So there’s this dead parrot… A strange start indeed for a French 19th-century rom-com. But this is no common stage work: it is Vert-Vert by Jacques Offenbach, France’s finest composer of operetta, creator of such classic favourites as Orpheus in the Underworld and La belle Hélène. For Garsington Opera at Wormsley, the director Martin Duncan has joined forces with the conductor and Offenbachophile David Parry to offer a new staging of this little-performed madcap comedy, brilliant in its musical hues and light as a feather.
Hot on the heels of Garsington’s 2012 production of the same composer’s La Périchole, this is the latest in a succession of Offenbach gems that Parry has been pro-active in polishing up for today’s audiences. He masterminded an Offenbach celebration CD, Entre Nous, for Opera Rara in 2007, continued with a complete recording of Vert-Vert three years later, and has never looked back. (The clip above is from the recording and features Toby Spence and Jennifer Larmore, who aren't at Garsington, just so you know.)
Try not to hold a hot drink while you read the synopsis. Having lost their beloved bird, Vert-Vert, the young ladies of a convent school decide they must find a new mascot and settle upon an innocent lad named Valentin, changing his name to the parrot’s for the purpose. Whisked away to visit his aunt, though, Valentin soon finds himself in an inn, surrounded by soldiers and singers… Before long he has learned to swear, drink and fall in love - and has even been elevated to the status of star tenor.
“The parrot is only an excuse,” Duncan assures us. “Yes, it opens in a girls’ convent school and they bury a dead parrot in the first five minutes. But after that it becomes very human and touching: it’s the story of a young man’s journey to adulthood.”
Comedy can be a tall order to stage, especially in opera. Duncan, himself a distinguished actor, has been coaching Garsington’s young cast in the tricks of the trade. “I know it’s a cliché, but comedy is a very serious business,” he says. “You have to treat it seriously and then the humour comes out, but if you start trying to be funny, it’s really not funny for the audience. Singers have a double whammy because they’re not used to dialogue and comic dialogue is even harder. With a piece like this one, which is a bit crazy, it’s essential that everyone in the cast has a real belief in their predicaments.”
Vert-Vert is being performed in English, with a translation by Parry himself. He is full of praise for the score: the leading roles, he says, are as demanding as those of Offenbach’s most famous opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, while “the music is definitely superior to Orpheus in the Underworld” (the one that features the world’s most famous can-can).
Starring Robert Murray as Valentin and Fflur Wyn as his sweetheart, Mimi, Garsington’s new production gives us the chance to judge for ourselves.