Offenbach Orphée aux enfers
Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers has enjoyed more modern recordings than this 1951 offering. EMI has released both the larger-scale 1874 version (1/89), and what is basically the original 1858 version with interpolated 1874 additions (1/99). No recording, though, has come near to challenging this version not only for presenting the original score unadorned but also for capturing the essence of Offenbach’s first small-scale concept. Together with the companion recording of La Belle Hélène (Regis, 9/03), which Andrew Porter has classed as one of the all-time great recordings, and the 1948 Cluytens Les Contes d’Hoffmann (EMI, 9/95, and Naxos), it whisks us back to a French performing tradition that was all too soon submerged by record companies’ preference for internationally recognised casts.
René Leibowitz, Polish-born, French-adopted 12-tonalist, here emerged as a master of the intimate style of Offenbach’s early operettas. He apparently assembled the cast from his pupils, which accounts not only for the relative unfamiliarity of some of the names but also the stylistic unity that so deliciously pervades the whole enterprise. The singers combine to provide just the right youthful feeling that Offenbach’s feather-light melodies require. Claudine Collard is a delightfully impish Eurydice, duetting deliciously with Bernard Demigny in the Fly Duet, and there are two winning tenors in Jean Mollien and André Dran. There may be moments of ragged ensemble; but the whole provides testimony to Leibowitz’s powers as vocal trainer as much as conductor.
The 12 fillers may be of mixed origins; but, from Björling’s glorious Swedish ‘Judgement of Paris’, Louis Musy’s wonderfully swaggering ‘Pif, Paf, Pouf’ and Claudia Novikova’s infectiously tipsy ‘Ah! quel dîner’ onwards, each provides a classic demonstration of Offenbach style.