Serious opera as well as serious fun, the Opéras-minute are exquisitely orchestrated, melodious and unexpectedly moving. The libretti by Henri Hoppenot make short work of classical grandeur. In “L’enlèvement d’Europe”, “L’abandon d’Ariane,” and “La délivrance de Thesée,” men, women and monsters are swept along with astonishing dispatch by the familiar disasters and miracles of Greek myth. There are a few plot twists: Ariane can’t wait to escape that lout, Thesée. As Europe dallies with her divine/bovine paramour, Jupiter Taureau, a mocking chorus of onlookers accompany her with a descant of “Moo, Moo, Moo.” “Les filles sont bien singulière” sings Europe’s father. How true.
The 1929 performance in the Classical Collector series, directed by Milhaud, is convincingly played by the ensemble Pro Musica. Singers include Jane Bathori and George Petit. An impressive modern version (live) appears on Arion (ARN 68195) with the Ensemble Vocal Jean Laforge under vocal director Catherine Brilli, accompanied by Ensemble Ars Nova under Alexandre Siranossian. The soloists, particularly Gérard Garino and Claude Calès, are wonderful. High quality modern sound shows off this ensemble of supple voices, fine orchestral work, and acting that nearly equals Milhaud’s great production. (A third recording on Koch/Schwann (3-1139-2), with Karl Anton Rickenbacher conducting the Capella Cracoviensis, is a lively and well sung performance that can’t quite be heard, thanks to shoddy sound engineering.)
Christophe Colomb (1928), also a Claudel collaboration, is widely regarded as Milhaud’s vocal masterwork. It is available in a live recording on Disques Montaigne (TCE 8750) with the Orchestre Radio Lyrique under Manuel Rosenthal. This elaborately produced “opera in two parts and 27 tableaux” was a great popular success, its first run lasting two years. It is not a work, however, from which a contemporary listener new to Milhaud’s music could easily derive the essence of his appeal. (Stravinsky’s genius might similarly escape someone who had heard Rake’s Progress without the benefit of having heard Petrouchka.)
Claudel’s dramatic device of an “explicateur” who reads from a book of destiny allows the “tableaux” to shift backward and forward in time, and permits Milhaud’s skill with short forms to multiply itself in a series of essentially independent scenes. (Highlights of the explorer’s life are to be simultaneously enacted on stage and projected on a movie screen backdrop.) While each scene has its own vital integrity, the grand effect is somehow ponderous and static. The work’s qualities as music spectacle may not be communicable on recording — Colomb is really an early example of multi-media performance piece. The Orchestre Radio Lyrique acquit themselves with artistry and wit under Rosenthal’s authoritative baton, and the singing is magnificent, particularly that of the velvety baritone Robert Massard as Colomb and agile tenor Jean Giraudeau in five different supporting roles. Disques Montaigne’s two disc set includes a handsomely printed booklet of considerable length and substance, with wonderful photographs.
Like the Trois Opéras-minute discussed above, the short opera Les malheurs d’Orphée (1925) also treats a classical subject, this time a tragedy, but Milhaud and the poet Armand Lunel turn it into a sort of local folk legend, set in the Camargue. Here Orphée is a village doctor who tames the gypsy Euridice as easily as he does the wild beasts. Milhaud’s settings contrast compellingly simple arias with polytonal choral passages, juxtaposing the lovers’ longing for private happiness with the complications and demands of family and village. A touching rendition of this work is recorded on Adès (13.284-2) with Jacqueline Brumaire, Bernard Demigny and the Orchestre du Théatre National de L’Opéra de Paris, led by the composer.
On the same disc and with much of the same personnel is Le pauvre matelot, an opera for four singers and small orchestra whose immense emotional power defies its thirty-five minute duration. This tale of a poor sailor’s dreadful fate was inspired by a tabloid news item, transformed by Jean Cocteau into a “complainte en trois actes.” Milhaud unifies the entire score with lilting sea-chanties, gradually stirred into a tempest by the syncopated rhythms of the murder scene, when “Blow The Man Down” becomes the central theme. The listener is powerless to resist Cocteau’s minimalist psychodrama, as the earthy intimacy of Milhaud’s real and invented folktunes waltz him closer and closer to the abyss of the story’s inevitable end.
Le pauvre matelot vies bravely with the goliath Christophe Colomb for the title of Milhaud’s vocal masterwork. It is available in a more recent recording on Cybelia (CY 810 DS 813) with the Ensemble de Solistes de l’Opéra, under Jonathan Darlington, but the urgency of the work comes through better on Adès under Milhaud’s baton, especially in the dancing overture and the climactic murder scene. Cybelia does provide the libretto and excellent liner notes the Adès disc lacks. All in all, though, the pure diction and elegant phrasing of the singers on Adès (particularly Jean Giraudeau as the sailor) are preferable to reading the words.