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La somnambule

01/04/2006 (USA) (Internet)
David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 9/10
Sound Quality: 9/10
Richard Bonynge has long championed obscure ballets as part of his general crusade on behalf of the bel canto era and its repertoire. Ferdinand Hérold's La somnambule hit the Paris stage in 1927, four years before Bellini's eponymous opera, and as you might expect the music isn't Tchaikovsky or Delibes, but it certainly is charming. The orchestration is typically colorful, with plenty of piccolo, over enthusiastic use of the triangle, some "exotic" extra percussion (tambourine and castanets), and brilliant use of high horns, particularly for accompaniment patters. There's even some striking harp writing that, if not a later editorial addition, is pretty novel for the period. It all serves as a potent reminder that there were other schools of orchestral writing besides Beethoven, and that Berlioz's style didn't emerge from a vacuum.

The performance here has plenty of life, with piquant contributions from Orchestra Victoria's wind section. Bonynge knows the style well enough by now to understand how to inflect the tunes so that they don't sound mechanical, but he also knows not to fuss to the point where the music acquires a wholly inappropriate self-importance. This is light entertainment, but well-crafted and fun. The sonics, whether in stereo or SACD surround-sound, are very good ... and the presentation is first class, with a beautiful and elegant accompanying booklet. A very welcome release that fans of the period will find irresistible.

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