Saturday, June 29, 2019

Better Offenbach by Minkowski on Bru Zane

Nine days ago (June 20) marked the 200th birthday of Jacques Offenbach; and, as far as I can tell, the occasion went entirely unnoticed here in the Bay Area. Readers may recall that Erato Records had been preparing for this event for some time, releasing an anthology of three of the composer’s best known comic operettas this past November. The operettas in this six-CD package were Orphée aux enfers (“Orpheus in the Underworld”), La belle Hélène, and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein. The performances on these recordings were all conducted by Marc Minkowski, founder and director of the period-instrument ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre.

From a musical point of view, this was a delightful collection. Minkowski was clearly as comfortable in the “period” of the nineteenth-century as he has been in dealing with performances “informed” by earlier historical eras. (When he made his debut with the San Francisco Opera in June of 2017, he conducted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 opera Don Giovanni. It seemed as if his primary “historical” gesture involved the use of valveless trumpets on that occasion; but the overall production could not have been more effective.) Nevertheless, where Offenbach was concerned, I felt obliged to take Erato to task for releasing a package that provided neither synopses of the plots nor libretto texts in either the original French or in English translation. Under such circumstances I would have been thankful for a URL leading me to a PDF file of all of that vital content; but even that “do it yourself” tool was lacking.

Yesterday, another recording of Minkowski conducting Offenbach was released; and I am happy to report that the “information content” is far more satisfying. The operetta is La Périchole; and I have to confess that it is a personal favorite, since I had the opportunity to experience it in performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (designated a monument historique by the French government in 1957) when I was in Paris on a business trip back in the Eighties. (There are any number of reasons for calling this venue a “historic” site, the best-known of which is probably the riot that took place there during the first performance of “The Rite of Spring.”)

This new recording was not released by Erato but by the Palazzetto Bru Zane, a center that specialized in French romantic music, even though it is based in Venice. The center has issued a series of recordings of French opera; and La Périchole is the 21st release in the series, the first by Offenbach. As a result, one can now appreciate Minkowski’s sensitivity as a conductor with more attention to the twists and turns of the libretto as it unfolds a wacky plot in which authority is undermined.

Indeed, when it comes to goring sacred cows (so to speak), Offenbach revealed himself as an “equal opportunity gadfly,” as capable of ridiculing the all-powerful divine powers of Greek mythology as the figures of power in his own day. The Erato collection takes on mythology through both Orphée and Hélène, leaving only Gérolstein to skewer contemporary life. La Périchole now rights that balance with a farce about colonial authority in Peru. This includes a generous share of delightful tunes, one of which is spiced up by some silly singing delivered by the “hapless hero” and given a first-rate account by tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac.

My only quibble if that the album itself is being treated as a “luxury item.” The form factor is that of a bound book whose title page declares it to be one of a limited run of 4000 copies. This strikes me as an ironic twist given the “proletarian delights” of the operetta itself. Nevertheless, the price on the Web page does not quite rise to the level of outrageous. Personally, I am so pleased with having a libretto at my disposal that I am not inclined to make much of a fuss!

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