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Recordings

Jacques Offenbach: La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein
30 Mar 2006

OFFENBACH: La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein

Los Angeles Opera opened the 2005-6 season with a staging of Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein, directed by Hollywood’s Garry Marshall.

Jacques Offenbach: La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein

Felicity Lott, Sandrine Piau, Yann Beuron, Franck Leguérinel, Eric Huchet, François Le Roux, Boris Grappe, Alain Gabriel, Maryline Fallot, Blandine Staskiewicz, Aurélia Legay, Christophe Grapperon, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, Chœur des Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski (dir.)

Virgin Classics 310239 9 [DVD]

$37.98  Click to buy

Those who attended the performances without any knowledge of the operetta (retitled The Grand Duchess) probably left hoping to have no further acquaintance. Crass, manic, forced—many an antonym for “funny” serve to describe Marshall’s effort, despite the efforts of a more than capable cast (Frederica von Stade, Paul Groves, Rod Gilfrey).

Your reviewer abandoned his subscription seat at intermission. Now comes a DVD of Offenbach’s work recorded in December 2004, from Laurent Pelly and Jean-Pierre Brossmann, the team that produced the brilliant production of La Belle Helene which delighted audiences in Santa Fe two seasons ago and provided Susan Graham with a star turn encompassing all her gifts. While this Grand Duchesse doesn’t reach the same giddy heights as that Helene, as compared to the Los Angeles production, it soars on fresh breezes of true wit and charm.

The production begins with a slight miscalculation—a dully-colored battlefield with dead soldiers strewn about. As the overture begins to bop along with cheerful spirit, the ostensible corpses rise, pour some wine, and begin to exhibit the liveliness that will dominate the rest of the evening. So with that nod to “seriousness” out of the way, the creators can go on to revel in the silliness of the operetta without trying to suggest that a true anti-war satire lies at the heart of the piece. Perhaps a more colorful set could have brought even more cheer to the goings-on, but considering the abuse of primary colors the Los Angeles Opera production perpetrated, erring on the side of plainness is acceptable.

Pelly’s handsome costumes for the Duchess offer the most visual impact, as she is frequently the only character swathed in color. Felicity Lott lacks Susan Graham’s physical beauty and sweet-toned vocalism; she has her own charisma, however. She offers a more comically pointed performance, portraying a hard-drinking, even lonesome Duchess desperate for male companionship—well, younger, studly male companionship.

Yann Beuron, the Duchess’s object of misdirected passion, doesn’t exactly cut a studly figure but his lovely light tenor makes him attractive enough. Sandrine Piau sings Wanda, his true love, and this rising star is so appealing in every way that no doubt exists about Fritz giving into the Duchess’s demands. Not with Piau’s Wanda around.

Three comic characters complicate the plot: a baron, a prince, and a general. Frank Leguerinel’s Baron Puck steals the show, with his flamboyant hand gestures and bizarre hair: think of pigtails sticking out of either side of his head. Veteran François le Roux, who was also in the Santa Fe Helene, gives the pompous General Boum all the comic flair required, and Eric Huchet sacrifices his dignity for an almost frighteningly fey prince Paul.

Marc Minkowski has the full command of Offenbach’s demands for a feather-light approach to the jaunty rhythms and tuneful patter. He loves singers too, and they reward him with impeccable performances. Act two begins with a lovely quartet for four female assistants to the duchess, and the singers effect a most lovely diminuendo toward the end. Such classy touches add sparkle to the entire performance.

Virgin Classics skimps on the packaging in one respect, with a slim booklet that merely repeats the credits already on the back, although it offers a few more photos. On the other hand, the company spreads the opera over two discs. Buyers beware: don’t pull out the first disc visible when opening the case and pop it into your player—that’s acts two and three. Disc One hides waiting beneath the booklet.

Here’s hoping for more Offenbach from Pelly and Minkowski. Their Helene and Duchesse make clear that Offenbach’s hits can still hold the stage and entertain the heck out of a contemporary audience. But keep Garry Marshall away…

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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