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Briefly Noted: 'Lalla Roukh'

available at Amazon
F. David, Lalla Roukh, M. Fiset, E. G. Toro, N. Paulin, B. Deletré, Opera Lafayette, R. Brown

(released on March 25, 2014)
Naxos 8.660338-39 | 1h47
Ryan Brown and his ensemble, Opera Lafayette, were thinking about this opéra comique by Félicien David at least as far back as 2008, when they performed some excerpts of it at the National Gallery of Art. I liked what I heard very much then and regretted not being able to hear the complete performance of it, which was staged last year at the Kennedy Center. The exotic setting in India -- was brought to life with costumes by the New Delhi-based designer Poonam Bhagat and dances performed by the Kalanidhi Dance company. The excerpts performed in 2008 were to the accompaniment of a piano reduction, and the Naxos recording of the full score, made back around the time of the Kennedy Center performance, makes clear how much one misses without the orchestration. The full-length overture, which opens with evocative horn calls and is tinged with triangle and other unusual colors, is worthy of consideration by symphony orchestras as an alternative concert-opener. The rest of the score is no less accomplished, adding to the sense that David is a composer whose time for a reassessment has come.

The libretto is drawn from a once-popular but now largely forgotten book by Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852), Lalla Rookh, a frame narrative about the eponymous Mughal princess who is traveling to Uzbekistan to be married. As she makes the long journey, a minstrel keeps her distracted with tales, written in verse unlike the frame narrative, which is in prose. At the end of the book it is revealed that the minstrel is none other than the King of Bukhara, whom she is supposed to marry. David was not the only composer to adapt the work, or one of its stories, into music, a list that included Gaspare Spontini, Anton Rubenstein, Charles Villiers Stanford, Joseph Jongen, Frederic Emes Clay, and Robert Schumann. As reshaped by librettists Michel Carré and Hippolyte Lucas, the princess is being guided to the meet her new husband by one of his servants, Baskir, a comic bass-baritone role, a conniving servant brought to life here by veteran singer Bernard Deletré. Soprano Marianne Fiset is perhaps not all that extraordinary in her legato pieces, like the Act I mélodie Sous le feuillage sombre, but shows a nice pyrotechnical touch in showpieces like Si vous ne savez plus charmer. The princess is joined by the mysterious minstrel, Noureddin, sung by tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, heard to impressive effect in Opera Lafayette's 2011 performance of Grétry's Le Magnifique, but not in great voice here. Among the supporting cast, soprano Nathalie Paulin, who has impressed with the Washington Concert Opera and Opera Lafayette before, stands out as the princess's servant, Mirza. This worthy release is also distinguished by an excellent booklet essay by expert scholar Ralph Locke, of the Eastman School of Music, who sums up the significance of this recording: "Lalla Roukh has waited too long to be rediscovered." The other good news is that David also composed a pile of other scores, waiting to be heard.

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