Tuesday 4 March 2014

Offenbach - La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein

Jacques Offenbach - La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2013

Cyril Englebert, Stefano Mazzonis Di Pralafera, Patricia Fernandez, Sébastien Droy, Lionel Lhote, Sophie Junker, Jean-Philippe Corre, Giovanni Iovino, Patrick Delcour, Roger Joakim

Culturebox Live Internet Streaming - 27 December 2013

With their witty entertaining comic plots and an abundance of catchy tunes, it's easy to underestimate the cleverness of Jacques Offenbach's popular operettas. It's also easy to overlook the historical relevance of the works and the daring of the satire contained in them. A raucous opéra bouffe written for the Paris Exhibition of 1867 just three years before the Franco-Prussian war, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein for example not only played to the crowned heads of Europe - Napoleon III, Alexander II, the Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austria and Otto von Bismark of Prussia among them - but Offenbach's comic operetta even made fun of them in this outrageous military satire.

Historical context aside, Offenbach's works are still capable today of striking home with contemporary relevance. There's no doubt much that could be made here of a war being manufactured by an influential Baron just so that a Duchess can amuse herself organising her own military regiment, causing havoc in the ranks in the process by promoting her favourite above those with merited rank. This however is not a route followed by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, the company's Artistic Director Stefano Mazzonis Di Pralafera preferring to show that La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is above all else a fine example of the kind of comic entertainment that Offenbach excelled in producing. Moving far away not only from the historical context of the work but also significantly rewriting characters and situations, the war in this version of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is a kind of Masterchef competition.

Here, in the Opéra Royal de Wallonie production then, Fritz is a humble dishwasher in the kitchen of a restaurant owned managed by Grand Duchess of Gérolstein. The Duchess does indeed organise her kitchen like a military operation and taking something of a fancy to the handsome dishwasher, promotes him to super-chef over the head of Chief Chef Boum. Boum is outraged and goes into competition working for a rival restaurant, but Prince Paul - recast here as the restaurant sommelier - is also extremely put out, since he's been trying to get the Duchess to marry him for ages. Fritz is a bit dumb however and doesn't realise the nature of the Duchess' intentions, so when he prepares to marry his beloved Wanda, the Duchess joins the aggrieved conspirators who are planning to launch a counter-attack against the new superchef who has cunningly won the 'Guerre des Chefs' competition through the use of strong alcohol.

There's evidently then quite a bit of rewriting here of Henry Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy's libretto for Offenbach's comedy, and it extends beyond the spoken dialogue sections through to the songs as well. It certainly stretches the intentions of the original material and dilutes the satire of the kind of situations and personal resentments that can lead to war and have much more serious consequences. Arguably however, particularly since there's not much to be gained nowadays from satirising the Franco-Prussian war, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein must work primarily as a comedy. Despite the cleverness of a concept that is ripe for satire - presumably TV cookery shows and competitions are as popular in Belgium as they are in the UK - and some witty modern touches that get a laugh (recasting Baron Grog as Monsieur Redbul, for example), it doesn't quite come across as all that funny however without the bite of the military satire.

As it stands however, the Opéra Royal de Wallonie production of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is nonetheless deliciously light and entertaining. The production design is stylish in the way that is typical of how Stefano Mazzonis Di Pralafera treats such opéra comique material. Considerable attention is paid to developing distinct characters and personalities, good use is made of the space of the stage, with plenty of comic interplay, background gags and dancers providing constant movement and visual entertainment. With all the jaunty Offenbach melodies, boosted here with military-like marches, it's all entirely in keeping with the nature of the work and there's never a dull moment. There's even a 'Can-Can' thrown in for good measure at the end here.

There's also a special kind of singing required for opéra comique that requires deft performers capable of good comic interplay and timing, as well as a certain fleetness and brightness for the delivery of the often rapid-fire dialogue and fast rhythms. Sébastien Droy handles this all marvellously as the dumb but likeable Fritz, his exchanges with Boum, the Duchess and Wanda are all spot on. Patricia Fernandez is a little bit breathless and unsteady in the face of such challenges and struggles through the last act, but she has loads of personality as the Grande-Duchesse and carries the role well. The supporting roles are hard to fault with good turns from Giovanni Iovino as the speech-impaired Paul, Lionel Lhote as the self-important Boum and from Sophie Junker as a bright and vivacious Wanda.

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie production of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein was streamed live on 27th December 2013 and is still available for viewing on the Culturebox website for France Television. There are no region restrictions but the subtitles are in French only.  They do however they extend to the revised spoken dialogue as well as the "tunes".