Wednesday 4 October 2023

Offenbach's La princesse de Trébizonde from Opera Rara performed with wit & style, you can't help but be drawn in & have as much fun as the performers

Offenbach:  La princesse de Trébizonde; Anne-Catherine Gillet, Virginie Verrez, Antoinette Dennefeld,  Josh Lovell, Christophe Mortagne, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Paul Daniel; Opera Rara

Offenbach:  La princesse de Trébizonde; Anne-Catherine Gillet, Virginie Verrez, Antoinette Dennefeld,  Josh Lovell, Christophe Mortagne, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Paul Daniel; Opera Rara

A new edition, a performance that combines wit and charm, character and style, a cast clearly having great fun and making us do so to. This is prime Offenbach, from the centre of his career and full of all your favourite numbers that you didn't know

Offenbach's operetta La princesse de Trébizonde dates from 1869, a period shortly before the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 (when the composer and his family retired to Spain) that includes such works as La PéricholeVert-Vert, and Les brigands. These are comic operettas where the satire is far less barbed than in his earlier works. 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.

The work was premiered, in a two-act version, in Baden-Baden by a troupe that was effectively Offenbach's Bouffes-Parisiens company on holiday, then it was given its first Paris performance in a radically revised three-act version later that year. It was a success and revived several times during the 1870s. New Sussex Opera performed the work in 2021 [see my review].

Until recently, a scholarly edition of the work has not been possible but now Jean-Christophe Keck has produced a new edition which forms the basis for this new recording of the work from Opera Rara. Paul Daniel conducts Offenbach's La princesse de Trébizonde with Anne-Catherine Gillet as Zanetta, Virginie Verrez as Prince Raphael, Antoinette Dennefeld as Regina, Katia Ledoux as Paola, Christophe Gay as Cabriolo, Josh Lovell as Prince Casimir, Christophe Mortagne as Tremolini and Loïc Félix as Sparadrap and the Lottery Director, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Rara chorus.

The plot is more of a series of dramatic situations and encounters than a coherent narrative. Though it includes an element of topsy-turvey-dom that is almost Gilbertian with a group of circus performers who win the lottery and move to a chateau, the circus proprietor becoming a baron. Then there is 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). 

Having seen it on stage, I can testify to the energy of the piece and this recording successfully conveys the sheer sense of engagement of the  performers with a vividness that approaches live performance. This never sounds like a recording of opera singers performing operetta, there is a zest and an attention to language (including truncated spoken dialogue) that does indeed make you imagine you might be in the Bouffes-Parisiens. 

The recording captures Offenbach's revised three-act version that was premiered in Paris, but the disc also includes a selection of items from the original two-act version performed in Baden-Baden. This means we have a cornucopia of music, and it is all a complete delight. What one notices when listening on disc, as opposed to the theatre, is the way that the work is top notch Offenbach, full of great tunes and given here in a performance of great charm and character, with everyone sound as if fun was being had whilst performing with vividness and vitality. Paul Daniel keeps this zipping along, full of toe-tapping and catchy numbers, alleviated by touches of Offenbach's charming melancholy.

Anne-Catherine Gillet makes an engaging heroine, Zanetta, yet sparky too and definitely not a shy retiring violet. She's introduced with a catchy aria in act one that showcases Gillet's elegant, slim line soprano, whilst at the end of Act Two she has a set of cheeky couplets in the finale. She and Virginie Verrez' Raphael have a duet that moves from the engagingly intimate, here not done with too much over-romanticism, yet moves into vividly perky territory. Verrez has been introduced in Act One singing with admirable flexibility and a nicely seductive line, yet she is funny to as and gets the opera's biggest point number, a terrific toothache aria in which she pretends to have toothache, complete with coloratura histrionics.

Zanetta's sister Regina has an important role too. Here Antoinette Dennefeld certainly does not disappoint, her Act One aria is full of wit, yet sung with warmth. Regina is in love with Tremolini (Christophe Mortagne) a role for a singing actor that Mortagne does to perfection. The two try running away, cue a wonderful cod-operatic duet that, inevitably, turns into a perky galop. Raphael's father is nasty character, yet in his two arias he gets some of the best music, sung here with melodic charm and a nice line in patter by Josh Lovell. 

As engaging as all these are, the ensembles, entractes and finales are all of equal enjoyment and benefit from the crisply tight sense of ensemble and the way the entire cast has the style just right. There is never a moment when you think you are listening to anything other than French operetta, this sounds like the real thing, voices that are apt, fine technique allied to musical charm and great sense of the importance of the words. 

The chorus is on great form and has an important role, along with smaller solos including a group of pages who have a nicely bored chorus. And the orchestra perform with wonderfully vivacious style, like a pit band but very much a luxury product.

The work is performed with abbreviated dialogue, edited sensitively by Jeremy Sams, so that the whole thing works as operetta rather than a sequence of musical numbers looking for a home.

I must confess that when I saw the piece live, it felt like an engaging bit of nonsense, but when performed with wit and style, as here, you can't help but be drawn in and have as much fun as the performers. The appendix has eight numbers (over 16 minutes of music) dropped from the original version, and they are corkers too.

Jaques Offenbach:  La princesse de Trébizonde (1869) [109:00, appendix 16:30]
Text by Etienne Tréfieu and Charles-Louis-Etienne Nuitter
Dialogue edited by Jeremy Sams
Virginie Verrez  - Prince Raphaël
Anne-Catherine Gillet - Zanetta
Antoinette Dennefeld - Régina
Christophe Mortagne - Trémolini
Josh Lovell - Prince Casimir
Christophe Gay - Cabriolo
Loïc Félix - Sparadrap and the Lottery Director
Katia Ledoux - Paola
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Paul Daniel (conductor)
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, September 2022
OPERA RARA ORC63 2CDs [57:00, 65:00]

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