L'Opéra Comique, Paris
François-Xavier Roth, Macha Makeieff and Jérôme Deschamps, Éric Huchet, Julie Boulianne, Daphné Touchais, Franck Leguérinel, Philippe Talbot, Francis Dudziak, Martial Defontaine, Fernand Bernardi, Löic Félix, Léonard Pezzino
Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique, Paris, France - 29 June 2011
With a few notable exceptions in the bel canto repertoire, comic opera, buffa, and particularly operetta, have never been taken seriously by lovers of the more traditional romantic, dramatic and tragic opera. Comedy, of course, shouldn’t be taken seriously, but it is nonetheless another aspect of life that opera is equally as good as representing, and it can be no less intelligent in this form, and no less incisive and satirical on social and political issues – sometimes even more so than earnest attempts at political commentary.
But let’s not get carried away too soon. Offenbach’s Les Brigands (1869) – one of the composer’s lesser known operettas, certainly not well known outside France – is first and foremost a sparkling, bright entertainment set to catchy tunes, full of humorous incident, intrigue and dressing-up in disguises. Notionally drawn from a work by Friedrich Schiller, it taps into a popular setting of bandits, smugglers and gypsies that would reach its peak in Bizet’s Carmen (1875). In fact, the first laugh of the evening at this production of Les Brigands at the Opéra Comique in Paris was raised from the outset, as the orchestra launched straight into the overture from Carmen before descending into chaos as the fake conductor’s ruse was discovered. It was an appropriate opening for an operetta that rather knowingly plays with the conventions of the artform, but not at all in a deprecating way.
The setting for Les Brigands is, after all, the geographically impossible location of the mountains that border Spain and Italy, where a political alliance is to be made between a Princess of the Court of Grenada and the Duke of Mantua. When the notorious brigand Falsacoppa and his gang get wind of a dowry of three million that comes with the alliance, they come up with a plan to capture the Spanish party and pass themselves off as the royal entourage, having substituted a picture of Falsacoppa’s daughter Fiorella (who just happened to recently have her portrait done in a fancy gown), delivered to Italy by a messenger. This scheme proves to be more complicated than they initially thought, as the brigands have to hold-up the staff at the inn where the Spanish royal party are due to arrive, disguise themselves as hoteliers, and then as carabinieri when they unexpectedly turn up, and finally as the Spanish, before making their way to Mantua.
It’s all played as a tremendous farce (every time a gun is fired in the air, it invariably brings down a bird, and on one occasion a rabbit), making great fun at the expense of the carabinieri whose loud boots ensure that they always arrive too late (“nous arrivons toujours trop tard” – the most famous and memorable tune of the opera, reprised at the end of each of the three acts), at the exaggerated Flamenco gestures and hissing speech of the Spanish (who insist on claiming that they are real Spanish, which distinguishes them from fake Spanish), and at the conventions of operetta comedy itself, with multiple disguises within disguises (and even one breeches role to complicate matters further). The staging in this production by Macha Makeieff and Jérôme Deschamps (a revival of their 1993 production for the Bastille), using old-style painted backdrops and generic costumes, was most effective in conveying the necessary comic tone. The stage was often populated by up to fifty people and by numerous live animals that includes donkeys and hens running around, yet it never appeared cluttered.
It’s easy to dismiss Les Brigands as low farcical entertainment, but the skill with which the situation in the operetta is arranged and performed (there are no great virtuoso singing performances here, but it’s played with verve and gusto by all the main roles), the drive of the score (full of can-can style jaunty rhythms), and the playing out of the clever libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (the librettists for Bizet’s Carmen), reveals great sophistication. Not only is it in tune with the political and social climate at the end of the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, making reference to the financial scandals of the time which has resonance today (emphasised at one point when the coffers are revealed to be empty with a disdainful interjection of ‘Banquiers!’), but Offenbach’s work, and that of the French opera-comique, has a quintessential French quality that one doesn’t find elsewhere, and which – judging by its reception at the Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique on a hot evening at the end of June – is still as thoroughly entertaining and accessible today.