Daniel Auber, born on Jan. 29, 1782, was one of France’s leading composers in his day. During his time he was a master of the ópera comique and featured prominently throughout his home-country. He had a long-running collaboration with noted librettist Eugène Scribe. In sum, he has over 30 works to his name.
And yet, he isn’t part of the standard opera repertory standing next to the likes of Verdi or Wagner. Even Meyerbeer, who is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, has gotten far more interest from musicians and critics in recent years than Auber.
And yet he shouldn’t be overlooked. Here are four operas that explore his abilities as a composer.
Undeniably his most famous work and the only one that remains in the repertoire consistently, this opera is fascinating because its title character is truly complex. This alone lends the opera its weight. In some productions, he is showcased as a clever Robin Hood, even if he doesn’t reflect much on his actions. And yet in other instances, directors showcase the character as brutal and vile. It is this world of possibilities that makes the opera worthy of attention.
Massenet and Puccini’s interpretations of the Prévost novel reign supreme, but that by no means disqualifies Auber from getting a chance to showcase his own ideas on the opera. Because of the other two versions, Auber’s own work has been left in the dark, getting very few revivals nowadays. And it is also interesting as a contextual piece. It was the first of the “Manon” adaptations and one can certainly hear influences of Auber on Massenet’s approach to the main character (Auber’s has a tremendously high tessitura). It is always interesting to compare the differing approaches to Des Grieux who gets no solo in this work as well as the prominence of the Marquis d’Herigny.
Like “Manon Lescaut,” this piece’s most unique feature is how it contextualizes a far greater opera, Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” Verdi would actually take much from Eugène Scribe’s libretto for Auber’s opera in concocting his own middle-period masterwork and comparing the two works side by side is undeniably a compelling exercise. One will find Verdi’s work far more sophisticated musically and even dramatically, though it also becomes evident that the unique complexity of Gustavo / Riccardo in Verdi’s work might not exist without a similar touch from the earlier work. It is also interesting to hear Verdi’s earlier version of “Gustavo III” in the context of Auber’s music; it definitely sounds closer to that than it does to Verdi’s own final version of the opera.
Of all the scores of his career, this might be among Auber’s most refined, the composer coming into his own with the late work. The overture of the work still gets the occasional performance showcasing Auber’s lighter style in all its addictive quality.