Monday 6 December 2021

Zest and energy: New Sussex Opera revives Offenbach's La princesse de Trébizonde

Offenbach: La princesse de Trébizonde - Meriel Cunningham, Mark Saberton, Anthony Flaum, Miriam Sharrad - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)
Offenbach: La princesse de Trébizonde - Meriel Cunningham, Mark Saberton, Anthony Flaum, Miriam Sharrad - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)

Offenbach La princesse de Trébizonde; Mark Saberton, Chiara Vinci, Meriel Cunningham, Anthony Flaum, Miriam Sharrad, Peter Martin, Giles Davies, Paul Featherstone, dir: Anthony Baker, cond: Toby Purser, St Paul's Sinfonia; New Sussex Opera at Britten Theatre

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 December 2021
A revival of an Offenbach rarity proves to be delightful yet madcap evening in the theatre.

New Sussex Opera has returned to live performance with another of its explorations of unaccountably neglected opera. We caught the final performance, at the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music on Sunday 5 December 2021 of New Sussex Opera's production of Offenbach's La princesse de Trébizonde, directed and designed by Anthony Baker, conducted by Toby Purser with Mark Saberton as Cabriolo, Chiara Vinci as Zanetta, Meriel Cunningham as Regina, Anthony Flaum as Tremolini, Miriam Sharrad as Paola, Peter Martin as Prince Raphael, Giles Davies as Dr Elastoplast, Paul Featherstone as Prince Casimir and St Paul's Sinfonia. Lighting was by Jo Underwood, choreography by  Eleanor Strutt, and the work was performed in a new English version by Anthony Baker and a new orchestration by James Widden.

One of the reasons that Offenbach's operas are neglected is that there are so many. In 1869 alone, he wrote Vert-Vert for the Opera Comique, La diva for the Bouffes-Parisiens, La princesse de Trébizonde for Baden-Baden, and  Les brigands for the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris. And for its Paris premiere in December of that year, he revised La princesse de Trébizonde to create the three-act version that New Sussex Opera performed.

Offenbach: La princesse de Trébizonde - Chiara Vinci, Peter Martin - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)
Offenbach: La princesse de Trébizonde - Chiara Vinci, Peter Martin - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights)

Whilst the work's recent history has been somewhat limited, a fascinating article in the programme booklet made it clear that La princesse de Trébizonde was something of a success at the time, not only being performed in Paris, but having extensive performances in the UK and America. Like the majority of Offenbach's works of this period, La princesse de Trébizonde lacks the satirical point of his earlier operas. Whilst Étienne Tréfeu and Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter's text does make occasional points, such as the circus performers puzzlement at the idea of living on one place, or the elements of social comedy involved in a circus proprietor being made a baron, none are really seen through and the work's last act is closer to a mad-cap farce.

Offenbach's music, however, is certainly on a high level. This was the period when his operettas moved closer to opera comique (Vert Vert), as well as experimenting with mixed, romantic forms (Fantasio) which could lead eventually to Les contes d'Hoffmann. Indeed the lovely duet for Prince Raphael and Zanetta in Act Two of La princesse de Trébizonde seemed very much to point towards Hoffmann. But, Offenbach also could not resist using the contrived situations in the plot to poke fun at operatic conventions (the Act One finale includes the circus performers bidding farewell to their old home with a parody of Rossini's Guillaume Tell).

The plot is more of a series of dramatic situations and encounters than a coherent narrative. Involving circus performers who win the lottery and move to a chateau, a prince who falls in love with a wax model and finds it is a real woman,  the prince's fire-breathing father, and a tutor obsessed with his retirement. The title role, La princesse de Trébizonde, is in fact a wax-work doll that is damaged at the beginning of the opera causing Zanetta to stand in for her, hence the confusion. Act One is very much about the struggle of circus life, and introduces us to the protagonists, Act Two is more fish out of water comedy as the circus performers struggle to settle to life in the chateau, whilst Act Three seems to descend into farce (three different couples arranging an assignation in the darkened waxwork museum).

Offenbach: La princesse de Trébizonde - Anthony Flaum, Meriel Cunningham - New Sussex Opera (Photo Colin Chapman)
Offenbach: La princesse de Trébizonde - Anthony Flaum, Meriel Cunningham - New Sussex Opera (Photo Colin Chapman)

Any doubts that you might have had were, however, blow away by the zest and enthusiasm of the cast and the sense of engaging energy that they brought to the piece. Conductor Toby Purser and director Anthony Baker ensured that the dramatic flow and pacing were constant, so that despite three acts and around two hours music, the work never flagged and one crazy moment followed another.

This was definitely and all singing, all dancing cast, as principals and chorus were fully involved in Eleanor Strutt's choreography, and many of the ensembles were dance numbers, whilst the principals also contributed such circus skills as plate spinning and acrobatics! 

Peter Martin made an attractively naive, but not stupid, Prince Raphael who is in love with Zanetta (Chiara Vinci), often disguised as the waxwork doll.  Martin has a fine lyric tenor voice; though his role felt a little under-written, Martin impressed with each of his solo moments. Vinci had a lovely lyric coloratura voice and it was her role to throw delightful firework into the ensembles, but Vinci and Martin blended beautifully in their lovely neo-Hoffmann duet. The second couple were just as important, Zanetta's sister Regina (Meriel Cunningham) and her lover, Tremolini (Anthony Flaum), also a circus performer. Their long-running gag was his desire for marriage and her refusals, but Flaum and Cunningham brought a great sense of style and engagement with their characters, making their presence on stage always a delight. Whilst the circus performers had stage working-class English accents, for some reason Flaum sported a cod French accent.

There was a large cast, and each had a significant role both musically and dramatically. Mark Saberton brought a delightful element of the sad clown to Cabrioli, the circus proprietor, his lively public face masking a more comic hang-dog expression. Paul Featherstone had great fun as Prince Casimir, Prince Raphael's fire-breathing father. The opera makes a little too much of Casimir's terrible reputation and temper, but Featherstone made a delightful pantomime villain. As Paola, Miriam Sharrad was that standard trope, the comic lady of a certain age, but Sharrad made Paola engagingly human as well as funny. Paola has delusions that she is secretly descended from royalty and of course the opera's punchline was that Paola was right, as Prince Casimir had married Paola's sister. Giles Davies made Dr Elastoplast (Sparadrap in the original) charmingly potty, yet still personable enough to be pairing up with Sharrad's Paola at the end.

There was plenty for the chorus to do, and they entered in with a will, including doing dance routines, whilst the chorus of Pages in Act Three had a couple of engaging numbers all to themselves. James Widden's orchestration, for string quintet, single woodwind, horn trumpet and percussion, probably took us closer to the Offenbach of the 1850s but St Paul's Sinfonia brought out the full character of the music, making the litheness of sound count in rhythmic articulation and more.

Offenbach: La princesse de Trébizonde - Giles Davies, Paul Featherstone - New Sussex Opera (Photo Colin Chapman)
Offenbach: La princesse de Trébizonde - Giles Davies, Paul Featherstone - New Sussex Opera (Photo Colin Chapman)

The production was an impressive achievement for a company founded upon an amateur chorus and largely voluntary administration, and quite what the current production involved in terms of additional administration is revealed by the credits in the programme, such as thanking Lewes FC for the use of a stand at the Dripping Pan for outdoor chorus rehearsals during the Summer, when indoor was not possible, and various organisations being thanked for providing storage space for such items as costumes.

This was an engagingly fun evening in the theatre, with a production that brought out the zest and vigour of Offenbach's music, small scale yet full of energy and with a terrific sense of engagement from all the performers.

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