Offenbach's “La Princesse de Trébizonde” from Opera Rara

A fine release, pretty much beyond criticism. Fabulous

Offenbach's “La Princesse de Trébizonde” from Opera Rara

The live performance of Offenbach's La Princesse de Trébizonde at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank in September 2022 was utter delight; it was given in conjunction with this recording (made in the same month, but at London's Henry Wood Hall). Here's what I said about the concert performance:

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 Trebizonde – 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.

Katia Ledoux, Harriet Walter, Paul Daniel, Anne-Catherine Gillet and Virginie Verrez © Russell Duncan

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.

It is worth noting that Opera Rara’s latest release is the first studio recording of musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck’s new critical edition of the three-act Paris version from December 1869. It also includes, asana appendix, previously unpublished extracts from the original two-act Baden-Baden version first heard in July 1869 which were found fortuitously by Keck in a ‘magic wardrobe’ within the Offenbach family estate.

This is a handsome, boxed production, as one might expect from Opera Rara, complete with full libretto and English translation. Here's the complete set, including appendix, with timings of the various tracks in the online YouTube comments:

Regina's chanson “Quand je suis sue la corde raide” utter delight, sung here by the wonderful Antoinette Dennefeld:

Antoinette Dennefeld, photo © Russel Dunacn

But perhaps the core of this performance is those moments of Offenbach's lightness at speed, especially in ensemble. Try this, part of the act I finale, “Treize, 'C’est frieze” (featuring Trémolini, Cabriolo, Régina and Paola):

.. and contrast that with the lyrical sheer beauty of the finale’s final panel, “Adieu à la baraque,” preceding the final stretto on “Adieu baraque héréditaire”:

A quick shout-out to the LPO's guest leader, Ania Safonova,for her solos in the act II Entr’acte; the scene for the second act's shenanigans (which been in post-euphoria boredom and progress to the romance between Prince Raphael and the Princess of Trébizonde) is perfectly set:

One has to acknowledge the excellence also of the chorus (the Opera Rara chorus). Just listen to this hunting chorus in act II (Prince Raphael was on a deer hunt). This surely is up there with Weber’s Freischütz hunters!:

The Duo between Raphaël and Zanetta (“La voilà”) is utterly delightful. Remember Raphaël is a trouser role, sung by Virginie Verrez:

.. and you can hearJosh Lovell as Prince Casimir in strong, almost heroic voice, here, in the “Coupets de la Canne” - just listen to that ringing final note!:

The third act launches the second disc, and we head towards the final triple wedding. En route is the most magical Romance for Raphaël, “Fleur qui se fane avant d'éclore” (Flower that fades before blooming):

The libretto, by Charles Nutter and Étienne Tréfeu, is spot-on, and dialogue is edited by Jeremy Sams. It all culminates in a terrific act III finale, full of zest.

Offenbach's tale of a community's fortuitous rags-to-riches, and their subsequent yearning for their previous life of frivolity, is brilliantly told, both by Offenbach and by this performance. The recording itself is a touch spotlit, but it is for a reason (it is a very different experience sonically than in the Queen Elizabeth Hall), more than one might think - this is a conscious attempt to reproduce the acoustic of the Bouffes-Parisiens, where the Paris version was premiered on December 7, 1869 (the appendices from the original version come from the premiere on July 31, 1869 at the Theatre Baden-Baden).

The appendix contains eight pieces from the original, Baden-Baden, two act version of Trébizonde. A fairly extended chorus and scene, “Fêtons l’anniversaire” was a casualty (in that it didn't make the later cut), but is suave and debonaire. Utterly charming, terse is some silvery writing for his voices together:

Les Couplets de Zanetta (“Pardon Papa”) that follows is well despatched by Anna Catherine Gillet. There is some nice rhythmic play by Offenbach in this number:

Anne Catherine Gillet, photo © Russell Duncan

The Quartet, “Oh, les belles femmes!” finds Sparadrap (Prince Raphaël”s tutor, sung by Loïc Félix), Prince Casimir, Régina and Paola in perfect accord, with Daniel bringing real understanding to the orchestral contribution (particularly a slightly ominous bass figure).

Despite a fabulous entr'acte, a chorus and ensemble and a duo with chorus, the utter delight of the second act is the “Trio du melon” (which means what it sounds like). “Que chest bon le melon / Le melon, quel arôme!” they merrily sing ('they' being Régina and Trémolini: How good melon tastes / Melon smells so good!). Only Offenbach, surly, could have done this so well, injecting surprising pathos (given the subject matter). I love the woodwind cover tones to the melodies proper:

A fine release, pretty much beyond criticism. Fabulous.