encore at the Metropolitan Opera, and though he has little in the way of real fireworks here, it’s easy to see why from his elegant phrasing and ease in the upper register of the voice.

Canadian mezzo Michèle Losier is marvellous in the trouser-role of Mazet, Horace’s misogynistic servant: his/her manic tirade against womanly wiles (overtones of Mephistopheles’ ‘Golden Calf’ song from Faust here) is a real highlight, but she also has great rapport with Camarena’s high tenor, particularly in the extended duet as they try to style out a disastrous lunch-party from an almost bare larder… Laurent Naouri is all haughty Gallic flair as Sylvie’s epicurean majordomo Maitre Jean – his couplets in praise of the culinary arts at the beginning of Act Two prove to be another show-stopper.

But the palm goes to the American coloratura soprano Erin Morley, who’s an absolute knock-out as the spoilt girl-about-town Sylvie, reeling off reams of silvery semiquavers and popping out top Es with insouciant ease in her narcissistic opening aria, and sailing above the various ensembles with panache.

At just over 80 minutes, it barely warrants being spread over two discs (an appendix of arias from Gounod’s other lesser-known operas might’ve been a nice way to fill things out, but perhaps Opera Rara are keeping their powder dry for future full-length projects on that front) but that’s my only caveat. To quote Lady Saphir from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience (a work not a million miles away from the spirit of La colombe), it’s ‘Nonsense, yes, perhaps…but O, what precious nonsense!’.

Gounod: La Colombe

Erin Morley (Sylvie), Javier Camarena (Horace), Michèle Losier (Mazet), Laurent Naouri (Jean), Hallé, Mark Elder

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC