Hervé (Louis-Auguste-Florimond Ronger) - Mam’zelle Nitouche

Théâtre Marigny, Paris, Wednesday June 12 2019

Conductor: Christophe Grapperon. Production, sets, costumes: Pierre-André Weitz. Denise de Flavigny, Mam’zelle Nitouche: Lara Neumann. Célestin, Floridor: Damien Bigourdan. La Supérieure, Corinne: Miss Knife. Le Vicomte Fernand de Champlâtreux: Samy Camps. Le Major, comte de Château-Gibus: Eddie Chignara. Loriot: Olivier Py. La Tourière, Sylvia: Sandrine Sutter. Le Directeur de théâtre: Antoine Philippot. Lydie: Clémentine Bourgoin. Gimblette: Ivanka Moizan. Gustave, officier: Pierre Lebon. Robert, officier: David Ghilardi. Les Frivolités Parisiennes.

The vocation of the Palazzetto Bru Zane – Centre de Musique Romantique Française is the rediscovery and international promotion of the French musical heritage of the long nineteenth century (1780-1920). Its interests range from chamber music to the orchestral, sacred and operatic repertories, not forgetting the lighter genres characteristic of the ‘esprit français’ of the nineteenth century (chanson, opéra-comique, operetta). The Centre was inaugurated in 2009 and has its headquarters in a Venetian palazzo dating from 1695 which was specially restored for this purpose. It is an emanation of the Fondation Bru.

(From the Palazzetto Bru Zane's trilingual website, which even includes its own classical radio station playing romantic-era rarities.)

Over the past few years the Palazzetto has been doing a great job of restoring, reviving, performing, recording and issuing, in smart, hardback book formats with gold-embossed covers and erudite notes, half-forgotten works from the French 19th century repertoire. It seems almost too good to be true that they're now bringing the same care and attention to Opéra Bouffe as they tour it round some of the many period settings dotted about the country. In Paris, their Bouffes season is located in the recently restored and reopened Théâtre Marigny, once a panorama built by Garnier on the site, in the manicured gardens of the lower Champs Elysées, of Offenbach's own Bouffes-Parisiens, transformed in the 1890s into a theatre.

I had a fun afternoon there in January this year at a matinee performance of Offenbach's Les Deux Aveugles and Hervé's Le Compositeur toqué. The fun continued this week with a breathless and breathtaking romp through Hervé's equally crackpot Mam’zelle Nitouche in a production that was physically a whirlwind of manic action and visually a kaleidoscope of Franco-French clichés in shades of red, white and blue (or bleu-blanc-rouge as they say here).

The plot is simple and farcical. Célestin, organist and music teacher at the Hirondelles convent, swaps his cassock every night for a stage costume and becomes Floridor (Hervé's double?), a composer of light music and lover of the star, Corinne. His pupils include the young nun Denise de Flavigny, whose religious vocation is flagging and who has secretly learnt all of his latest vaudeville scores. When Corinne flounces out of the show, Denise, renamed Mam'zelle Nitouche, steps in, scores a hit and seduces (in her new guise) her own husband-to-be, designated in an arranged marriage and whom she has only 'met' behind a screen in the convent and believes to be an old fool, the handsome, dashing young dragoon lieutenant Fernand de Champlâtreux.

Hervé by Gill
The production, by Pierre-André Weitz, best known as Olivier Py's set and costume designer for the past 30 years (including, therefore, Dialogues des Carmélites), played up the plot's potential for travesti, starting with the curtain. Behind old-fashioned footlights garnished with a stuffed rooster hung a version of Delacroix' La Liberté guidant le peuple in which the guns were replaced by bouquets, Notre Dame was joined on the horizon by the Eiffel Tower, and Liberty, with stars on her nipples, wore a cheesy grin. From then on, in a festival of eighties to nineties naughtiness, there were can-can girls, there were acrobatic royal-blue dragoons in plumed képis (sometimes with tutus over their trousers), and one character was half of each, depending on which side you saw. There were showgirls with their trucs à plumes, a traditional, white-faced clown with three spikes of hair and a magnificent, parti-coloured red-and-black sequinned costume with baggy breches and silk stockings. There were nuns, of course, and a starry-haloed Sainte Nitouche in suspenders worthy of Pierre et Gilles. Of the three rôles taken by Olivier Py two - the mother superior in pebble glasses and Corinne, with a mountainous cleavage and curly blond wig topped with fire-engine-red ostrich feathers - were in drag. The set had static wings with swing doors (so people could shoot across the stage from door to door) and a central, revolving rotunda enabling quick transformations from the nunnery with its organ loft to a theatre to a railway station (the old Montparnasse) to Paris by night (complete with Moulin Rouge and 'apache' dancers) and back again.

The acting and dancing, while precision-regulated with every nod, wink and grimace perfectly in place, were whipped up to a level of sustained frenzy I've rarely encountered. Like the Gatling-gun declamation ('The French think shouting is acting,' says a friend of mine), it took some time to adjust to at the start. 'Quelle énergie !' said my neighbour, wide-eyed. Each personality was boldly delineated: I hadn't seen such a rogues' gallery of distinct and memorable characters on stage since Bob Wilson's Dreigroschenoper at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, radiating wicked charm. Yet the frantic pace of dancing and leaping about, acting and singing (in a variety of accents and styles) was kept up from beginning to end and, at the end the breathless audience could only assume the whole troupe were exhausted.

What's more - including Py - they could sing. I'm told Damien Bigourdan, whose tortured Célestin, with spivvy co-respondent shoes under his cassock, verged on the psycopathic, has sung Cassio. Lara Neumann and Samy Camps had youthful enthusiasm and charming, light lyric voices and clear diction perfect for this repertoire and I hope they'll do lots, lots more. The whole cast was flawless and flawlessly supported from the pit by a real, not recorded, ensemble, and the curtain calls, of which there were many, were well deserved: this was the best opéra bouffe I've seen since Pelly's enduringly memorable Offenbach series. About time!

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