Offenbach’s Vert-Vert at Garsington Opera

Invidious perhaps to make the suggestion that Glyndebourne might be about to be
knocked of its perch, especially when the opera in question — Vert-Vert —
features a girl’s school in collective mourning for a dead parrot, Monty
Python meets the Belles of St Trinians? SacrÈ bleu!

Certainly Garsington’s musical standards are not far short of
Glyndebourne’s and the place itself, the London side of Oxford but far easier
to reach for people in London, the Midlands or the West Country, has an
intimacy which recalls Glyndebourne’s ‘old house’ in its heyday.
Garsington also has a canny management in that the three operas featured this
year — Fidelio, Vert-Vert and Cunning Little Vixen
— appeal to three potentially different audiences, Fidelio to the
audience for grand opera but one ideally suited to a smallish house,
Vert-Vert to an audience unashamedly in search of entertainment and a
good evening out — it is a hoot — in an English country house setting, and
Cunning Little Vixen to an audience prepared to try something quite
different yet appealing to children. Astute.

Under Douglas Boyd’s leadership Garsington also seems to have grasped two
other important factors. Firstly, that if we are going to pay top dollar we do
not want to be treated to the absurdities — designer opera may all be very
well in European cities where going to the opera is no big deal and you can
walk home afterwards but not here, thank you — and secondly the need for
proper conductors (who wants to go to, say, Le Nozze di Figaro
conducted by a repetiteur when one has heard it conducted by the likes of Sir
Colin Davis or Otto Klemperer). In this respect next year’s Garsington points
the way with three productions led by three conductors any of whom one would
happily see in a major opera house.

Once popular, Offenbach’s operettas — there are some 90 of them —
might almost qualify, at least in England, as a lost genre. They call not
merely for excellent singers but also the lightest hand on the orchestral
tiller. The conductor David Parry’s passion for them and his certainty of
touch is manifest at every turn. Their plots are convoluted to say the least
but so was Offenbach’s own life. Born in Cologne, the son of a Jewish cantor,
Isaac Eberst who in his travels as an itinerant violinist also became known as
“der Offenbacher” (the name of his home town), he decided to use this name
for his children. He took his two sons to Paris where young Jakob became
Jacques and his cello playing was sufficiently impressive to impress Cherubini.
Despite a ban on foreign students, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire,
leaving after a year and becoming a cello sensation (he was dubbed “le Liszt
du violoncelle”).

Vert_Vert_02.gifNaomi O’Connell as La Corilla with Quirijn de Lang as D’Arlange, Andrew Glover as Bergerac and Dragoons

In 1844 Jakob/Jacques married Herminie d’Alcain who was the step-daughter
of an English impresario, John Mitchell. After a brief period back in Cologne
following the 1848 revolution he was back in Paris, by now composing, but the
doors of the OpÈra-Comique were firmly closed to him (he had made the mistake
of making fun of the great Meyerbeer) and he had the unusual but rather modern
idea of starting a musical theatre himself. His opportunity came in the wake of
the Great Exhibition when he acquired a tiny wooden built theatre in the
grounds of the Exhibition called the Salle Lacaze and a licence to mount
small-scale productions. “Ce petit spectacle d’ÈtÈ aurait pour titre les
Bouffes-Parisiens” (ie. according to its licence the Bouffes-Parisiens was
only intended as a temporary summer affair). Like Garsington, Offenbach had
spotted a gap in the market since the OpÈra-Comique had strayed from its
original light opera purpose, putting on instead miniature grand operas. The
rest, as they say, is history and Offenbach never looked back. Over the next 30
years he turned out some 90 operettas of which OrphÈe aux Enfers, La Vie
Parisienne, La Belle HÈlËne and La PÈrichole (performed at Garsington 2
years ago) have endured. By a final delicious twist it was the much grander Les
Contes d’Hoffmann — grand opera at its grandest — which he was working on
at the time of his death by which he now best remembered.

Vert-Vert was first performed — ironically given its initial
rejection of the composer — at the OpÈra-Comique in 1869, the year before
the Franco-Prussian war and, although it was performed in London in a
much-reduced version at St. James’s Theatre in 1874, the current run of
performances at Garsington is its first complete staging in England. Catch it
if you can. It is a riot and deserves to transfer to the West End.

The plot, suitably Pythonesque given the dead parrot, is more or less
impossible to prÈcis. Suffice it to say we are in a girls convent school in
mourning for its dead parrot, Vert-Vert. Cue general lamentations. The girls
choose an innocent young man, Valentin, as a substitute parrot. Two of them,
Bathilde and Emma, are secretly married to dashing young aristocratic dragoons,
the Comte d’Arlange and the Chevalier de Bergerac. Mimi, another girl, is
secretly in love with Valentin. There is a stern deputy headmistress who is
also secretly married to the dancing master Baladon. Other characters include
Binet, a gardener (here played with a broad Scots accent), La Corilla, a famous
singer to whom to whom the originally goody two shoes Valentin clearly loses
his innocence (in Manon Lescaut the AbbÈ PrÈvost describes it as “cheating
the church of its dues”) and an assorted cast of dragoons and theatricals.
Rather like a demented Brian Rix farce, mayhem ensues. All is happily resolved
in the rousing final chorus (“A slurp of wine”) but in between there are
some notably tender and affecting moments. This may be comic but it is comedy
with a heart.

The production — a fine demonstration of ‘more is less’ but
nonetheless with several coups de thȂtre as when the back of the stage opens
wide and the school/chateau is wheeled to the open space beyond with
Garsington’s woods as a backdrop or another occasion when the rear of the
stage opens to admit the barge named Hortense which bears Valentin away — was
an object lesson in pointful economy. The costumes were gorgeous, colourful
dragoons and an impromptu party of ‘theatricals’ in the second act, but
above all as well as colourful they were entirely period appropriate.

Most importantly — and this is probably why the genre has never really
caught on in Britain — in David Parry we had a conductor who, like Beecham,
has the idiom at his fingertips, exuding panache, Èlan and Èlegance in equal
measure (only French words will do). Beecham once talked of combining the
maximum delicacy with the maximum virility, a comment which might well have
applied to the Garsington orchestra on this occasion with its polished strings,
an excellent first clarinet (Peter Sparks) in his several solos and a notably
secure horn section. The score absolutely fizzed along.

As far as the singers are concerned a large cast with no obvious weak links
was headed by the tenor Robert Murray as Valentin/Vert-Vert. a Jette Parker
Young Artist at the Royal Opera with a superb voice (he has sung Tamino in
Magic Flute and one can imagine him as excellent in the role), and by a
diminutive but wonderfully feisty (shades of Ethel Merman) Welsh soprano, Fflur
Wyn, in the role of Mimi. Other notable successes were the Dutch Quirijn de
Lang and Andrew Glover as the two dragoon officers and Geoffrey Dolton as the
Dancing Master giving a gloriously OTT display of the Pavane, the Gavotte and
the Minuet (Yes, he can dance too).

One small quibble. David Parry’s translation into English is of course
essential if a non French audience is to capture the piece’s absurdist,
madcap quality and its various nuances. The translation’s rhyming couplets do
sometimes sit inelegantly though with the actual musical line, occasionally
giving it a MacGonegal-esque quality. However, I for one am more than happy to
put up with the occasional infelicity in the interests of the many LOL moments.
In short, a bonne bouche — even a canapÈ — and an
undiluted triomphe from first note to last.

Douglas Cooksey

Cast and production information:

Valentin later called Vert-Vert: Robert Murray; Baladon dancing
master: Geoffrey Dolton; Binet gardener: Mark Wilde; Bellecour singer:
Alessandro Fisher; Le Comte d’Arlange officer of dragoons: Quirijn de Lang;
Le Chevalier de Bergerac officer of dragoons: Andrew Glover; Friquet dragoon:
Henry Neill; Maniquet theatre director: Jack Gogarty; La Corilla singer: Naomi
O’Connell; Mademoiselle Paturelle assistant headmistress: Yvonne Howard; Mimi
schoolgirl: Fflur Wyn; Bathilde schoolgirl: Raphaela Papadakis; Emma
schoolgirl: Katie Bray; Conductor: David Parry; Director: Martin Duncan;
Designer: Francis O’Connor; Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson; Choreographer:
Ewan Jones; Assistant conductor: John Andrews; Assistant director: Matthew
Eberhardt; Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus of schoolgirls, soldiers,
actors and actresses.

image_description=Robert Murray as Valentin and Fflur Wyn as Mimi [Photo by Mike Hoban for Garsington Opera]
product_title=Offenbach’s Vert-Vert at Garsington Opera
product_by=A review by Douglas Cooksey
product_id=Above: Robert Murray as Valentin and Fflur Wyn as Mimi

Photos by Mike Hoban for Garsington Opera