Spectacular staging and excellent singing make for a vibrant and fast-paced La Vie Parisienne

11/12/2016

Offenbach, La Vie Parisienne: Sung in English in a translation by Alistair Beaton. Soloists, RNCM Opera Orchestra and Chorus / Andrew Greenwood (conductor), Royal Northern College of Music. RNCM Theatre, Manchester, 7.12.2016. (RJF)

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RNCM’s La Vie Parisienne Act 3 Moulin Rouge (c) Robert Workman

Cast:
Métella – Fionna Finsbury
Gardefeu – David Mcaffrey
Gabrielle – Charlotte Trepass
Frick – Matthew Palfreymann
Lord Ellington – John Ieuan Jones
Lady Ellington – Charlotte Richardson
Bobinet – Edward Robinson
The Brazilian – Matt Mears
Urbain – Edwin Kaye
Clara – Juliet Montgomery
Leonie – Charlotte Badham
Louise – Emma Wheeler
Gontran – Peter Edge
First Maidservant – Charlotte Mason
Antoine – Robert Brookes
First Waiter – Edward gaffney

Production:

Director – Stuart Barker
Set and costume designer – Simone Romaniuk
Lighting designer – Mike Gunning
Chorus master – Kevin Thraves
Dialogue coach – Natalie Grady

I have been an opera goer for over sixty years from hearing Gigli live, in one of his farewell concerts, and only Sinatra did more of those, through many great works in famous theatres and with fabulous casts, yet somehow, unaccountably, the name of Offenbach has not featured that often —typically not since 2009 when the RMCM presented his operetta La belle Hélène (see review). The life of Jacques Offenbach was nearly as complicated and tragic as his last, and greatest, work, The Tales of Hoffmann that he never lived to complete, leaving only sketches, much as Puccini did with his Turandot, and to be completed by others.

Jacques was originally Jacob, born in 1819 in Cologne the son of a jobbing Jewish fiddler cum music teacher. The son revealed such early talent that the father made many sacrifices to send his son to study in Paris and where he scraped a living as a ‘session’, in today’s idiom, cellist. At the time of the 1855 World Exhibition in Paris, frustrated by inability to get his compositions performed, he had opened the minuscule Bouffes-Parisiens theatre. Visitors to the Exhibition flocked to hear his tuneful operettas satirising contemporary politics, society manners and particularly the sexual mores of France’s Second Empire that was to implode so spectacularly with the siege of Paris in 1870.

As one successful work followed another Rossini dubbed Jacques Offenbach the ‘Mozart of the Champs Elysées’ and his comedies were later also seen at some of Paris’s larger theatres including La Vie Parisienne that was premiered 150 years ago at the Théâtre du Palais Royal. It was his first full-length portrayal of contemporary Parisienne life and since then has become one of his most popular operettas. This production is updated to the height of the 1930s where two young Parisians, Roaul de Gardefeu and Bobinet, are in love with the beautiful Metella. Rejection, deception and flirtation and attempted seduction follow as this light-hearted story takes the audience on a whistle-stop tour of Paris’ glittering nightlife.

The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester has a long and distinguished lineage in the training of both singers and orchestral musicians. It has a particular distinguished list of former alumnae in the field of opera performances, many of who continue to grace the stage at the very best operatic addresses. The nature of the training they receive at the college includes many facets as well as development of vocal technique and includes languages, acting, movement, and all the other appropriate skills of performance on stage as well as a knowledge of the various genres of opera. However, the best preparation they can have for a career in the theatre comes with inclusion, as a principal, cover or comprimario, in one of the college’s three annual staged works. These opportunities are open to undergraduate as well as postgraduate students, some already having had stage experience when they enter college. These days the performances are double cast, in this instance I was able to see the first cast in action.

The best news for the audience at future performances seeing this cast in action is the overall quality of their singing and acting. Add a quite superb staging, alongside vibrant playing from the orchestra under the vastly experienced Andrew Greenwood and a thoroughly enjoyable evening is guaranteed. All the student soloists, who ranged from undergraduates to third and fourth year post graduates performed well. Of particular note was the Gabrielle of Charlotte Trepass, winner of the Frederic Cox Award earlier in the year, and now in her third postgraduate year, whose strength of voice and excellent acting was a highlight, as was the Gardefeu of David Mcaffrey in his fourth postgraduate year and tasked with facilitating the multiple machinations of the plot. So pleasing to see and hear was the fact of several of the cast were yet to finish their undergraduate courses with the likes of North Wales singer John Ieuan Jones moving from a previous cover role in the March production of Così fan tutte (see review) to that of a principal role with vocal and acted aplomb as did as did others in the cast. Good also was to see Fiona Finsbury an award winner of Anne Zeigler competition bring vocal skills and acting background to the fore as Métella. I could go on, but suffice it to say that there were no vocal weaknesses in this cast all of whom also coped with the projection of extensive passages of spoken dialogue. The programme made much of the fact that there were no titles in English as are now de rigueur in nearly all UK professional opera performances when many professional singers cannot articulate and project their words in even a theatre half the size of the Met, Covent Garden or ENO! The cast really had to enunciate and project the spoken dialogue adequately and clearly if the audience were to follow the machinations of the plot of this opera, even in the relatively small RNCM opera theatre. If not one hundred per cent successful I was able to pick up most of the detail of their efforts, which will please the dialogue coach as well as the audience.

Double cast, this production can be seen as follows: December 13th, 15th, at 7.30pm and Sunday 11th and Saturday 17th at 3pm.

Robert J Farr

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