Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Another curiosity, this one demonstrates, as my friend Randy says, that "sometimes the story of the object is more interesting that the object itself". Such truly is the case of THE SLEEPING QUEEN (1865) by Michael Balfe, with a libretto by H. B. Farnie, and published by Ditson. There's no copyright, but despite the antique image on the cover, it looks to have been published some time in the 1930s. Something about that cover in a moment.

Born in Ireland in 1808, Balfe is best known for BOHEMIAN GIRL (1843), although he composed almost thirty additional works, few of which have been recorded, even in excerpt. A noted performer and singer in his own right as well as composer, Balfe performed across Europe before returning to London and settling down to write his operas. His first major success was FALSTAFF (1838) -- which was only recently revived for the first time since the work's premiere.

He was a quick yet sensitive composer, able to turn out an entire opera in as little as seven weeks, and his compositions were universally praised in their time. There were moments that, in historical retrospect, must have seemed like synchronistic greatness... such as the 1862 revival of BOHEMIAN GIRL in Rouen -- conducted by a young Massenet and performed by Celestine Galli-Marie, who went on to create the roles of Mignon and Carmen.

Designed as a short one-act for a cast of four accompanied by a piano and harmonium, THE SLEEPING QUEEN was a commissioned work, for the Opera di Camera, a small company operated by German Reed, a university chum. It's difficult even now to understand why Balfe would have taken the commission, because it's so wildly out of synch with the rest of his works... so much so that he rewrote it some years later as a full evening's work with chorus and full orchestration, replacing the spoken dialogue with proper recitatives.

So... what is this first draft attempt about? A queen is being pressured by her regent to marry the King of Spain, even though her heart lays elsewhere, with the son of one of the regent's many political foes. Thanks to her maid, who has been stringing the regent along with the tempted possility of an affair, the queen is able to finally marry the man she loves. It's short, only 76 pages, and moves at a pretty brisk pace over what I would gather to be about only 45 minutes, an hour max. The score is High Romantic, with some beautiful parts work for the ensemble. Stylistically, it screams the work of Balfe's mentor, Rossini, and I can only imagine that the full-out version screams even louder.

This chamber version has never been performed professionally (the proposed production by Opera dei Camera never took place, thanks to a falling out with a short-fused director) nor recorded, although the recent revival of interest in Balfe may result in it at some point.

As for the edition itself... well, it comes from Ditson, which published the previously mentioned RADIO MAID and physically follows their usual low standard of presentation. It looks like Ditson simply bought the chamber version and printed it wholecloth, without even bothering to do anything in the way of an edit. Everything -- the dialogue, the music, even the title page -- looks like a relic from the 19th century, so I have little doubt the publisher did naught to make it presentable, which is pretty much par for the course for Ditson anyway. It seems such an odd addition to their catalogue of juvenile operettas, but no one ever said Ditson was all that bright a company in the first place. Honestly, I wonder if any school ever tackled this: the role of the queen demands a near-coluratura soprano, and the maid's "ribbon" aria has some very tricky elements in its timing, with a rattle of 32nd notes preceded by a host of grace notes, which makes it appear to sound like nonstop hiccups. Colleges and universities might have tackled this -- but a high school? Very unlikely.

The copy I have also has the additional oddity that someone, at some point, carefully translated the lyrics into what looks like Czech. Not the dialogue, mind you, just the arias and ensembles. Perhaps the written text was replaced by a complete overhaul? I have no idea, good Reader, although it adds to the mystery of the object itself.

1 comment:

bix1951 said...

I suspect that the musicianship of high school students was a lot higher 70 years ago.