lunes, septiembre 07, 2015

Offenbach, so light and bubbly, is extremely difficult

            When people think about really tough assignments in opera, they soon mention Wagner´s "Ring" or "Les Troyens" by Berlioz: long, difficult and important. And so they are. But there´s an intriguing paradox: even more complex, especially in  Argentina, is to get all the ingredients right for a perfect interpretation of a Jacques Offenbach operetta. And that also applies for an ideal Gilbert and Sullivan here, or a wonderful zarzuela performance in Germany...with German singers. 

            For there´s a basic element very hard to get: to be completely idiomatic (and that goes much beyond good French diction, quite hard to find  in BA). Also, you must have money, for Offenbach needs a good show. And a small but adequate orchestra, a piano won´t do.  I leave aside, of course, his wonderful opera "Les Contes d´Hoffmann", a masterpiece that has had very good interpretations at the Colón and elsewhere.

            The best solution, of course, is very expensive: a topnotch French cast such as those in the celebrated Offenbach Toulouse series of recordings. And with an imaginative producer that manages to give us a feeling of the carefree times of Napoleon III without ridiculous updates to the present.

            Let us go back to the father of French operetta, Jacques Offenbach.  My edition of the Grove Dictionary lists 93 operettas, of which  most are one-acters and only a few   in two, three or four acts (three exist in two versions).

            The two founders of operetta are Franz Von Suppé in Vienna (31 operettas between 1834 and 1894) and Offenbach (from 1855 to 1879): light music with spoken sections plus dance.  

            Unfortunately, in my 65 years of attending operas and operettas, apart of course "Les Contes d´Hoffmann", I have been able to see just two Offenbach operettas in full stagings with orchestra: "La Vie Parisienne" about four decades ago, unfortunately in Spanish, and "La Belle Hélène" by Buenos Aires Lírica, of which I have fond memories.

            That is why I went to two recent Offenbach ventures, even if I knew that money was scarce and there was no orchestra. One was "Orphée aux enfers" at the Empire Theatre,  and the other was (I think) a première, unless it was offered about 120 years ago: the one-acter "Tromb-Al-Ca-Zar", presented at the Fundación Beethoven by the group Offenbach & Friends. They didn´t assuage my thirst for first-rate Offenbach, but they were better than nothing.

            In Europe "Orphée aux enfers" has had some success because it includes a galop that became known as the can-can. In fact that music has always been popular here, especially those of my generation and the following one, who had the pleasure of seeing the splendid Massine ballet "Gaîté Parisienne", a potpourri of Offenbach music admirably arranged by Manuel Rosenthal. Come on, Colón, give us a break and revive it!

            "Orphée aux enfers" of course kids the famous Gluck opera "Orphée et Eurydice", and its libretto by Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy tells us that Orpheus and Euridice hate each other, that she is abducted by Pluto and recovered by Jupiter from Hades and in the final scene all are drunk and led by Bacchus whilst dancing the galop. And there´s a peculiar character, Public Opinion, to which even Jupiter must bow...It was premièred on October 21, 1858, at the then famous Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens (the composer´s property).

            The music is charming though uneven; however, listen to the Plasson recording to hear it to best advantage. This production was modest. The Estudio de Ópera de Buenos Aires is directed by Rita Casamajor, and has been active since 1985, but unfortunately it never had sponsors that gave her the possibility of offering full-scale productions. She coordinated from the piano a weak cast which best remains unnamed, except the correct Euridice (Margarita Lorenzo). The gross production by José Calandron stressed the grotesque rather than true comedy.

            "Tromb-al-Cazar" is subtitled "The Troupe of criminals" and its single act deals with a minicompany of three that has been hooted out of the stage at a small village and arrive at an inn in the Basque country attended by the ex boyfriend of the diva, who believes that the men are bandits.  The piece dates from 1856 and was a great success. The libretto is by Charles Dupeuty and Ernest Bourget.

            Offenbach & Friends is led by pianist Fernando Albinarrate and soprano Anahí Scharovsky; they define themselves as Franco-Argentine musicians. As happened in "Orphée...", the sung fragments were in French and the spoken bits in Spanish. There are three imaginative scenes: Beaujolais (the character, not the wine!) in "Oh rage, oh desperation" quotes famous arias by Meyerbeer; there´s a funny Trio of the crocodiles (done well with puppets); and another Trio became famous, the one extolling Bayonne´s ham ("Le jambon de Bayonne", repeating syllables in typical Offenbachian vein).

            Following an acceptable practice, they added pieces from other Offenbach operettas and more dubiously a Delibes song. The production by Fabio Roppi was agile and the singer actors entered into the spirit of farce, although some vulgarities (especially from Scharovsky) should have been avoided. The soprano has a big voice though rather strident; the tenor Matías Tomasetto was in arid timbre but acted well; Gabriel Vacas is a promising baritone ; and actor Mariano Pauplys did the innkeeper convincingly. The stage props were adequate. Albinarrate accompanied with aplomb.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

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