When The Royal Opera staged Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet a few years ago, I found the work so dull that I wondered how the composer could ever have achieved such popularity in his lifetime, and I certainly had no intention of exploring any of his other works with much energy.
But yet again, Opera Rara has come up trumps with an absolutely sensational recording of an opera by Thomas which, to my shame, I'd never even heard of before, and it has left me longing to hear more.
La Cour de Célimène is, on this evidence, one of the finest examples of French opéra-comique of the 1850s. Not merely a glass but a veritable magnum of operatic champagne, the opera's libretto by Joseph-Bernard Rosier took as its cue the flirtatious character of Célimène from Molière's drama Le Misanthrope. The portrayal of the Comtesse (nicknamed 'Célimène' after Molière's character) is fascinatingly complex for such an outwardly frivolous piece, combining a disdain for men with an overwhelming vanity in which Célimène indulges herself in every turn. Richard Langham Smith's fine booklet essay also points towards the themes of the ownership of land and of inheritance in the libretto as 'lively topics for the upper-bourgeois habitués of the Opéra-Comique'.
The work had a mere nineteen performances on its unveiling and has evidently been overlooked since soon after its premiere, but its score truly is worthy of the lavish recording Opera Rara has awarded it. The vocal writing is gorgeously extreme, especially for the title character, but it also hints at a classical atmosphere that helps locate the opera in the Paris of 1750. The Introduction to Act I gets things off to a good start: Célimène's twelve suitors wander round her garden at night and keep bumping into each other, whereupon she arrives with a flourish of coloratura and in an amusing rhyme dismisses their hopes ('Quel espoir!') with a short 'Au revoir!'. The duet for the Countess and her (very different) sister, the Baroness, is similarly comic, and Thomas uses a fluidity of form when the number becomes a trio on the arrival of the Commander. The high points of the score are undoubtedly the ensembles, whose level of inspiration, and indeed complexity, proves once and for all that this repertoire deserves greater recognition.
Opera Rara's cast is uniformly strong. La Comtesse is sung by Laura Claycomb, whose vocal prowess impresses me more every time I hear her. There's not a hint of strain in her performance, in spite of the high-lying tessitura, and the vivaciousness of the character is keenly portrayed. Joan Rodgers is the perfect foil for Claycomb as her sister, La Baronne; her full-blooded tone is well-matched to Claycomb's lighter soprano for their various ensembles together. Alastair Miles is also at his best as Le Commandeur de Beaupré, an attractive comic creation that nearly steals the show, in fact, and Sébastien Droy is brilliant as the hot-blooded Chevalier de Mérac, Célimène's toy-boy. Nicole Tibbel's fine performance as Bretonne completes a strong cast. The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir's stylish singing and the virtuosity of the Philharmonia under the highly-motivated Andrew Litton make this an unreserved recommendation.
A brief mention, too, of Opera Rara's other new release, Mayr Rediscovered, a compilation of arias and ensembles from their catalogue of the works of Giovanni Simone Mayr (1763-1845). Mayr wrote over sixty works which were popular in their day but began to be eclipsed by those of Rossini, who certainly had an extra dash of genius. This ten-track compilation (easily worthy of a four-star rating) is a great way to sample Mayr's works, however, the highlight being the duet 'Per pieta, deh! non lasciarmi' from Ginevra di Scozia, sung by Della Jones and Marilyn Hill Smith.