Friday 29 March 2019

Period charm & fizzing performance: Messager's Les p'tites Michu from Palazzetto Bru Zane

Messager: Les p'tites Michu - Palazzetto Bru Zane
Messager Les p'tites Michu; Violette Polchi, Anne-Aurore Cochet, Philippe Estephe, Artavazd Sargsyan, Boris Grappe, Pierre Dumoussaud; Palazzetto Bru Zane  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 March 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Messager's first big hit in a recording full of charm

Andre Messager is perhaps as well known today as the conductor of the premiere of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande as a composer, though his ballet Les deux Pigeons remains in the repertoire thanks to Sir Frederick Ashton. Of Messager's operas people might name check Veronique and Grange Park Opera revived Fortunio in 2013 [see my review].

Now, Palazzetto Bru Zane has sponsored a recording of Andre Messager's first major hit Les p'tite Michu after a long run of failures. Les p'tite Michu dates from 1897, a year before Veronique. The original run of the piece, at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens was over 150 performances, and the English premiere in 1905 enjoyed a long run of over 400 performances. The recording is based on a stage production co-produced by Angers Nantes Opera, Bru Zane France and Compagnie Les Brigands, with Violette Polchi as Marie-Blanche, Anne-Aurore Cochet as Blanche-Marie, Philippe Estephe as Gaston Rigaud, Marie Lenormand as Mme Michu, Damien Bigourdan as M. Michu, and Boris Grappe as Le General, with the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire and the Choeur d'Angers Nantes Opera conducted by Pierre Dumoussaud.

It is a frivolous piece, but a charming one and full of terrific tunes. No wonder it was a hit. The plot is a variant of the mixed up baby story; during the Revolution the General leaves his baby daughter in the keeping of M. & Mme Michu, staunch petit bourgeois, for safety. Come 1810, the General wants her back to marry to his nephew. The problem is that the Michus have mixed the babies up and no-one can tell which one, Marie-Blanche and Blanche-Marie, is the General's daughter. All is resolved happily, of course.

Messager: Les p'tites Michu - Act 3 in the original 1897 production
Messager: Les p'tites Michu - Act 3 in the original 1897 production
It is recorded here with spoken dialogue and is clearly based on the the original stage production. This shows in the way the dialogue rattles along the way it should. The comic characters have great fun, Boris Grappe as the general over does things wonderfully whilst the opening scene in Mme Michu's girls school, run on military lines, is equally entertaining. The cast all make the French dialogue and sung sections sound idiomatic and natural with plenty of charm

Violette Polchi and Anne-Aurore Cochet make delightful adoptive sisters, blending well in the duet yet separate, charmingly characterful. And there is fine lyric support from the two young men, Philippe Estephe as Gaston and Artavazd Sargsyan as Aristide. And these receive strong support from the rest of the cast, this is very much an ensemble piece and they create something which is very engaging, and it is clear that everyone is having fun. There is lively support from the chorus, and the orchestra under Pierre Dumoussaud gives nicely pointed and stylish accompaniment.

There is just one small fly in the ointment, the plot's reliance on cultural determinism. It becomes clear which sister is which because one consistently behaves aristocratically and the other more coarsely; something which might prevent the opera from receiving the coverage it might otherwise deserve. However, musically this is a delightful discovery.

Andre Messager (1853-1929) - Les p'tites Michu
Marie-Blanche - Violette Polchi
Blanche-Marie - Anne-Aurore Cochet
Gaston - Philippe Estephe
Mme Michu - Marie Lenormand
M. Michu - Damien Bigourdan
Le General - Boris Grappe
Aristide - Artavazd Sargsyan
Mlle Herpin - Caroline Meng
Bagnolet - Romain Dayez
Choeur d'Angers Nantes Opera
Orchestra National des Pays de la Loire
Pierre Dumoussaud (conductor)
Recorded at the Theatre Graslin, Nantes, 23 & 24 May 2018
Palazzetto Bru Zane 2CDs [59.25, 43.30]

Available from Amazon.

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  • Dance Maze: new chamber music by Tom Armstrong on Resonus Classics (★★★½) - CD review
  • The road not taken: Boito's Mefistofele makes a rare London appearance with Chelsea Opera Group in terrific form (★★★★½)  - opera review
  • Late romantic journeys: opera by Ravel & Tchaikovsky in a highly satisfying double bill from Royal Academy Opera  - opera review
  • 18th & 21st century premieres: Pianist Clare Hammond on the music of Josef Myslivecek and Kenneth Hesketh - interview
  • The French 20th century saxophone: Tableaux de Provence from Dominic Childs & Simon Callaghan (★★★★) - CD review
  • Man, myth and magic: how story telling has come back into opera  - feature
  • Into the harem and beyond: the richness & exoticism of the music of Fazil Say (★★★★) - CD review
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