10 Jun 2014

Offenbach’s Vert-Vert at Garsington Opera

Is Garsington the new Glyndebourne, a Glyndebourne for the 21st Century?

Invidious perhaps to make the suggestion that Glyndebourne might be about to be knocked of its perch, especially when the opera in question — Vert-Vert — features a girl’s school in collective mourning for a dead parrot, Monty Python meets the Belles of St Trinians? Sacré bleu!

Certainly Garsington’s musical standards are not far short of Glyndebourne’s and the place itself, the London side of Oxford but far easier to reach for people in London, the Midlands or the West Country, has an intimacy which recalls Glyndebourne’s ‘old house’ in its heyday. Garsington also has a canny management in that the three operas featured this year — Fidelio, Vert-Vert and Cunning Little Vixen — appeal to three potentially different audiences, Fidelio to the audience for grand opera but one ideally suited to a smallish house, Vert-Vert to an audience unashamedly in search of entertainment and a good evening out — it is a hoot — in an English country house setting, and Cunning Little Vixen to an audience prepared to try something quite different yet appealing to children. Astute.

Under Douglas Boyd’s leadership Garsington also seems to have grasped two other important factors. Firstly, that if we are going to pay top dollar we do not want to be treated to the absurdities — designer opera may all be very well in European cities where going to the opera is no big deal and you can walk home afterwards but not here, thank you — and secondly the need for proper conductors (who wants to go to, say, Le Nozze di Figaro conducted by a repetiteur when one has heard it conducted by the likes of Sir Colin Davis or Otto Klemperer). In this respect next year’s Garsington points the way with three productions led by three conductors any of whom one would happily see in a major opera house.

Once popular, Offenbach’s operettas — there are some 90 of them — might almost qualify, at least in England, as a lost genre. They call not merely for excellent singers but also the lightest hand on the orchestral tiller. The conductor David Parry’s passion for them and his certainty of touch is manifest at every turn. Their plots are convoluted to say the least but so was Offenbach’s own life. Born in Cologne, the son of a Jewish cantor, Isaac Eberst who in his travels as an itinerant violinist also became known as “der Offenbacher” (the name of his home town), he decided to use this name for his children. He took his two sons to Paris where young Jakob became Jacques and his cello playing was sufficiently impressive to impress Cherubini. Despite a ban on foreign students, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, leaving after a year and becoming a cello sensation (he was dubbed “le Liszt du violoncelle”).

Vert_Vert_02.gifNaomi O’Connell as La Corilla with Quirijn de Lang as D’Arlange, Andrew Glover as Bergerac and Dragoons

In 1844 Jakob/Jacques married Herminie d’Alcain who was the step-daughter of an English impresario, John Mitchell. After a brief period back in Cologne following the 1848 revolution he was back in Paris, by now composing, but the doors of the Opéra-Comique were firmly closed to him (he had made the mistake of making fun of the great Meyerbeer) and he had the unusual but rather modern idea of starting a musical theatre himself. His opportunity came in the wake of the Great Exhibition when he acquired a tiny wooden built theatre in the grounds of the Exhibition called the Salle Lacaze and a licence to mount small-scale productions. “Ce petit spectacle d’été aurait pour titre les Bouffes-Parisiens” (ie. according to its licence the Bouffes-Parisiens was only intended as a temporary summer affair). Like Garsington, Offenbach had spotted a gap in the market since the Opéra-Comique had strayed from its original light opera purpose, putting on instead miniature grand operas. The rest, as they say, is history and Offenbach never looked back. Over the next 30 years he turned out some 90 operettas of which Orphée aux Enfers, La Vie Parisienne, La Belle Hélène and La Périchole (performed at Garsington 2 years ago) have endured. By a final delicious twist it was the much grander Les Contes d’Hoffmann — grand opera at its grandest — which he was working on at the time of his death by which he now best remembered.

Vert-Vert was first performed — ironically given its initial rejection of the composer — at the Opéra-Comique in 1869, the year before the Franco-Prussian war and, although it was performed in London in a much-reduced version at St. James’s Theatre in 1874, the current run of performances at Garsington is its first complete staging in England. Catch it if you can. It is a riot and deserves to transfer to the West End.

The plot, suitably Pythonesque given the dead parrot, is more or less impossible to précis. Suffice it to say we are in a girls convent school in mourning for its dead parrot, Vert-Vert. Cue general lamentations. The girls choose an innocent young man, Valentin, as a substitute parrot. Two of them, Bathilde and Emma, are secretly married to dashing young aristocratic dragoons, the Comte d’Arlange and the Chevalier de Bergerac. Mimi, another girl, is secretly in love with Valentin. There is a stern deputy headmistress who is also secretly married to the dancing master Baladon. Other characters include Binet, a gardener (here played with a broad Scots accent), La Corilla, a famous singer to whom to whom the originally goody two shoes Valentin clearly loses his innocence (in Manon Lescaut the Abbé Prévost describes it as “cheating the church of its dues”) and an assorted cast of dragoons and theatricals. Rather like a demented Brian Rix farce, mayhem ensues. All is happily resolved in the rousing final chorus (“A slurp of wine”) but in between there are some notably tender and affecting moments. This may be comic but it is comedy with a heart.

The production — a fine demonstration of ‘more is less’ but nonetheless with several coups de théâtre as when the back of the stage opens wide and the school/chateau is wheeled to the open space beyond with Garsington’s woods as a backdrop or another occasion when the rear of the stage opens to admit the barge named Hortense which bears Valentin away — was an object lesson in pointful economy. The costumes were gorgeous, colourful dragoons and an impromptu party of ‘theatricals’ in the second act, but above all as well as colourful they were entirely period appropriate.

Most importantly — and this is probably why the genre has never really caught on in Britain — in David Parry we had a conductor who, like Beecham, has the idiom at his fingertips, exuding panache, élan and élegance in equal measure (only French words will do). Beecham once talked of combining the maximum delicacy with the maximum virility, a comment which might well have applied to the Garsington orchestra on this occasion with its polished strings, an excellent first clarinet (Peter Sparks) in his several solos and a notably secure horn section. The score absolutely fizzed along.

As far as the singers are concerned a large cast with no obvious weak links was headed by the tenor Robert Murray as Valentin/Vert-Vert. a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera with a superb voice (he has sung Tamino in Magic Flute and one can imagine him as excellent in the role), and by a diminutive but wonderfully feisty (shades of Ethel Merman) Welsh soprano, Fflur Wyn, in the role of Mimi. Other notable successes were the Dutch Quirijn de Lang and Andrew Glover as the two dragoon officers and Geoffrey Dolton as the Dancing Master giving a gloriously OTT display of the Pavane, the Gavotte and the Minuet (Yes, he can dance too).

One small quibble. David Parry’s translation into English is of course essential if a non French audience is to capture the piece’s absurdist, madcap quality and its various nuances. The translation’s rhyming couplets do sometimes sit inelegantly though with the actual musical line, occasionally giving it a MacGonegal-esque quality. However, I for one am more than happy to put up with the occasional infelicity in the interests of the many LOL moments. In short, a bonne bouche — even a canapé — and an undiluted triomphe from first note to last.

Douglas Cooksey

Cast and production information:

Valentin later called Vert-Vert: Robert Murray; Baladon dancing master: Geoffrey Dolton; Binet gardener: Mark Wilde; Bellecour singer: Alessandro Fisher; Le Comte d’Arlange officer of dragoons: Quirijn de Lang; Le Chevalier de Bergerac officer of dragoons: Andrew Glover; Friquet dragoon: Henry Neill; Maniquet theatre director: Jack Gogarty; La Corilla singer: Naomi O’Connell; Mademoiselle Paturelle assistant headmistress: Yvonne Howard; Mimi schoolgirl: Fflur Wyn; Bathilde schoolgirl: Raphaela Papadakis; Emma schoolgirl: Katie Bray; Conductor: David Parry; Director: Martin Duncan; Designer: Francis O’Connor; Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson; Choreographer: Ewan Jones; Assistant conductor: John Andrews; Assistant director: Matthew Eberhardt; Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus of schoolgirls, soldiers, actors and actresses.