INKPOT#52 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: DELIBES Copplia. La Source. Slovak RSO/Mogrelia (Naxos)
LEO DELIBES (1836-1891)
conducted by Andrew Mogrelia
2 discs [64’31” + 65’13”] budget-price
This review is kindly sponsored by Rock Records.
by Daniel Chua
I think it is fair to say that Delibes was the first composer who wrote large-scale symphonic ballets. Before him, ballets were mainly written and danced as part of an opera in his native France. Large scale dedicated ballets arrived on the scene only one generation before him, the most typical of which was Giselle by Adolphe Adam. It should not surprise anyone that Adam was one of the teachers who taught Delibes at the Paris Conservatoire. However, Adams ballets were comparatively slight affairs, tuneful but lacking in drama, both in the story line and its music. The pioneering work of Delibes influenced the generation of composers after him, including the immortal Tchaikovsky with his even more symphonic ballets exemplified by “Sleeping Beauty”.
Today, Delibes (right) is remembered chiefly through his two ballets, Copplia and Sylvia and his opera Lakm. In fact, he wrote a lot more music than this. One of his early effort was La Source, which he composed jointly with one Ludwig Minkus. Naturally, the quality of the music for La Source was uneven. But Delibes shone through enough to have won him the commission to write Copplia. There is therefore every good reason to couple the music of La Source written by Delibes with Copplia. Delibes also wrote a number of other operas and the best known is Lakm with one of the most celebrated coloratura role.
The set under review must be the most inexpensive available in the market right now. Despite its inexpensive price, Naxos has produced CDs on par with, if not superior to full price CDs from major labels in terms of both sound and performance. This set has received praise in the Penguin Guide and so I approached it with high expectation. In the event, my expectations were not fully met.
Before I launch into the review proper, let me briefly summarise the story of Copplia. Copplia was a doll so vividly crafted that everyone took her to be the daughter of the old toymaker Dr. Coppelius. Frantz, a peasant lad, becomes infatuated with Copplia to the annoyance of his fiance Swanhilda. Swanhilda decides to investigate Copplia by intruding into the toy shop and doesn’t take long to realise that Copplia is nothing but a doll. Frantz comes to woo Copplia but is put to sleep by the toymaker who wants to transfer a particle of life from Frantz to his doll. Unknown to him, Swanhilda had disguised herself as Copplia. She pretends to come to life, much to the delight of the toymaker but soon creats such a mayhem in the toy shop that the toymaker puts her to rest in the recess meant for Copplia. Just then, Frantz comes to and is pursuaded to leave by the toymaker. Swanhilda slips out to join Frantz and tells him everything, leaving poor Coppelius to rue over his vandalised Copplia. The story naturally ends with Frantz and Swanhilda living happily ever after.
Left: ‘Two Dancers on Stage’ (1874) by Edgar Degas
So how does the Naxos sound like? It sounds like it has been recorded from the back of an empty hall with plenty of reverberation. The orchestra was arrayed on a very narrow and shallow stage and one has to turn the volume way up to get any sense of presence. Needless to say, details are obscured, strings lack airiness and body. It sounded best in soft passages but at climaxes, the sound became congested and harsh.
In terms of performance, the conductors and the producers approach appeared to place emphasis on making this a dancers Copplia. It is played with an appropriate lightness of touch and elegance. Rhythms are well sprung, making the set pieces quite danceable. The scenes in between set pieces contain much dramatic music which ought to be better exploited but the congested sound at climaxes did not help to pull it off. A little interesting detail was observed in the Act III pas de deux when a solo viola suddenly popped out of the sound stage accompanied by loud breathing by the soloist. The soloist was obviously spot-miked and little attempt was made to integrate him into the overall sound picture.
My comments on Copplia apply equally to the music from La Source. The quality of the music, which I hear for the first time, was on par with Copplia. No wonder Delibes got that commission.
I may be nit-picking on what after all is a set of budget CD. Those who have to have Copplia but cant afford to pay more need not hesitate. However, for both good sound and performance, one has to look elsewhere. My top recommendation goes to the Mercury set conducted by Antal Dorati (434 313-2). It is a 3-CD set coupled with Sylvia. The vivid sound and dramatic performance is well worth the extra outlay and you also get Delibes other major work in this genre. For those who only want Copplia, I recommend the Bonynge on Decca (Double 444 836-2). This one is coupled with Massenets Le Carillon. You will not regret the slightly extra outlay on this one. Avoid the latter digital remake of Bonynges.
This disc is available at or can be ordered from HMV (The Heeren), Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or Sing Music (Raffles City).
Daniel Chua finds that older analogue CD reissues are usually good value for money.
Other classical music reviews by this or any other writer can be obtained from the InkVault by doing a key word search with the writer’s name.