United Kingdom Offenbach, La Princesse de Trébizonde: Soloists, Opera Rara Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Daniel (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 16.9.2022. (CC)
Zanetta – Anne-Catherine Gillet
Le Prince Raphaël – Virginie Verrez
Cabriolo – Christophe Gay
Régina – Antionette Dennefeld
Le Prince Casimir – Josh Lovell
Paola – Katia Ledoux
Trémolini – Christophe Mortagne
Sparadrap Le Directeur – Loïc Félix
Narrator – Dame Harriet Walter
Pure delight, this. As Jean-Christophe Keck’s booklet note pointed out, there is plenty of Offenbach still under the radar. He was talking about operas, although I would point out the several hours’ worth of cello duets that are largely overlooked, too.
It is good, then, that Opera Rara is getting its teeth into Offenbach’s 1869 comic operetta La Princesse de Trébizonde. Written to a text by Charles Nuitter and Étienne Tréfeu to a commission from Bad Ems and first performed at Baden-Baden, the score uses some pre-extant material, probably because of time constraints: there are several numbers from La baguette, an opéra-comique that was almost finished but never performed. The three-act version of Trébizonde was performed in Paris in late 1869 and was subsequently taken to many major cities (including London, in an English version at the Gaiety Theatre which was attended by Offenbach himself). There is fun aplenty to be had – an air about a toothache for Raphaël and a plate-spinning ensemble are just two examples.
The plot is as silly and frothy as the music. Raphaël (a mezzo-soprano trouser role) falls in love with a waxwork, the Princess of Trebizond – or so he thinks. In fact, he has fallen in love with Zanetta, who works in a circus. Family rifts (Raphaël’s father, Casimir) and, believe it or not, a lottery win, allows chaos to reign as social hierarchies are dismantled and examined via the prism of Offenbach’s endless invention. There really is a feel of Mozartean ease to Offenbach’s compositions, as if they somehow flowed from pen to paper all in one go.
La Princesse de Trébizonde is not such a rare excavation, though – New Sussex Opera toured with the piece in late 2021, including a performance at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre, while (appropriately given the piece’s history) Baden-Baden staged it in 2015 and there has been a smattering of performances in France – Saint-Étienne in 2013, Limoges in 2016 and Bruniquel in 2019. None of those was accompanied by a recording, of course …
Good to see conductor Paul Daniel centre stage again – it feels like a long time since I have experienced his conducting, and he was in fine form, in control throughout and with a sure measure of Offenbach’s vernacular. Light strings were a delight, and tempo changes and other little ‘corners’ were expertly negotiated. Neither did Offenbach’s orchestration sound insubstantial or bass-light, as it sometimes can.
As is quite right for an overture to a piece such as this, themes tumble over one another: the Grand Duo between Raphaël and Zanetta, the Hunters’ Chorus, the Ronde de la Princesse, the Ronde des Pages and the final act’s Grand Galop. There is both lyricism (some loving oboe and flute contributions) and fluffy dynamism (beautifully propelled by Daniel). Just as the overture is expository, so is much of the first act as we learn not only the basis of the operetta’s idea, but we meet the characters themselves. An extra character here was Dame Harriet Walter, the narrator, an actress known for a sheaf of television series and whose commentary was invaluable in a concert performance such as this, especially one sans interval. (The opera was sung in French, with this English narration from Jeremy Sams.) The finale of Act I presents the winning of the lottery (‘The low life has won the high life’) – unfortunately here the chorus sounded rather subdued, but the soloists were full to bursting with élan.
The singers were all of a very high standard, but there were a couple of standouts. As Prince Raphaël, Virginie Verrez was simply outstanding, her voice full; as Zanetta herself, Anne-Catherine Gillet was marvellously strong, if not of perhaps equivalent musical character as Verrez; but it has to be said that their second act duet was sensational. The other standout performer was Josh Lovell’s Prince Casimir, strong, ardent, lyrical, everything a tenor in his position should be. The experienced French tenor Christophe Mortagne was fabulously entertaining as Trémolini (the one who gave up his job as a butler to become a circus performer), while bass Christophe Gay commanded the stage both dramatically and vocally as Cabriolo (the owner of the circus). Antoinette Dennefeld was luxury casting as Régina, and excelled, while Katia Ledoux, a name new to me, was a fine Paola, and tenor Loïc Félix made the absolute most of Sparadrap Le Directeur.
With Harriet Walter in commanding form, this was a real success. The real triumph was Offenbach’s though – a reminder that he is more than a Can-Can or two. Perhaps the performance acted as an invitation to further discoveries? I hope so.