Melba Recordings

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La somnambule

Fanfare (USA)
James Reel

When I first glanced at this SACD, the words “somnambule” and “Bonynge” led me to assume that the disc documented some old performance of a French version of the famous Bellini opera La sonnambula, no doubt featuring La Sutherland. The lavish packaging, upon inspection, revealed this to be something else entirely: a brand-new, surround-sound recording of Ferdinand Hérold’s 1827 ballet about the same Provençal sleepwalker who would inspire Bellini’s opera four years later. The work was innovative and successful in its day, but the only bit that circulates anymore is a theme that Tchaikovsky snagged for use in Evgeny Onegin.
It’s a perky score straight out of Italian bel canto opera, complete with top-heavy orchestration and a reliance on repetitive thematic cells. It may not strike us as particularly inventive anymore, and it certainly lacks the heft and impulse of Hérold’s greatest hit, the Zampa Overture. All the same, it’s perfectly delightful, and includes a few novelties of orchestration, including use of tambourine, triangle, and castanets on occasion. It’s ideal for people who think the Bellini-Donizetti style would be more bel with less canto.

Richard Bonynge has been bringing old ballet and opera scores like this to light for more than 40 years now. His 1960s–1970s recordings of standard-rep operas could be a bit limp, but he has usually risen to the occasion for more obscure works; he seems to feel a special responsibility to make the best possible case for neglected music. He’s in particularly fine form here, drawing a lively but not overbearing performance from Australia’s Orchestra Victoria, a group that boasts, among other things, a felicitous wind section, so important to this sort of music.

This is part of the Richard Bonynge Edition, a series from Melba Recordings, a label that showcases Australian artists, largely but not exclusively in the sort of neglected theatre music to which Bonynge has devoted his career. The SACD surround audio is first-rate, if somewhat bass-deficient (mostly a function of Hérold’s orchestration). The thick booklet includes full notes in English and French, and an abundance of period illustrations.