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Briefly Noted: Albert Roussel's...operetta?

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A. Roussel, Le Testament de la Tante Caroline, M. Lenormand, M. Gomar, L. Komitès, Orchestre des Frivolités Parisiennes, D. Corlay

(released on March 1, 2022)
Naxos 8.660479 | 78'56"
How many delightful surprises are left in the oeuvre of Albert Roussel? The chances to hear the French composer's music in live performance remain sadly limited: we have written warmly of his opera-ballet Padmâvatî and his marvelous score Le Festin de l'Araignée, both performed by the National Symphony Orchestra in recent years. Because he had both a conservative education in historical counterpoint at the Schola Cantorum and an interest in jazz and Asian music, his music tends to be erudite and unclassifiable.

Among the least expected works of Roussel is a rather absurd operetta, Le Testament de la Tante Caroline, premiered the Czech Republic in 1936 and then at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1937. The composer died a few months later, but in 1964, at the request of Roussel's widow, the librettist cut it from its three-act original form to a compact single act. Marcel Mihalovici adapted the music for this revised version, in some ways a response to critics who had found the composer had trouble "adapting himself to simplicity."

Benjamin El Arbi and Mathieu Franot founded Les Frivolités Parisiennes in 2012, with the goal of reviving lesser-known light French musical comedies. This disc is the world premiere recording of the one-act version of Tante Caroline, made from a live performance in June 2019, at the L'Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet in Paris. The titular aunt of the venal family in this farce was, somewhat scandalously, a prostitute. She apparently enjoyed much success in her chosen career, as she amassed an impressive fortune.

Now that she is dead her three greedy nieces, who normally keep their distance out of propriety, show up hoping to inherit. Tante Caroline's will stipulates that the wealth will pass to the child of whichever childless niece can produce an heir within a year. Much of the middle nonsense is cut, leading to the conclusion, in which one niece is reunited with her illegitimate son, whom she gave up before taking religious vows. To everyone's surprise, the young man now serves as Tante Caroline's chauffeur, and the old lady has the last laugh.

The orchestra sparkles under the baton of Dylan Corlay, with a capable cast of singer-actors. Bass-baritone Till Fechner excels in both vocal and spoken patter as the lawyer, Maitre Corbeau, and Marie Perbost displays a limpid light soprano as Lucine, Tante Caroline's maid, especially in the pleasant little aria "Mlle Irene d'Anjou." Sadly there is no libretto included with this recording, and none to be found online, making this mostly of interest to francophone listeners. The Bibliothèque nationale de France has made available a portfolio of newspaper clippings about the work.

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