Why are Offenbach’s operettas such a bitch to stage today without royally screwing up? I asked myself this for the umpteenth time while watching Basel Opera’s 2009 La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein which the YouTube account called Webliveconcerts recently posted in its entirety. The famous German theatre director Christoph Marthaler added another train wreck of a production to the unlucky history of Offenbach operetta revivals.
In this version, La Grande-Duchesse is a lookalike both of the Queen Elizabeth II and her in-law Camilla Parker-Bowles, and since she’s sung/played by the divine Anne Sofie von Otter, there’s also a dash of the Scandinavian skier look in that mix. The set is an office building which includes ground floor level shops: a boutique and a shooting range, and various characters occasionally visit either room in the course of the play.
So far so pointless. There are non-speaking parts and dancing parts on the upper level that do one thing over and over. Could it be that Marthaler is translating into stage language the repetitiveness of Offenbach’s music? Whatever the reason, you get saturated early. There is a lot of drinking so that we can witness later on a lot of vomiting. The slapstick moments (people falling on their faces and so on) are funny one time out of ten. One of the characters stammers whenever he speaks. Aw, it’s that repetitiveness thing again, how precious. With that one you get saturated even earlier.
(Above is La Chanson de Régiment, starting around 6:30, after some stiff and unfunny dialogue)
After about three or four arias, von O sings two baroque arias lying flat on her back (one is a duetto with the stammerer singing in falsetto — or is he really a counter-tenor uglifying his voice? we shall never know and we shall never care), after which everybody enters a period of sad waiting for the soldiers to come back. They hum melodies, drink and vomit some more, the dancers hang off railings some more, more female asses get slapped, more weeping from the general. The soldier Fritz (who although he speaks German throughout the play, plays an American who can’t speak German) finally returns, but the humming and sadness continues, the Duchesse retreats to the shooting range shop window and with a collection of automated rifles in her arms falls asleep.
Why the two British royals, you will scratch your head. Because they’re recognizable due to their constant presence in the media? The operetta that makes fun of the military and the figures with executive power would, I presume in my naivete, have characters with executive and military powers, therefore definitely not Camilla Parker-Bowles or Queen Elizabeth II. Now if La Grande-Duchesse looked like Margaret Thatcher, the Basel production would have been off to a good start. But that would presume some knowledge of recent political history and international affairs that this Marthaler goof is totally devoid of.
I haven’t felt saddened and defeated this much since… well, since I saw another wreckity-wreck production of an Offenbach revival on DVD, Zurich Opera House La Belle Hélène. This is the only opera DVD I ever gave up on. Another one of Offenbach’s operettas which he seemingly populated with characters from the Greek mythology but which is in effect a gentle satire of the court and the establishment of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. The set and costumes for this Belle H looked like they were made at a kindergarten crafts class, and the singers made no sense of what they were saying. Could this setup have anything to do with earliest theatre of the absurd, Alfred Jarry and Ubu Roi, you may ask yourself if you’re particularly generous. No it doesn’t, as a matter of fact. You will look hard for political satire and you will return empty handed.
(Has anybody seen this Belle H with Felicity Lott, by the way? It looks more promising in every way, but you can never tell with OffOperettas.)
There is of course that Marc Minkowski-conducted Grande-Duchesse with Felicity Lott. Les Musiciens de Louvre under Minkowski with Anne Sofie von Otter set the new standard of musical (concert) performance of Offenbach with the 2002 DVD Offenbach in Paris and the most spectacular vocal champagne the Anne Sofie von Otter sings Offenbach CD, so you can’t find any fault with the musical performance side in this staging at the Chatelet.
Casting the 60-plus Felicity Lott in a teenage role is not necessarily so bold when we realize that the Grand-Duchesses now are usually cast older, fifty-plus, and the age difference between Fritz and the Duchess played out as part of the comedy. (I wonder when this became a norm… If you cast a Duchess that’s younger than Fritz, you can’t keep reverting to that easy joke of a predatory old Duchess.)
Laurent Pelly’s staging is actually not a tragedy. There were some excellent surrealists and absurdist accents in costumes, makeup and stage movement, and some historical updating to the World War One, which does rhyme with the Second Empire period just before the Franco-Prussian war when the original Duchess was made. The acting is generally good, and you find yourself laughing out load more than once… Yet. Half-way through you get overcome by the fatigue of the predictable, repetitive, too light plot, and predictable, repetitive, too light music. So there was something wrong with this staging too, because it will let you realize that the operetta itself is lacking in various departments and get you thinking what you would do differently if you were directing it.
Maybe Marthaler urge to cut some things out from the score and put some other in wasn’t bad — what was bad was his execution?
Whatever the case, the puzzle of OffOperettas has yet to be solved for contemporary audiences.
Here’s something to make you smile: Anne Sofie von O singing a number from La Fille du Tambour-Major (another rarely mounted OffOperetta) at that famous Minkowski concert performance. At one point you’ll see she almost loses it to laughter in the middle of singing, but manages to pull herself together by singing to the music stand for a moment. The clip ends with her version of the Drunk Song from La Périchole. Ici on Dailymotion