Offenbach – La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris – December 16 2004

Conductor: Marc Minkowski. Production: Laurent Pelly. La Grande Duchesse: Felicity Lott. Wanda: Sandrine Piau. Fritz: Bernard Richter. Baron Puck: Franck Leguérinel. Prince Paul: Eric Huchet. General Boum: François Le Roux. Baron Grog: Boris Grappe. Népomuc: Alain Gabriel. Iza: Maryline Fallot. Olga: Blandine Staskiewiecz. Amélie: Aurelia Legay. Charlotte: Jennifer Tanni. The Notary: Christophe Grapperon.

I can see I’ll never make it as a professional critic. When a performance is exceptionally bad, reviewing it is relatively easy. But when it’s exceptionally good, I can’t find the words. After a great deal of head-scratching, I decided that “mesmerised” would do to describe me during the final act of La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein. I was mesmerised by Felicity Lott. In all my years of opera-going, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the expression “comic genius” so vividly made flesh. I wondered, as I sat there and watched her in her jauntily cocked top hat and amazone riding coat, if that was what the legendary music-hall comediennes of the Lautrec era were like. Every expression, gesture, movement, down to the batty Grand Duchess’s last eccentric twitch, was perfectly in place, seemingly natural - ars est celare artem - both hilarious and elegant in a uniquely Gallic way.

Yes, “mesmerised” would do for me. But to describe Felicity Lott, in the end nothing but French would suffice: “Quel chic! “Quel style!” “Quelle classe!” I thought, and so, apparently, did the French as they filed out of the theatre at the end, since those were the words on everyone’s lips. And “Quelle diction,” whether spoken or sung. I’d been told the role sat too low for her, but heard nothing to suggest it: Felicity Lott was in great form, great voice, and having a ball.

For those who don’t know, The Grand Duchess, who is no longer young, has a taste for drink, a nervous twitch, and a penchant for handsome young men (though, alas, at the end she’s forced to sigh that if she can’t have what she loves, she may as well love what she has: Prince Paul). It was understandable she should fall for Bernard Richter, whose Fritz brought to mind Anna Russell’s description of Siegfried: very tall, very handsome, very stupid. He was replacing Yann Beuron, and had a similar type of voice – a high French tenor – with more power than Beuron but a touch less style. If, with experience, he learns the style, he should be a good Werther one day.

The contrast with Felicity Lott was cruel to Sandrine Piau, who seemed neither to be in great voice nor to have any diction at all. The rest of the cast, however, were very strong indeed, both as singers and as comic actors. But this team knows its stuff. Minkowski, Pelly, Thomas, Scozzi, the Musiciens du Louvre, and various permutations on this cast had already scored three hits in a row in the French bouffe repertoire, with Orphée aux Enfers, Platée and La Belle Hélène, all available on DVD. It seemed unlikely they could do as well a fourth time, but they did. Those who’ve seen Felicity Lott in La Belle Hélène may find it hard to believe, but I’d say she was better still in La Grande Duchesse.

The opening of the production was a tease. The curtain rose on a WWI battlefield, trenches and all, strewn with soldiers in khaki. Dead. Was this, we were meant to wonder, going to be a gloomy, German-style Konzept production, telling us that Offenbach’s frivolous heroes were dancing on a volcano? It wouldn’t be the first time, as over the past 20 years productions have tended to fall either into that category – black leather and great-coats – or sheer slapstick. As one of the soldiers rose and staggered towards stage front, it looked that way. But then - pop! - he drew a cork from a bottle, waking his dozing comrades with a start. Not dead, after all – just dead drunk. From then on, it was a romp all the way: high, French comic style, a style so hard to achieve, rehearsed to perfection and always spot on.

Minkowski’s approach to Offenbach recalls Abbado in Rossini: respect of both the letter and the all-important spirit of the best available score; total mastery and perfect ensemble making possible a wealth of rhythmic freedom, nuance and shaping. The music sprang and swayed and bounced and leapt and laughed like Minkowski himself and his laughing musicians, visibly enjoying themselves in the pit (and occasionally donning saucepan and colander helmets when called for).

Can Offenbach possibly get better than this? Hard to believe it can. When, I wonder, will the DVD be out?

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