Sunday 30 June 2013

La Vie parisienne, Royal College of Music, 29 June 2013

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Bobinet – Luke D Williams
Gardefeu – Peter Kirk
Métella – Hannah Sandison
Gontran – Peter Aisher
Antoine – Mark Nathan
Lady Ellington – Rosemary Braddy
Lord Ellington – Morgan Pearse
Brazilian – Vasili Karpiak
Urbain – David Hansford
Frick – Matt R J Ward
Gabrielle – Filipa van Eck
Leonie – Héloïse Derache
Louise – Sinead O’Kelly
Clara – Marie Jaermann

Jo Davies (director)
Bob Dailey (designs)
Mark Doubleday (lighting)
Kay Shepherd (choreography)

Royal College of Music Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor) 

Our conservatories have offered very different end-of-year shows. I was quite keen to see the Guildhall’s Owen Wingrave, not least since I have never seen the opera, and wanted to know whether it was quite as bad, Gloriana-bad, as (almost) everyone says it is. Alas, the diary did not permit. The Royal Academy, however, offered a splendid double-bill of Dido and Aeneas and The Lighthouse. For something entirely different, the Royal College put on Offenbach’s La Vie parisienne, in an ‘English version by Alistair Beaton, by arrangement with D’Oyly Carte Opera Trust Ltd’. My heart sank a little at the mention of D’Oyly Carte, fearing that we might be in for something akin to the dread Gilbert and Sullivan. (I should almost rather hear Donizetti!) However, Beaton’s version proved relatively resistant to such temptation; more to the point, the performers ensured a duly sparkling performance. Offenbach might not be musical champagne, but an unpretentious prosecco – chilled, if admittedly devoid of much in the way of flavour, let alone complexity – will sometimes do better than an overpriced version of the ‘real thing’. (Not that my mind might yet again be wandering back towards the tedium of Gloriana...!)

The tradition of giving Offenbach’s opéras bouffes in English is venerable, extending back to the 1872 British premiere at the Holborn Theatre, again in an adaptation. There was even a film version made, in both French and English, in 1936. Without feeling especially strongly about the matter, I slightly missed the sound of the French language; however, I suspect that, given a cast of young, mostly Anglophone singers, the immediacy gained, not least in the spoken sections, was compensation enough. (The preponderance of dialogue reflects the work’s origins as a piece for the Palais-Royal, as opposed to Offenbach’s accustomed, so-aptly-named Théâtre de la Gaîté.) There is, after all, nothing to prevent one from travelling for a little of the vie parisienne oneself. Beaton made a virtue out of translation by having the original Swedish noble couple, the Baron and Baroness de Gondremarck, become Lord and Lady Ellington, thereby permitting jokes about the English abroad, their views of ‘foreigners’, and so forth.  Offenbach had already reduced the original five acts to four; here we saw a three-act version, which, if occasionally it lost something in terms of motivation, ensured that the piece did not outstay its warm welcome.

Every element of Jo Davies’s production was a joy. It did not seek depth or impose it where there was none – though that can on occasion work – but concentrated on sharp direction of the performers against a backdrop of views, or suggested, views of Paris. Bo Bailey’s designs, from what seemed to be the Gare d’Orsay of the first act, to the Moulin Rouge and Eiffel Tower of the last. Kay Shepherd’s choreography contributed greatly to the tightness of overall effect, whilst the coordination between stage direction and choral singing – a crack team, this! – really had to be seen and heard to be believed. The chorus not only sang, as my companion remarked, as if with one voice; it moved and danced with one, too – except, of course, when everyone had to be doing his own thing, in which case that was equally well accomplished.

Michael Rosewell seemed in his element conducting the excellent RCM Opera Orchestra. The last thing one would want here is even a shred of sentimentality; there was none to be discerned. Rather, the tightness of ensemble on stage was mirrored, doubtless to a good extent engendered, by that in the pit. Peter Kirk made an affecting, but not too affecting, Gardefeu; one believed just enough that he might have something equating to love for Métella, but equally well in his dandyism. (The costumes certainly helped!) Hannah Sandison’s character was less well-formed as Métella, but she did not come well out of the rehashing of the work; Sandison certainly sang well enough though. Rosemary Braddy and Morgan Pearse both shone in their different ways as the English noble couple: the former dignified and lovely of voice, the latter not only impressive in his baritone but adept at the comic timing of sending himself up. Filipa van Eck increasingly stole the show as the glovemaker, Gabrielle, whether in her assumed guise as Austrian military widow – cue a good number of Alpine jokes – or as the naval wife of Bobinet’s assumed admiralty (another fine performance, by Luke D Williams). Van Eck’s vocal performance was equally impressive: definitely one to watch. Vasili Karpiak proved a scene-stealing Brazilian – outrageous in every sense. But there were no weak links, and the ensemble really was the thing. It will soon be time for me to return to Wagner, in London (at the Proms), Seattle, and Salzburg; Offenbach proved quite an amuse-gueule.