Offenbach: Galop infernal from Orphée aux enfers; Belle nuit, O nuit d’amour

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COMPOSERS: Offenbach
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Galop infernal from Orphée aux enfers; Belle nuit, O nuit d’amour
PERFORMER: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), etc; Les Musiciens du Louvre & Choir/ Marc Minkowski
CATALOGUE NO: 471 501-2
What the world needs now, and often, is Offenbach: witty, knowing, tuneful and with a sharp eye and ear for human vanity. And here’s a CD with the best of Offenbach that we ought to know better, which is not at all the Offenbach available in the opera house.

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La grande-duchesse de Gérolstein, for example, was the musical hit of the Paris Exhibition of 1867, and its gentle satire on 19th-century pocket states in love with parade-ground soldiering hit the spot as the princelings and their princesses descended on the French capital. And who wouldn’t surrender their arms to Anne Sofie von Otter’s Grand Duchess? In ‘Ah, c’est un fameux régiment’ the Duchess and Fritz, the soldier from the ranks promoted to General on account of his good looks and sung here by Gilles Ragon, practise their military and vocal exercises with exemplary spit and polish – she ‘rat-a-tatting’ like a side drum, he a military cornet.

The CD derives from a concert at the Châtelet in Paris, which also appears this month on a DVD from TDK (DV-OPJOF). In vision, Offenbach’s vocal charms are somewhat stage mugged, though a couple of bonus items, Souvenirs d’Aix-les-Bains and the ‘Galop infernal’ from Orphée aux enfers may persuade some of the superior merits of the DVD. But if you are hoping for a glimpse of Anne Sofie von Otter doing the splits in the ‘Can Can’ prepare to be bitterly disappointed for the concert ends in a storm of confetti, not a riot of buttoned boots and layered petticoats.

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However, whether it’s in sound or vision it helps to have Marc Minkowski in charge of this live recording. His own band, Les Musiciens du Louvre, no more than 40 of them, relish Offenbach’s gifts as an orchestrator, letting us hear every musical detail as the composer intended. Gone is the overripe Barcarolle that usually drowns Les contes d’Hoffmann in syrup. In Minkowski’s ‘Belle nuit, O nuit d’amour’ the opening rocking theme for the woodwind, with the violins trilling ever so tenderly below promises real romantic sorcery rather than that old Black Magic with the soft centres. Lie back and close your eyes and listen – don’t look. Stay with the CD – that’s the best advice. Christopher Cook