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Grétry: Zémire et Azor (The Beecham Collection)

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Sander, A Merchant: Bernard Lefort Baritone
Ali, His Servant: Michel Hamel Tenor
Azor, A Fearsome Beast: Michel Sénéchal Tenor
Zémire: Huguette Boulangeot Soprano
Fatmé: Arda Mandikian Soprano
Lisbé: Claire Duchesneau Soprano
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Conducted By Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart., C.H.

SOMM's efforts in highlighting Sir Thomas Beecham’s conducting genius in exclusively live performances come to the fore this month, with this very special, long-awaited First CD Release of  Grétry’s Zémire et Azor  issued during the conductor's 50th Anniversary year.

Source material: Mono 78rpm acetates

Beecham’s  love of French music was well known through his regular performances of 19th century works of Berlioz, Bizet, Chabrier, Debussy, Franck, Gounod, Massenet, Offenbach and Saint-Saens but the music of French opera from the second half of the 18th century held a special interest for Sir Thomas, from an early age. His library was full of valuable first edition scores of operas by Grétry and Méhul.

In his autobriography, “A Mingled Chime”, he describes his discovery of Grétry’s music after hearing Richard Coeur de Lion at the Paris Opéra Comique in 1904. “I was at once attracted by this delicate and delightful music but found to my surprise, that there was very little of it in print. It took me several months to compile a list of my favourite operas. In the case of Grétry, there is a ligthness, a grace and a melodic invention surpassed only by Mozart… the whole French school has a refinement and distinction that never fails to fall fragrantly on the ear and offers the musical amateur, a soothing retreat.”

From May 1906 to February 1959 Beecham championed the music of both Grétry and Méhul, especially the incidental music from Zémire et Azor  and while in the opera house in 1955, he conducted the complete opera. Indeed due to his declining health, the Bath performances of Zémire et Azor were the last of this opera which he was to conduct in Britain, a musical medium to which he had devoted so much of his time, energy and money since his first venture into the form in 1902 with Gounod’s Faust.

The night before he had conducted the last of five performances of Zémire at the Theatre Royal, Bath, he was voluble in his criticisms of the citizens of Bath. Kenneth Williams recalls in The Winter Gardens Society Magazine of 1955 that at the end of the Festival Sir Thomas had discharged a verbal broadside against modern audiences who seemed to prefer discord to tunes! He also challenged Bathonias to keep the Festival going and told them that they could make their city either a place famous for culture or relegate it to a tenth-rate provincial town. However, the performances and production of Zémire were considered to be the highlight of the Festival and fully justified Beecham’s advocacy of the work.

The libretto was written by Jean François Marmontel and based on the fairy-tale of Beauty and the Beast by Charles Perrault.  The libretto was translated from the original French into English by Andrew Parker. Alan Jefferson, in his 1979 autobiography of Beecham, wrote of the cast:

Huguette Boulangeot was certainly beautiful; Michel Sénéchal was a timid rather than “fearsome” Beast. However, in this production the action was dominated by Bernard Lefort as Sander, Zémire’s father, and by Ali, sung by Michel Hamel and played with great comic facility. Such an opera was ideal for the little Sheridan Theatre Royal and Beecham threw himself into the task with a maximum of enjoyment. The Symphony Orchestra played handsomely for him. He had edited and arranged the score so as to avoid the orchestral banalities of which Gretry is so often accused and the result was delightful and in every respect an artistic success.”  Graham Melville-Mason, (author of all our Beecham Collection CD liner notes)  who had also been present begs to differ and recalls Sénéchal’s portrayal of Azor as being full of character.

In conclusion, he writes…  although the programme stated that the work had been “edited and arranged” by Sir Thomas, when I compared this recording of the event with Sir Thomas’s conducting score based on the original 1772 full score and with the Jean Joubert Edition vocal score, I found relatively very few cuts and alterations to be found and none which alter the story or flow of the opera, whilst some instrumental numbers have been relocated to make for a tighter and more effective performance. The recording of the occasion preserved here will serve to remind us of the charm and attractive qualities of the score and the magic that Sir Thomas could conjure from its pages.

On This Recording

  1. Zemire et Azor: Act I: Overture
  2. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 1: Dialogue: Ariette: L’orage va cesser (Ali)
  3. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 1: Dialogue: Que dis-tu? L’orage redouble (Sander, Ali)
  4. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 1: Air: Le malheur me rend intrepide (Sander)
  5. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 1: Oh! moi, qui n’eus jamais d’autre bien que ma vie (Ali)
  6. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 1: Ariette: Les esprits, dont on nous fait peur
  7. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 1: Dialogue: Ali, pour le coup, est un homme.. (Sander)
  8. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 1: Duet: Le temps est beau (Sander, Ali)
  9. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 2: Dialogue: Allons, ma famille m’attend (Sander, Ali)
  10. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 2: Air: La pauvre enfant ne savait pas (Sander)
  11. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 2: Dialogue: J’ai l’ame assez compatissante (Azor, Sander)
  12. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 2: Air: Ne va pas me tromper (Azor)
  13. Zemire et Azor: Act I Scene 2: Finale: Symphoie qui exprime le vol du nuage
  14. Zemire et Azor: Act II Scene 1: Trio: Veillons mes soeurs (Zemire, Fatme, Lisbe)
  15. Zemire et Azor: Act II Scene 2: Dialogue: Ah mon pere! Quelle joie (Zemire, Fatme, Lisbe)
  16. Zemire et Azor: Act II Scene 2: Ariette: Rose cherie (Zemire)
  17. Zemire et Azor: Act II Scene 3: Dialogue: Vous avez veille toute la nuit (Sander, Ali, Zemire)
  18. Zemire et Azor: Act II Scene 3: Recitative: Je vais faire encore un voyage (Sander)
  19. Zemire et Azor: Act II Scene 3: Duet: Je veux le voir; je veux lui dire (Zemire, Ali)
  20. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 1: Air: Ah! quel tourment d’etre sensible (Azor)
  21. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 1: Cruelle fee, abrege ou ma vie, ou ma peine (Azor) – Scene 2: Dialogue: Vous voila; je me sauve; adieu (Ali, Zemire)
  22. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 2: Duet: Rassure mon pere (Zemire, Ali)
  23. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 2: Dialogue: Esclave, eloigne-toi (Azor, Ali)
  24. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 2: Entree des genies
  25. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 2: Allegro (Passepied)
  26. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 2: Airs de ballet
  27. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 5: Dialogue: O ciel! (Zemire, Azor)
  28. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 5: Air: Du moment qu’on aime (Azor)
  29. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 5: Dialogue: Helas, je ne puis revenir de mon etonnement (Zemire, Azor)
  30. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 5: Air: La fauvette, avec ses petits (Zemire)
  31. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 5: Dialogue: Vos chants pour moi sont une plainte (Azor, Zemire)
  32. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 6: Dialogue: Helas! comme il est triste! (Zemire, Azor) – Trio: Ah! laissez-moi la pleurer (Sander, Fatme, Lisbe)
  33. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 7: Dialogue: Ah! cruel! (Zemire, Azor)
  34. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 7: N’oubliez pas celui qui vous attend (Azor) – Larghetto
  35. Zemire et Azor: Act III Scene 7: Entr’acte
  36. Zemire et Azor: Act IV Scene 1: Ariette: J’en suis encor tremblant (Ali)
  37. Zemire et Azor: Act IV Scene 2: Dialogue: Volia ma soeur (Fatme, Lisbe, Sander)
  38. Zemire et Azor: Act IV Scene 2: Quartet: Ah! je tremble (Zemire, Sander, Fatme, Lisbe)
  39. Zemire et Azor: Act IV Scene 3: Air: Le soleil s’est cache dans l’onde (Azor)
  40. Zemire et Azor: Act IV Scene 3: Air: Azor! Azor! en vain ma voix l’appelle (Zemire)
  41. Zemire et Azor: Act IV Scene 5: Dialogue: Zemire! (Azor) – Scene 6: Dialogue: Mon pere! Me soeurs! Felicite supreme (Zemire, Sander)
  42. Zemire et Azor: Act IV Scene 6: Final: Amour, amour (All)
  43. Zemire et Azor: Act IV Scene 6: Le ballet termine le spectacle. Reprise de Passepied