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CD Button Ciofi, Kajtazi, Sidak; Talbot, Dupuis, Carico; Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Mazzola. Text and translation. CPO 555014-2

Recordings Dinorah CD Cover 1116
Critics Choice Button 1015

SURELY THIS OPERA deserves to be better known. It’s often said that history is written by the victors, and so we may have let Wagner’s dismissal of Meyerbeer color our thinking—overlooking the skill and charm the older composer brought to traditional material, along with his elegant orchestration, seemingly spontaneous bending of formats, and unexpected twists and dodges in ensembles. He gave bel canto a second act.

There hasn’t been a full recording of Dinorah, to my knowledge, since 1993. This Berlin concert performance displays some of the perils associated with live recording, but it has one absolute distinction: it harks back to the original 1859 opéra comique format, with spoken dialogue rather than the recitatives devised for later productions.

The sole alternative in the catalogue—that 1993 Cosa Rara issue under James Judd, with soprano Deborah Cook—will still get the nod from many listeners, with its more conventional cast, the presence of recitatives and, especially, the lilting extra tunes Meyerbeer interpolated between full-fledged numbers. It’s well known that spoken French can be a burden to performer and listener alike. Not here. The tenor (Philippe Talbot) and baritone (Étienne Dupuis), excellent singing actors with comic flair, are also native French-speakers. As for the Italian Patrizia Ciofi, who happens to be the opera’s heroine, she is conscientious in her diction and sometimes right on the mark. Even so, we’re talking about speech—hardly the crux of a Meyerbeer performance.

The male cast members and the conductor steal this Dinorah, making the original title, Le Pardon de Ploërmel,seem relevant. This is not to dismiss Ciofi; she is musically and dramatically alert, a soprano with strong technique and a clear, vibrant top. What’s lacking is the essential fragility, something akin to the gentle chiming of the goat’s bell heard in the score at key moments. Cook, her rival on the Cosa Rara recording, has a decidedly youthful sound and flexibility that supports sudden frilly transports, the “mad” heroine’s stock in trade. Above all, Cook masters the echo effects that are barely present in Ciofi’s performance, such as in the score’s one famous excerpt, “Ombre légère.”

If her shadow song is nevertheless affecting in its way, we may have to thank conductor Enrique Mazzola. Speed and an impulsive drive reinvent the old chestnut, suggesting an obsessive spell, if not quite a soaring high-trapeze act. There’s similar incisiveness, with rhythmic contrast and edgy timbres, in Mazzola’s treatment of the unusually moody overture and the clockwork interaction in the two main male duets, which then morph into trios with the soprano.

Talbot is remarkably incisive, projecting like a trumpet in the staccato ensembles and showing a natural, stylish command of the vocal line. As the villain who finds redemption, Dupuis brings arresting strength to lyrical melody, nailing some high cadenzas in a robust, grandstanding tone that adds an extra layer of excitement—like a Verdi baritone pulling off a baryton martin role. Seth Carico also shines in his brief appearance. The two male leads more than hold their own against the Cosa Rara cast; they are true discoveries. How often in opera do you hear French spoken—and sung—with this kind of flair?  —David J. Baker

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