Garsington Opera Concludes Second Year at Wormsley with Vintage Offenbach

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Offenbach, La Périchole: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Garsington Opera/David Parry (conductor), Wormsley, Berks, 18.6.2012. (RF)

Photo credit: Garsington Opera

As I suggested in my review of the first two productions of this, Garsington Opera’s twenty third year, (and the second in its new venue at Wormsley), the company does not stand still and constantly seeks new challenges. With three works by Vivaldi presented so far (and which opera company in Britain can claim that?) for its third production of the season Garsington moves this year to its first Offenbach.

As one successful work followed another, Offenbach was dubbed by Rossini as The Mozart of the Champs Elysées. Born Jacob Eberst, in Cologne, the son of a jobbing Jewish fiddler cum music teacher, Offenbach revealed such early talent that the father made many sacrifices to send his son to study in Paris. Here he scraped a living as a jobbing cellist composing in his spare time. At the time of the 1855 World Exhibition in Paris, frustrated by inability to get his compositions performed, he opened the miniscule Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens in the Champs Elysées. Visitors to The Exhibition flocked to hear his tuneful operettas which fitted the mood of France at that time of the Second Empire like a glove. However, this frivolous time in France finished abruptly with the Franco-Prussian war, the siege of Paris in 1870 and the subsequent fall of the Emperor Napoleon III..

La Périchole, is based on a Mérimée drama of 1829. It was premiered in 1868 and tells the story of La Périchole a gypsy street singer and her lover Piquillo. They travel to Peru where Don Andrès, the local Viceroy, likes to roam the streets incognito trying to obtain a true sense of his popularity. Charmed by La Périchole he promises her a position on his staff as a fix towards his more amorous intentions. However, there is one important proviso, it being that Royal Mistresses have to have a husband! The Viceroy has the idea of one such being a husband of convenience. His equerry chooses non other than Piquillo who, desperate about the disappearance of his lover, turns up at the wedding blind drunk not realising who he is to marry. Piquillo ends up in gaol and when Périchole tries by subterfuge to rescue him, she ends up there too. The lovers escape and when Périchole sings the Ballad of Augustus’s Clemency to the Viceroy he obtains his pardon for both of them, along with a long incarcerated prisoner.

The opening set by Francis O’Connor was easy on the eye with flats painted with trompte l’oeil corners and skylines to give an ideally realistic location for the first act. The basic flats had doors for the Inn and entry to the Viceroy’s palace. The simple became spectacular with the set swinging out and round from the centre in a veritable coupe de theatre to form the basis of the Viceroy’s palace with thrones quickly and easily wheeled in for Act Two. In Act Three a cell was similarly wheeled in with the Old Prisoner popping up complete with long beard and hair grown during his long incarceration. Like Samson his long hair and added isolation did wonders for his libido as he first propositioned – a polite term for attempting to molest – Perichole, before finding at least promises with Jennifer Rhys-Davies’ Guadalena, one of the cousins running the inn. But that is to run ahead. All the costumes were apt with conquistador colour supplemented by a couple of live llamas and the formal head dresses of the Spanish ladies at the wedding ceremony. Director Jeremy Sams made humorous whoopee at every opportunity with his own idiomatic and musical translation.

If works like this are to be tackled, the ideal method is to treat them with respect and not trivialise the music and the composer’s creation. In all aspects this production does just that. In so doing it converts the froth of Offenbach’s creation, with its succession of tunes, into vintage champagne to the delight and enthusiasm of the audience. I recently eulogised David Parry’s conducting of Bellini’s third opera, Il Pirata, recently issued by Opera Rara (see review). I suggested he fully realised the composer’s intentions of giving the then dominant Rossinian musical structure a more dramatic thrust. Here he turns his considerable musical skills in the opposite direction, conducting with a light touch and lyrical charm to allow the champagne bubbles to keep coming in a seeming everlasting stream.

Photo Credit: Garsington Opera

A major challenge of this comic genre with its share of spoken dialogue is in the casting of singers. Simon Butteriss and particularly Walter van Dyk (with experience in G and S, musical theatre and even burlesque) out-scored singers whose experience was more operatic and who sometimes failed to project the spoken dialogue. Generally the sung diction was good with words well articulated, the titles helping any slurred consonants.

In the title role and looking delectable, Naomi O’Connell’s creamy tone and elegant phrasing ravished the ear although I would hope that her Irish brogue would not intrude into any Cherubino she might undertake in either Italian or English. Robert Murray sang strongly as her lover and could gainfully have softened the edge of his tone at times where more mellifluousness would have been appropriate. Mark Wilde as Panatellas and Simon Butteriss as Don Pedro, assigned many diverse tasks by the Viceroy, were quite outstanding in the realisation of their roles as were some famous names, Jennifer Rhys-Davies, Diana Montague and Fiona Kimm as the cousin sisters of the inn. As the Viceroy himself Geoffrey Dalton, whom I greatly admired as Don Alfonso for Opera North (see review), was impeccable in his acting, singing and particularly his incisive diction, to hold the whole improbable story together.

Given the paucity of Offenbach productions in Britain, and noting the enthusiasm of the audience, to any who may be tempted to try a recording of this or some other of Offenbach’s works via CD or DVD I recommend the highlights of this opera featuring Régine Crespin as La Périchole alongside francophone Alain Vanzo as her lover and Jules Bastin as the Viceroy (see review).

There will be further performances by Garsington Opera at Wormsley on 21, 23, 26, 28 June and 1, 3 July 2012 at 6.20pm. The 1st July performance will be screened live on a massive screen on Skegness beach as part of the SO Festival. This free screening will be followed by a firework display.

Meanwhile opera enthusiasts can look forward to next year with productions of Mozart’s singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Rossini’s Maometto II, his thirty first opera first seen in Naples in 1820. Like the Armida of two years ago this will be a British premiere.

Robert J Farr