Showing posts with label Offenbach. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Offenbach. Show all posts

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Underwhelmed in the Underworld

Mary Bevan as Eurydice and Alan Oke as John Styx in ENO's Orpheus in the Underworld,
supposedly a comic operetta
Photo: Bill Knight/The Arts Desk

It takes quite a dreadful evening at a fundamentally misconceived operetta production to make real life seem fun at the moment. But my goodness, I was glad to get out of this show at the end. ENO has well and truly gone to hell this time. I am giving up on British opera houses trying to do operetta - and suspect the Birtwistle Orpheus will be more fun than this.

My full review of a production that was better designed and performed than it deserved to be is now up at The Arts Desk.

Maybe British opera houses just don’t get operetta. Without wit, lightness and snappy pace, and instead cudgelling us with desperate relevance, the frothiest works crash to earth stone cold dead. There have been disasters elsewhere, too, though ENO is the chief culprit, and (after a miserable Merry Widowand a fearful Fledermaus) this one is the nail in the coffenbach. If you think that’s a bad joke, wait til you hear the ones on stage...

Friday, May 30, 2014

Polly-hymnia at green, green Garsington

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.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas cracker? OAE strikes Offenbach

Here's a little piece I wrote for the Indy about Offenbach and his long-lost operatic extravaganza Fantasio, which the OAE is performing (its British premiere, btw) on Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall. I can't go because it is Alicia's Gift in Hampstead that night, but I'm pleased to say that the show is being recorded for Opera Rara. The one and only Sarah Connolly sings the title role. Looking forward to hearing it...

The fate of Jacques Offenbach’s Fantasio seems bizarre – if not quite as bizarre as the opera itself. Recently unearthed and published, having not been seen since 1927, it is about to enjoy its British premiere in a concert performance and recording for Opera Rara by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and an all-star cast. The hope is that it may emerge as a neglected masterpiece that can shed new light on its composer. 

Admittedly this Offenbach is off-the-wall. Fantasio, an idealistic young student, loves a princess who is meant to marry a prince. To disrupt her wedding plans he disguises himself as the court jester, who has just died. It’s a peculiar premise, signalling a comic opera with a melancholy slant under the surface; but Offenbach could never escape his own bent for the quirky, the naughty and the magical.
Best known for having written the world’s most famous cancan, the composer is popular for his effervescent operettas – especially La belle Hélène and Orphée aux enfers – yet he dreamed of a career in serious music drama. Only one such work by him is in the repertoire today: Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). For all its darkness it, too, remains as fantastical a piece as has ever graced a stage. 

The British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who takes the title role, describes Fantasio as “a convoluted, barmy farce. It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz,” she adds. “It has that fantasy element to it, with cardboard cut-out characters – almost a Disneyesque feel. It is an ironic piece, though; it’s not to be taken at face value.” She affirms, too, that its nuttiness is worth it for the music: “It’s absolutely beautiful and the orchestration is very delicate. It feels like the sun coming out.” 

The story is based on an 1866 play by Alfred de Musset that had not been much of a success; and the odds were stacked even further against Offenbach’s adaptation when it was first aired at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1872. Offenbach – a German-born composer living and working in France – had been much attacked in the press during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and national sensitivities continued to run high after France’s defeat. If he hoped Fantasio would be a way to fight back, he was disappointed; the theatre curtailed the opening run after only ten performances. Saddened, Offenbach recycled some of its themes in Les contes d’Hoffmann

But if anyone wonders why Offenbach was so devoted to this opera, they would not have to look far. Fantasio is a “bitter clown”, the archetypal comedian weeping behind his pranks. It seems that Offenbach had found therein a character after his own heart.  

Fantasio, Royal Festival Hall, 15 December. Box office: 0844 875 0073

Friday, February 10, 2012

In search of the spirit of Hoffmann

It's a fantasy world here in London this morning. Everything has turned white. A suitable setting for a fabulously fantastical evening courtesy of Offenbach, ENO, director Richard Jones and a cast headed by the doughty Barry Banks as ETA Hoffmann. But why do so many of the musical creations based on this seminal German Romantic author have so little to do with what he actually wrote? Is he just...too damn scary? I have a piece about this in today's Independent. But below, please find the director's cut, in which Schumann comes to the fore rather more than Offenbach.

First, here's the trailer for tonight - it's a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera. I just hope the transport system holds up under our massive and alarming 2cm of snow.

Where would we be without the stories and novels of ETA Hoffmann? The German author’s dazzling imagination underpins some of the world’s most popular and enduring operas, ballets, and even piano music. Yet there’s a real disconnect between Hoffmann’s influence and the adaptations we see on stage. Few of them bear much resemblance to his originals. Indeed, the writer’s absence from his own legacy is so striking that Richard Jones, the director of English National Opera’s new production of The Tales of Hoffmann, has apparently recommended to his lead tenor, Barry Banks, that he need not read the tales by Hoffmann on which the opera is based.

That could seem surprising – after all, the hero of Jacques Offenbach’s opera is loosely modelled on the real Hoffmann. But perhaps it is a practical matter: so vivid and terrifying are these seminal works of German Romanticism that our star singer would risk having nightmares for weeks.

The opera – about to open at the Coliseum in a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera, Munich – features Hoffmann as a dissolute, drunken poet looking back over his thwarted love affairs and finally finding redemption in his art alone. Three stories are involved, each concerning one of three women, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, each with an ‘evil genius’ figure who puts Hoffmann through a series of supernatural tribulations. Olympia is an automaton, made to appear real when Hoffmann dons magic spectacles. Antonia dies in his arms after her mother’s ghost persuades her to sing, against medical advice. Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan, steals his reflection, and implicitly his soul. Every tale is based on a Hoffmann original. Yet Hoffmann’s actual writing is so disturbing that the operatic version, despite its gripping narrative and unforgettable music, can barely scratch the surface.

We seem little concerned with the real ETA Hoffmann today, beyond specialised academic studies, but his significance was multifarious and profound. His life – contemporaneous with Beethoven – was short, difficult and tragic. Born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann in Königsberg in 1776, he adored music obsessively, to the point that he changed his ‘Wilhelm’ to ‘Amadeus’ in tribute to Mozart. His family background appears to have been unstable, rife with mental problems; perhaps his imagination was predisposed to become fevered. He lived a turbulent existence, moving between Germany and Poland, working variously as a clerk, a jurist and a music critic, writing and composing prolifically the while. He became “dissolute” and syphilis killed him when he was only 46. The writer George Sand said of him: “Never in the history of the human spirit has anyone entered more freely and more purely into the world of dream.”

So why do the popular adaptations of his works veer so far from the originals? The Nutcracker, that ubiquitous Christmas ballet, is a case in point. It presents a supremely simplified version of a tale in which the “world of dream” is deeply entangled with that of reality. For balletic purposes, the most potent and horrific elements of Hoffmann’s Nutcracker and Mouse King are stripped away; in their place the audience sees infinite sugar. Hoffmann himself had dreamed up, among other things, a seven-headed mouse king that sets gruesome traps for its own offspring. Not so great for family viewing, perhaps.

Then there’s Coppelia, second only to The Nutcracker in popularity: a sweet, frothy story about a youth who becomes infatuated with a doll, inducing his girlfriend to take good-natured revenge. Set to irresistible music by Léo Delibes, it is based on the same Hoffmann tale as the Olympia episode in Offenbach’s opera. Yet the original story – The Sandman – couldn’t be less sweet and frothy if it tried. It involves murder, madness, blinding and the manufacture of eyes, as well as the recognition of the darkest and most destructive side of the human psyche, all of it conjured with imagery so potent that it impacts upon our subconscious at an almost primal level. It can be no coincidence that Sigmund Freud made considerable reference to this story in his essay The Uncanny, describing Hoffmann as “the unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature”. Incidentally, Freud associated the terror of losing sight with the fear of castration.

The composer most faithful to the underlying spirit of ETA Hoffmann was Schumann, who did not use the actual stories at all – though this arch-romantic’s tragic life, with its descent into syphilitic madness, reads almost like one in itself. He frequently took inspiration from the author: Fantasiestücke, Nachtstücke and Kreisleriana are all titles used by both creators. The turbulent, mercurial atmosphere of Schumann’s piano cycle Kreisleriana catches the tone of Hoffmann to perfection, although there is no programmatic link.

Hoffmann had given the name ‘Johannes Kreisler’ to a sort of alter-ego that finally became a character in his last novel Lebensansichten des KatersMurr (The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr) – in which the autobiography of a savvy feline is accidentally mingled with that of a temperamental and introverted musician. The young Johannes Brahms, another passionate Hoffmann aficionado, sometimes signed himself ‘Joh. Kreisler Jun.’ (Johannes Kreisler Junior), including on his official Op.1, the Piano Sonata in C major.

Offenbach’s choice of Hoffmann as the basis for his last opera was a less personal matter, but no less telling. Towards the end of his life, though celebrated for his riotous and risqué Parisian operettas, he yearned for recognition as a serious composer. These stories provided the ideal medium. Perhaps, too, he was able to identify with a different aspect of the anguished hero; as a German Jewish immigrant in 19th-century Paris, he had perforce remained rather an outsider himself.

The opera involves a feast of musical joys – among them the brilliant coloratura aria of Olympia the doll, the hero’s duet with the doomed Antonia, and Giulietta’s seductive Barcarolle. Hoffmann’s various loves are sung by the same soprano (for ENO, it is Georgia Jarman), while the three “evil genius” figures are likewise portrayed by one bass (Clive Bayley). Barry Banks, as Hoffmann, takes on a notoriously demanding yet rewarding role.

Sweetened for palatability, simplified for stage presentation and all but forgotten in the shadow of the great music they inspired, Hoffmann’s stories and their profound psychological truths remain immortal in their own way. At least Offenbach gave him the credit he deserved. It is high time that we did so as well.

The Tales of Hoffmann opens at English National Opera on 10 February. Box office: 0871 911 0200