Switzerland Offenbach, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein: Soloists, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Chorus of Geneva Grand Théâtre, Franck Villard (conductor), Alan Woodbridge (chorus master), Grand Théâtre de Genève, 15.12.2014. (AL)
La Grande-Duchesse: Ruxandra Donose
Wanda: Bénédicte Tauran
Fritz: Fabio Trümpy
Le Général Boum: Jean-Philippe Lafont
Le Baron Puck: Boris Grappe
Le Prince Paul: Rodolphe Briand
Le Baron Grog: Michel de Souza
Népomuc: Fabrice Farina
Iza: Julienne Walker
Olga: Marina Lodygensky
Amélie: Marion Jacquemet
Charlotte: Ahlima Mhamdi
Un notaire: Nicolas Carré
Director: Laurent Pelly
Sets: Chantal Thomas
Lighting: Joël Adam
Adaptation of the libretto: Agathe Mélinard
Choregraphy: Laura Scozzi
Jacques Offenbach owes a lot to the creative team of Laurent Pelly and Marc Minkowski, in the same way that Wagner owes a debt to Chéreau-Boulez and Monteverdi to Ponnelle-Harnoncourt. These artists all teamed up to breathe new life and modernism into the composers’ works, thus giving them a new audience.
While Minkowski and his ensemble were not there for this revival, they were present on many of the minds of the audience, and I want to ask the reader for some patience … and something else, which I will address at the end of this article.
Laurent Pelly, on the other hand, was there and his talent was strongly felt. The French director has a genuine art for comedy. This Grande-Duchesse had rhythm and a wonderful sense of comic timing. There was no dull moment. As in Pelly’s celebrated production of La Fille du Régiment, women were the dominant force in the story. All the male protagonists were laughingly passive and vain. This was highlighted in the genuinely hilarious choreography of Laura Scozzi who coupled tall male dancers dressed as women leading their female-dressed-as-men partners. The coordination of effortless animation on stage and the coherence with the buoyant rhythmic music of Offenbach was marvelous. There was a great sense of wackiness which made me wonder why Groucho, Chico and Harpo were not on stage waving the Freedonian flag.
The overall cast assembled in Geneva was a strong and balanced one. As with Mozart, Offenbach does not require stars but rather an effective team. The two leading ladies were a good complement, the darker tones of Ruxandra Donose as the Duchess in fine contrast with the light soprano of Bénédicte Tauran’s Wanda. Fabio Trümpy has a clear voice which projected well. Veteran Jean-Philippe Lafont may not have the phrasing he used to have but his notes were clear. He fell down in his Act I aria which had many concerned for his health, but he quickly recovered. In the small role of Prince Paul, Rodolphe Briand had a nice balance between clarity of words and line.
Offenbach would have approved of the cast and the way the characters worked together. The Duchess was at her best in the Act II seduction game as well as in her selfishness and disdain toward General Boum and Prince Paul. Wanda was down to earth and practical and left no doubt as to who is going to have the upper hand in the marriage. Fritz was charming and totally clueless. The three conspirators were as ineffective as one would expect from such characters in any operetta.
As always, the chorus was a strong contributor and proved that on top of their vocal qualities, they can move and act. The only weakness was in the pit. The overture started shakily with little sense of characterization. There were many times when chorus, singers and orchestra were not together, thus preventing in Act I clarity of words and lightness in the music. This was a reminder that the weak link of the Grand Théâtre remains its choice of conductor, and that in future coordination with the Swiss Romande Orchestra will be key to raising the overall level.
Which leads me to Marc Minkowski and his ensemble, Les Musiciens du Louvre, who were the accomplices of Laurent Pelly in the Offenbach series presented at the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris. As DVDs can attest, Minkowski has shown how subtle Offenbach’s music can be, and he holds equal claim to the success and reputation of these productions. He and Les Musiciens du Louvre are world famous, appear at places like the Salzburg Festival and have spread music in the Grenoble region with many free concerts for all.
Yet their fate is in danger as the Grenoble mayor has decided to totally cut their funding. France is in a difficult economic situation overall, but the new mayor of Grenoble from the Green party has led a dogmatic campaign which, among other initiatives, has banished billboard advertising in the city. The life of Minkowski’s group is in danger and their disappearance would be a cultural tragedy and a huge loss for music overall.