Opera Rara – Offenbach’s La Princesse de Trébizonde – Anne-Catherine Gillet, Virginie Verrez & Josh Lovell; LPO conducted by Paul Daniel

La Princesse de Trébizonde – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Étienne Tréfeu and Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter [performed with an English narration adapted from the libretto by Jeremy Sams; sung in French with English surtitles]

Zanetta – Anne-Catherine Gillet
Prince Raphaël – Virginie Verrez
Cabriolo – Christophe Gay
Régina – Antoinette Dennefeld
Prince Casimir – Josh Lovell
Paola – Katia Ledoux
Trémolini – Christophe Mortagne
Sparadrap / Le Director – Loïc Félix
Narrator – Harriet Walter
Pages – Inna Husieva, Monica McGhee, Aleksandra Chernenko, Siân Griffiths, Beth Moxon & Joanna Harries

Opera Rara Chorus

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Paul Daniel

3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 16 September, 2022
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Offenbach’s La Princesse de Trébizonde was a notable success at its premiere in 1869, until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussiona War the succeeding year. Despite equal acclaim around Europe and further afield, however, the operetta never really sustained a place on the stage after Offenbach’s death. This concert performance coincidentally follows hard on the heels of a production by New Sussex Opera (which toured that county and to the Royal College of Music) last year. But whilst acknowledging Opera Rara’s usual scholarly and untiring efforts in rescuing such obscure nineteenth-century repertoire as this and a dazzling musical performance from Paul Daniel and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, it is hard to see that they established any claims in the case of this work to be revived any more frequently than it is generally encountered today.

Jeremy Sams’s adaptation of the spoken dialogue as a narration to summarise the action utilises a few weak jokes and a somewhat crass characterisation of the drama as arising from the collision between the two worlds of the ‘aristos’ or ‘poshies’ on the one hand, and the ‘low life’ of the circus troupe on the other. The narration’s one virtue – which, ironically, it acknowledged itself – is to keep the overall performance brief (about one-and-three-quarter hours, without an interval). As the singers take no part directly in the narrative, but only emerge to sing their numbers, the result is a rather deracinated drama since they have little chance to develop as characters in action, which is already a slender enough prospect in this work.

The plot is rather like a conflation of the Cinderella story with that of the scenario for Coppélia (also written by Nuitter, the year after Offenbach’s operetta, as it happens) or the Olympia episode that appears in Offenbach’s later The Tales of Hoffmann. At a fair, Prince Raphaël falls in love with a wax work doll, designated as the eponymous Princess of Trebizond, but which is actually impersonated by the living Zanetta, one of the circus troupe. His surly father, Prince Casimir, is not pleased about that until it is revealed that Casimir himself has been wed to an acrobat, who turns out to be related to Paola, one of the other circus performers. Although the musical numbers invoke such set pieces of operatic tradition as coloratura aria, patter song, love duet, and a hunt, they use these as handed-down clichés rather than expressly satirising them; the admittedly memorable aria for Prince Raphael conveying his tooth ache bears homage perhaps to the ‘Cat Duet’ with its whining. The libretto itself similarly retails time-honoured (which is as much to say, exhausted) phrases, turns of events or dramatic incidents, barely turning them to the purpose of political and social satire. Those who deride Gilbert and Sullivan (strongly influenced by Offenbach’s output) for their triviality would at least find that their Savoy operas do potently and ingeniously comment upon the conditions of their time rather than merely engage in empty, inconsequential caricature for its own sake. By comparison, such a work as La Princesse betrays its origin as an entertainment for the jaded audiences of Baden-Baden, that nineteenth-century playground of the idle rich before it was mounted immediately at Paris (the vacuous world of the elites comprising those audiences so comprehensively dissected by Proust). 

The hymn-like slow opening of the operetta’s Overture unintentionally struck a mocking ironic comment upon the preceding rendition of the national anthem – that act of bourgeois false consciousness seemingly becoming obligatory and ubiquitous once again (at least people could escape when it occurred at the end of film showings in the cinema, as in former times). After that, Daniel sustained an ebullient account of the score throughout, inciting some deft characterisation by Harriet Walter of the reported speech in her agile delivery of the narration, and charismatic performances from the essentially Francophone cast of singers. The Opera Rara Chorus was on energetic form too in its numbers which had all the flair and vigour of a staged performance.

Anne-Catherine Gillet and Virginie Verrez were vocally well-matched as the lovers, Zanetta and Raphaël – the former lustrous, the latter a touch more direct in this trouser role, but blending cogently in their sparkling duet as phrases are passed between them. Christophe Gay was a pleasingly jocular Cabriolo, the father of Zanetta, whilst Raphael’s father, Casimir – his dyspeptic propensity to break canes over the back of his retinue at least justified on the grounds of fictional characterisation which the real-life, ineffectual rages of a monarch over leaking ink pens can’t be – was sung by Josh Lovell with idiosyncratic mellifluousness in a well-controlled high tenor register, conforming to such French repertoire. Christophe Mortagne gave a creditable performance as Trémolini, alongside Antoinette Dennefeld as his flighty lover, Régina. Katie Ledoux and Loïc Félix were equally flamboyant as the third pair of lovers, Paola and Sparadrap, rounding out a fizzing performance overall.

If only all these musical efforts had been harnessed to the cause of a composition of more consequence!

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