My “first contact” with Jacques Offenbach’s opéra bouffe (comic opera) La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (the Grand Duchess of Gerolstein) was the 1982 English-language production by the New York City Opera. I knew that, when it came to topics of Offenbach’s librettos, nothing was sacred. I also knew that dramatists had been making fun of the military since the days of Aristophanes. Nevertheless, I was not really prepared for how off-the-wall this particular opera was, particularly with a set designer who had clearly been influenced by Monty Python. I deeply regret that, to this day, that City Opera performance was my only opportunity to see this opera staged, although I see that it has become a regular favorite at the Santa Fe Opera.
Like John Oliver, Offenbach knew that satire is at its best when it is reinforced with dispassionate research. The narrative that Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy created for the libretto had enough of a ring of truth to it that, upon seeing it, Otto von Bismarck was said to have made note of its accuracy. This involved not only the absurd complexities of bureaucracy but also the primary theme that a young woman had a right to tell her generals what to do solely on the basis of her hereditary title. (There are many who believe that Catherine the Great with the inspiration for the opera’s title character.) It is unclear how Offenbach and his colleagues felt when the Franco-Prussian War broke out about three years after Grande-Duchesse was first performed, a war in which the French suffered a painful defeat. That defeat was due in no small part to Bismarck’s military skill. It has also been said that Bismarck believed that any country that made light of its military was ripe for conquest. Thus, his approval of the opera’s libretto turned out to be a double-edged sword!
In 1996 Dynamic released a 2-CD recording of a live performance of Grande-Duchesse with Emmanuel Villaume conducting the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia, the Bratislava Chamber Choir, and a cast of vocalists who never allowed personal inhibitions to get in the way of Offenbach’s outrageousness. While copies of this are still available (hence the hyperlink to an Amazon.com Web page that is still active), Dynamic will release a re-edition tomorrow, for which a new Amazon Web page has been created for taking pre-orders. I never had a chance to see the original release, but the new one comes with a generous libretto that will allow listeners not familiar with French to savor just about all of the satirical twists in the libretto.
The only thing that is missing is the visual element. Given that all of the spoken dialog has been preserved on this recording, one can make any number of inferences from tone of voices and various noises coming from the stage. One can even be caught up in the spirit of the final track, which is basically music prepared for all of the performers on stage to take their bows. However, the photographs provided in the booklet cannot begin to suggest the absurdities that unfold when this opera is given ingenious staging. Thus, for many, it will serve best as a reminder of a past encounter with this opera on the stage; but it will also serve well those with an opportunity to see the opera in the near future, simply by making them acquainted with both the plot and the delightfully sparkling music that Offenbach prepared to support the narrative that Meilhac and Halévy cooked up for the occasion.