Out of the Shadows

Sunday, 18 September 2022

A rare appearance in London, but a welcome one to be sure: Offenbach's La Princesse de Trébizonde from Opera Rara

Jacques Offenbach: La Princesse de Trébizonde - Paul Daniel, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Antoinette Dennefeld, Katia Ledoux, Chirstophe Mortagne & Christope Gay - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Rara (Photo Russell Duncan)
Jacques Offenbach: La Princesse de Trébizonde - Paul Daniel, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Antoinette Dennefeld, Katia Ledoux, Chirstophe Mortagne & Christope Gay - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Rara (Photo Russell Duncan)

Jacques Offenbach: La Princesse de Trébizonde; Anne-Catherine Gillet, Virginie Verrez, Christophe Gay, Antoinette Dennefeld, Josh Lovell, Katia Ledoux, Christophe Mortagne, Loïc Félix, Harriet Walter, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Paul Daniel; Opera Rara at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 16 September 2022

Florence Anna Maunders enjoys a sparkling revival of Offenbach's late operetta with a Francophone cast

Offenbach's operetta La Princesse de Trébizonde is a relatively rare visitor to UK theatres. It was revived last year by New Sussex Opera [see Robert's review] and now a new edition from Opera Rara has prompted a recording and a concert performance with Paul Daniel conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) with Anne-Catherine Gillet, Virginie Verrez, Christophe Gay, and Antoinette Dennefeld at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 September 2022 may hopefully change all that.

It surely is a shame that, outside Orpheé and Hoffmann, the operettas of Jacques Offenbach are rarely performed in the UK. Any listener possessing a passing familiarity with the ever-popular output of Victorian stalwarts Gilbert & Sullivan would immediately recognise that Offenbach's works are cut from the same cloth, although perhaps with rather more champagne sparkle and Parisian dazzle. In Opera Rara's dashing new performance edition of La Princesse de Trébizonde (using the Offenbach Edition Keck from Boosey & Hawkes), stripping away all the dialogue between the musical numbers (replaced with a hilarious English narration) made the work even lighter on its feet. The evening-length three acts of the 1869 original were condensed into just over ninety minutes without an interval and presented with such joyous energy that it felt like half that time.

Jacques Offenbach: La Princesse de Trébizonde - Anne-Catherine Gillet, Virginie Verrez, Antoinette Dennefeld & Christophe Mortagne - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Rara (Photo Russell Duncan)
Jacques Offenbach: La Princesse de Trébizonde - Anne-Catherine Gillet, Virginie Verrez, Antoinette Dennefeld & Christophe Mortagne - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Rara (Photo Russell Duncan)

From the outset it was immediately clear that the audience were in for a sparkling treat of an evening, as baton-less conductor Paul Daniel launched into the overture, giving the LPO's principal woodwind players a chance to shine – an opportunity they seized upon with gusto, although under Daniel's careful, elegant and musical direction, the rest of the orchestra seemed determined to provide a polite, poised performance. With a somewhat reduced instrumentation for this new performing edition, some of the original version's balance problems were alleviated, but even so, with the orchestra onstage, rather than buried in a pit, they needed to show some restraint so as not to cover the singers. Daniel's long experience with French orchestras and opera houses, and his familiarity with this repertoire gave the impression of a safe pair of hands, with finely controlled tempi, pointed articulation, and precise punctuation from the percussion.

The uniformly Francophone cast seemed to give the impression that they were in London this evening for a good time, not for a long time. They didn't have a lot of room for movement around the modestly sized Queen Elizabeth Hall stage, especially with a large chorus taking up the tiered staging behind the orchestra, but they zipped around with energy, ducking under each others' arms, crossing the stage and popping up and down as required. With the removal of all the dialogue, the performance bounced rapidly from choruses to arias, from duets to grand finales, with the result that some of the characterisation was lost for the sake of pace. The worst casualty was Paola (silky-toned contralto Katia Ledoux) whose best lines and comical comments are mostly spoken in the original. Without a solo aria to herself, her character never had a fair chance to come across. On the other hand, Prince Casimir (tenor Josh Lovell oozing class and charisma) – the closest thing this operetta has to a villain – had ample opportunity to demonstrate his dastardly character both through his solos, and in the frequent ensembles.

Amusingly, the titular princess doesn't appear in the opera as a character, since the princess is a waxwork, which gets broken very early in the story. The travelling player, Zanetta, played with seductive energy by the Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet, is pressed into service to take the place of the star attraction. It's not long until her disguise is penetrated by the love-struck Prince Raphaël – French mezzo Virginie Verrez in absolute top form in this “trousers-role”. The rest of the plot is a similar froth of complete nonsense: the fairground entertainers win a castle in a lottery, a parade of huntsmen appear pursuing each other, a chorus of page boys complain about guarding a waxworks museum, the whole cast and chorus enjoy a midnight feast, arrange a farcical a three-way secret rendezvous and (of course) conclude by celebrating a triple wedding after all the secrets come out in the third act. Throughout the performance, this ridiculous plot was expounded by Harriet Walter, a name probably more familiar to viewers of the small screen, rather than the stage, who delivered the narration (a witty precis of the action, written and translated by the ridiculously polymathmatical Jeremy Sams – no stranger to the world of operetta himself). She was clearly having a fabulous time, as she introduced the singers and their characters, hilariously described the action of each scene, and then sat back to let the music happen.

As the evening proceeded, the orchestra, chorus and cast seemed to fall under the spell of Harriet Walter's narration. As she ad libbed and extemporised, it seemed that the stays were loosened, the hair let down, and suddenly, the politeness dropped out of the performance and encouraged by a sold-out QEH audience, everyone on stage started having enormous fun, from the six characterful standout chorus members playing the pageboys at the back, through the orchestra, to the principal cast at the front. Even Paul Daniel was tempted to push the tempi a bit faster, to hold the fermatas a bit longer, and to slip his tight control to allow his cast more room to play with the music. The highpoint of all this silliness, the “toothache” aria in the third act, brought fits of giggles to the audience, who were equally delighted by the comic combination of Christopher Mortagne as butler-turned-circus performer Tremolini and Christophe Gay as the hopelessly optimistic showman Cabriolo. After a rousing final chorus of “Zing boom la la boom!”, the same delight was reflected across the faces on the stage. A rare appearance in London, but a welcome one to be sure.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

Jacques Offenbach: La Princesse de Trébizonde - Harriet Walter - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Rara (Photo Russell Duncan)
Jacques Offenbach: La Princesse de Trébizonde - Harriet Walter - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Rara (Photo Russell Duncan)

Paul Daniel (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Rara Chorus are Anne-Catherine Gillet as Zanetta (soprano); Virginie Verrez as Le Prince Raphael (mezzo-soprano); Christophe Gay as Cabriolo (baritone); Antoinette Dennefeld as Régina (mezzo-soprano); Josh Lovell as Le Prince Casimir (tenor); Katia Ledoux as Paola (mezzo-soprano); Christophe Mortagne as Trémolini (tenor); and Loïc Félix as Sparadrap (tenor). Actress Dame Harriet Walter appears alongside as the narrator.


Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Celebrating 40 years on stage: Max Emanuel Cencic performs a programme of arias Handel wrote for the castrato Senesino - concert review
  • Couperin's Trois Leçons de Ténèbres pour le Mercredi Saint at Bayreuth Baroque - concert review
  • The Trocs go to the opera? Vinci’s Alessandro nell’Indie with five counter-tenors at Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival - opera review
  • The atmosphere, history & dangers of the sandbank: Michael Betteridge's Voices of the Sands - opera review
  • A female pope, a lift, an angel and a demon: Edward Lambert's new opera The Burning Question reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders - opera review
  • Devastating intensity: Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius at Prom 59 - concert review
  • A light touch and some rattling good tunes: Puccini's La rondine from IF Opera at Belcombe Court - opera review
  • Two moments in time: String Orchestra of Brooklyn with a work written for 2020's Lockdown, and another evoking the opening of Honolulu's contemporary art museum in 1980 - record review
  • Warmth and humanity: British Youth Opera celebrates its 35th anniversary with Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love - opera review
  • The songs of William Busch: revealing the quietly distinctive voice of an underexplored composer - record review
  • The curious case of Alan Bush's operas: enormously popular in East Germany in his lifetime, they remain unperformed and unexplored now - feature
  • Crossing boundaries between contemporary classical, experimental electronic, ambient and electroacoustic - Matthew Whiteside's Remixes - record review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month