Running parallel with Opera Rara's larger scale operatic projects, the Il Salotto series shows all the same virtues of meticulous preparation, presentation and a willingness to explore the works of many now forgotten composers. The latest in the series, Volume 11, is entitled 'La Serenata' and features many of the same composers whose operas have been revived by the same company: alongside songs by Pacini, Donizetti, Mercadente, Offenbach and Ambroise Thomas are works by less well known composers such as Fabio Campana, Angelo Mariani, Antoine-Eli Elwart and Pietro Antonio Coppola. As Patrick O'Connor puts it in his booklet note, all of the composers had one thing in common - they 'understood the need for music that would reach out and touch people's hearts.'
This disc, then, features all these composers in popular, sentimental vein; in songs that were composed in an age when poetry and romance were seen, if not necessarily as a panacea for the ills of society, then at least as a handy anaesthetic. This escapism is perhaps illustrated best by such numbers as Offenbach's 'Si j'étais petit oiseau' (sung here with delightful innocence by Elizabeth Vidal, with Susie Beer providing the 'cello obligato) and the charming duettino 'Près de la mer' by Campana.
The more overtly romantic songs never really escape the idealised atmosphere of 'sospiri' and 'soufflés'. While the often deadly consequences of passionate love were the staple of the operatic stage, here it's something far less volitile and uncontrollable – more a warming glow than an inflammatory passion. The scene for this generalised, hazy Romantic spirit is set by Bruce Ford in his highly stylish rendition of Thomas' 'Le Soir', opening the disc. I'm afraid, though, that some of the songs are, for me at least, just a little too weedy and insipid. Unfortunately this impression is exacerbated by an overly reverberant acoustic – the disc was recorded in the evidently spacious Church of St. Clement and St. Barnabas and St. Matthew in London.
The disc is at its worst in the title track, 'La Serenata', again by Thomas. Although Elizabeth Vidal manages extremely well with the high tessitura, she does tend to swoop around a little – partly her fault, I'd say, but also partly the fault of the music. This, combined with the wishy-washy acoustic, almost the sonic equivalent of the old Vaseline smeared on the lens trick in cinema, makes for a rather cloying experience. At over six minutes, this song seriously outstays its welcome, as does Elwart's Romance, 'Le Chalumeau', given again to Vidal, with Richard Simpson this time providing the oboe accompaniment. These are pieces that would no doubt have been politely enjoyed at social gatherings but do not really convince on CD.
However, there's still much to enjoy here and several of the other songs display lightly sardonic humour. Pacini's 'Il Soldato' is a jolly dig at the arrogance of the puffed up military, captured extremely well by Mark Stone, who reacts better to this than the more sentimental numbers. However, it is the final number on the disc, bringing together Majella Cullagh, Diana Montegue and Paul Austin Kelly along with Vidal, Ford and Stone, that is the pièce de résistance. De Beauplan's 'La Galopomanie', a humorous reaction to the dance craze sweeping across Europe at the time, is a swirling, high-kicking delight, sung with real enjoyment. It made me only wish that there had been a little more variety in this programme; this final big swig of effervescent, bubbly humour went some way to help me digest the sometimes overly sweet sentimentality of much of the rest of the disc.
Special mention must go to pianist David Harper who provides excellent accompaniment throughout and, once again, to Opera Rara's unstintingly high production values. The booklet, as well as providing introductions to each song and full texts and translations, is lavishly filled with full colour photos of all the artists at the recording sessions. For those who have been collecting this series already, this is no doubt a worthy and fascinating addition. For those new to this sort of repertoire I'd caution that there's maybe just a little too much sweetness here to be consumed in one go.
By Hugo Shirley