Opéra Comique, Paris, 2013
Laurence Equilbey, Michel Fau, Julie Fuchs, Jean-François Lapointe, Julien Behr, Eva Ganizate, Ronan Debois, Cécile Achille, Jean-Claude Sarragosse, Guillemette Laurens, Patrick Kabongo Mubenga, François Rougier, Bernadette Lafont, Michel Fau, Jérôme Deschamps
Culturebox - 20 February 2013
Laurence Equilbey and Michel Fau, the musical and theatrical directors of this production of Ciboulette for the Opéra Comique clearly understand and manage to get across essential purpose of Renaldo Hahn's 1923 opérette. Above all else, Ciboulette is a comedy that celebrates a specific period, or perhaps two periods - its own time and the period of the Belle Époque.
The settings and considerations of the time and the audience for which it was written are critical for the whole character of the work. Reynaldo Hahn was well-known for his French music-hall melodies, and in many respects Ciboulette was a home-grown response to the American musical comedy, particularly those that portrayed the Belle Époque period less authentically. Ciboulette, hardly any less idealistically, celebrates the innocent beauty of the age with its depictions of the Les Halles market in Paris, with the countryside (or at least the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers which was the countryside back then), and the sets consequently look like period sepia-tinted monochrome photos with splashes of hand-colouration.
The music for Ciboulette, conducted with a delicate lightness by Laurence Equilbey, is also authentically music-hall in style for a plot that is as frothy as they come. It concerns the romantic complications of Ciboulette, a young market-seller at Les Halles. Her aunt and uncle in Aubervilliers are pushing the young woman to marry, but the decision is not an easy one for Ciboulette who is engaged to no less than eight suitors. Playing for time, Ciboulette announces her engagement to a young man she has discovered hiding in her market cart, Antonin de Mourmelon, a millionaire who has just been jilted by his mistress, the glamorous and flirty Zénobie.
The path to true love in a comic operetta is of course rather more complicated than that. The plot to Ciboulette involves a gypsy prediction of three signs (which are revealed in amusing ways) that will ensure that Antonin is the right man for Ciboulette, and it even goes ot the lengths of Ciboulette taking to the stage in the guise of a Spanish singer, Conchita Ciboulero. Unable to resist the strange allure of this beautiful woman to whom he confesses his love, Antonin nonetheless reveals his intention to remain true to the memory of Ciboulette. The signs fall into place - after many comic interludes and songs - and all ends well.
Ciboulette is in some ways a throwback to the golden age of the opéra-comique (with a few references to Favart, Offenbach, Meilhac and Halévy thrown into the libretto), but despite its knowing wit and cleverness, it's not really a pastiche, but clearly intended to be light, entertaining and filled with tunes for the enjoyment of the audience of its own time. There's a self-awareness then, but that was there even in Offenbach's time, and its a characteristic that gives the opera a sense of sophistication for all its lightness. Self-awareness, but not self-importance. It's not looking to art or posterity, but to present the very best kind of musical entertainment for its audience.
Ciboulette does that with a certain degree of charm, even if it's not quite as smart and funny as the best Offenbach. The music hall melodies and songs, despite Hahn's reputation, didn't strike me as being particularly memorable, while the comedy relies heavily on repetition. It seems to work to the principle that if you keep repeating phrases and words, they will eventually just become funny. On the other hand, much of the success of this type of work lies in the hands of the performers, and it must be played with the right amount of verve and comic exaggeration.
Alongside the beautiful set designs and lighting that give the work a delightful and appropriate sense of period charm and innocence, it is indeed in the performances that really bring Ciboulette to life. Julie Fuchs doesn't have a big operatic voice, but one that is pure, sweet and lyrical with just a touch of the French music hall tradition. Julien Behr is indeed a perfect match as Antonin de Mourmelon, but there is fine singing also here from Jean-François Lapointe as Duparquet. It's the secondary comic acting turns that are just as critical here as the singing roles, and those are very capably handled. Quintessentially French, Ciboulette is the kind of work that the Opéra Comique excels in producing as the home of French lyric theatre.
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