Auber Gustave III

Author: 
Lionel Salter

Auber Gustave III

  • Gustav III, ou le Bal masqué

Auber has become one of the forgotten men of music. Textbooks credit him with being the initiator of the Grand Opera genre that Meyerbeer was to develop, and with being the first to compose an opera on the subject of Manon Lescaut (nearly 30 years before Massenet), but his once-popular Fra Diavolo has dropped out of the repertoire, and even his opera-comique overtures, at one time a staple of light orchestras, are now seldom heard. What we have here is a forerunner, by a quarter of a century, of Un ballo in maschera that Verdi not only knew but declared ''vast, grandiose and beautiful''. Bellini too praised it highly, and its first performance in 1833 was followed by hundreds of others in Paris and London. It would, however, be idle to pretend that it in any way rivals Verdi's tautly dramatic treatment of basically the same Scribe libretto: Auber is conspicuously long-winded, with much verbal repetition, and despite his effective large ensembles, his facile, tuneful musical invention, designed for uncommitted and undemanding audiences, could be called (according to taste) either unpretentious or commonplace. Even at many key points in the plot the music would seem equally apt for light comedy: at really tense moments Auber tends to fall back on chromatic scales. Some of this lack of quality was probably also due to haste the last three acts having to be completed after rehearsals had already begun. The best music is undoubtedly to be found in Act 3, with a sinister introduction to the scene in the gallows-field, followed by a long bravura aria for Amelia and a duet between her and Gustave—employing musical material already foreshadowed in the overture. To please the Parisian bourgeoisie there were ballets in both the First and Fifth Acts (the latter more extensive and including an odd march in 3/4 time): in the present performance recorded before an enthusiastic but well-behaved audience m the excellent acoustics of the newly restored theatre in Compiegne, both have been slightly cut—that in Act 5, astonishingly, omitting the famous galop, which originally caused a sensation when performed by 120 dancers.
It is a performance that reflects considerable credit on all concerned. The star of the show, following in the steps of Nourrit, who originally took the title-role, is Laurence Dale (an Englishman with perfect French), who employs his lyrical, freely-produced voice (which also contains the requisite metal) with the greatest intelligence, making every word not only dear but meaningful, and pacing his recitatives admirably: he has two big arias, one in Act 5, the other, at the start of the opera, sailing up twice to a top D. Christian Treguier brings a fine voix noble to the part of the wronged Ankastrom who eventually assassinates Gustave (with a very unconvincing pistol shot, incidentally); there is a suitably dark-voiced sorceress from Valerie Marestin and a flexible, soubrettishly bright page from Brigitte Lafon. Rima Tawil is a dramatic soprano who at times seems to be exerting over-much pressure, but she is certainly an impressive figure: her Belgian-type rolled 'r's', however, are somewhat obtrusive. Chorus and orchestra are excellent, and Swierczewski, whose performances of Mehul I have previously praised judges tempos well and, bearing in mind that the recording is taken from live performances, secures very laudable precision even in the largest-scale ensembles (only once, in the Act 2 finale, is there a momentary lapse). The printed libretto, rather faultily translated, has not been quite fully co-ordinated with what is actually sung.'

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