OFFENBACH: Vert-Vert (operetta) – Thora Einarsdottir, soprano / Ann Taylor, mezzo-soprano / Lucy Crowe, soprano / Toby Spence, tenor/ Mark Le Brocq, tenor / Mark Stone, baritone / Anne-Marie Owens, mezzo-soprano/ Franck Léguerinel, baritone / Loïc Félix, tenor /Jennifer Larmore, mezzo-soprano / Sébastien Droy, tenor /Franck Lopez, baritone / Geoffrey Mitchell Choir/ Philharmonia Orchestra / David Parry – Opera Rara ORC41 (2 discs), 51:15; 77:34 ***** [Distrib. by Harmonia mundi]:
German-born Jacques Offenbach gained fame with a series of operettas performed at his own theater named the Bouffes Parisiens. Critics such as the composer Hector Berlioz and the novelist brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt came down on Offenbach, Berlioz because of what he saw as a lack of artistic merit, the Goncourts because of the unseemly crowds that haunted the Bouffes: fast young men and women of questionable virtue. Offenbach not only cried all the way to the bank, as the saying goes, but managed to cast his net beyond the purlieus of the Bouffes, being commissioned for works by the august Opéra and the less stuffy but still honorable Opéra-Comique, both of which hoped to cash in on his success with the public.
Offenbach’s first work for the Opéra-Comique was not a hit with anybody, but since the composer continued to mount winning productions elsewhere, the theater persisted with its commissions. Vert-Vert is the third of five operettas Offenbach wrote for the theater. Since the Opéra-Comique considered itself a family theater, Offenbach wished to tone down some of the more outlandishly satirical elements that made hits of works such as Orfée aux enfers, La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, and La Belle Hélène. Its social and political commentary may not be as barbed, but it still includes the drinking scenes and mild sexual innuendo that seemed especially bohemian to the critics of the day. Also, the libretto, though chiefly the work of Offenbach’s famous collaborator Henri Meilhac, was subjected to interventions by several other writers. The result is a pretty thin and patchy book that Offenbach nonetheless enlivens with some attractive music, including the Act II drinking scene that contemporary critics sniffed at.
The plot is improbably based on a story in verse by Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset from the eighteenth century. It tells the tale of a parrot named Vert-Vert, who is the darling of the convent where he is kept. He’s sent to another convent but on the way falls into the hands of unsavory characters who teach him some naughty phrases that shock the denizens of his new order. They return the bird to his first dwelling, where he is taught the error of his ways and dies a redeemed creature. Offenbach’s story begins in a convent where the boarding girls are greatly attached to their pet parrot, Vert-Vert. When he dies, they transfer their affection to Valentin, a young man who lives at the convent. He agrees to become their new Vert-Vert. Later, true to Gresset’s story, Valentin/Vert-Vert is sent away, later to attend a party held by a group of dragoons. He gets looped and adopts some of their salty oaths, which he shares with the scandalized inhabitants of the convent. So much for the debt to Gresset’s old tale.
Otherwise, the plot involves several secret marriages, a de rigueur trouser role, and the untying of the knots that kept everybody on tenterhooks throughout. Specifically, two sisters in the convent, Emma and Bathilde, are secretly married to two dragoon officers, Le Comte de Arlange and the Chevalier de Bergerac. Some of the plot’s machinations are involved in getting these couples together at the end of the operetta despite the watchful attentions of their caretaker, Mademoiselle Paturelle. It turns out this worthy is also secretly married to Baladon, the dancing master, which makes her objections to other such arrangements a moot point.
In the meantime, the naïve Vert-Vert is sent, in the company of the somewhat befuddled gardener Binet, to the garrison town of Nevers to see his aunt. He is followed on the trip by a secret admirer, Mimi, one of the convent girls, who dresses as a dragoon to escape detection. On the barge taking the trio to Nevers, Vert-Vert gets into an argument with an operatic tenor and throws him overboard. This tenor happens to be the lead in a company about to give a production in the town of Nevers. Now that the tenor has caught a cold from his dunking, Vert-Vert is sweet-talked into taking his place by La Corilla, the charming lead soprano. Mimi, with the help of the Count and the Chevalier, manage to spring Vert-Vert from La Corilla’s clutches by throwing a party for the opera company and the dragoons of the garrison.
Mimi and Vert-Vert sneak away to the convent, Mimi having pledged to help the Count and Chevalier be united with their young wives and Vert-Vert revealing his love for Mimi. The last scene takes place in the nighttime garden of the convent, where Mademoiselle Paturelle and Baladon are to meet surreptitiously. In the dark, the pair mistake the mischievous Mimi and Vert-Vert for each other and are further interrupted by the dragoon officers scaling the wall to be reunited with their spouses. Mademoiselle’s secret is out, but all ends well just the same.
As I said, the plot is thin, but the music is typical Offenbach: sprightly, catchy, professional in every regard even if it lacks a Can-Can or a Barcarolle. There are some charmingly dainty touches as well, such as the horn solo in Mimi’s romance “Vert-Vert n’est plus un enfant.” The drinking song that ends Act II has it all, including a stratospheric duet for La Corilla and Vert-Vert, wonderfully tossed off by Jennifer Larmore and Toby Spence. Both are in superb voice throughout and have their characters down to a T, Larmore worldly wise and seductive, Spence a wide-eyed naïf. The rest of the cast is mostly just as admirable, the convent girls all charming light sopranos, while Franck Léguerinel as the haughty Baladon and Mark Le Brocq as Binet provide much of the humor of piece. Perhaps the matronly quake that Anne-Marie Owens imparts to the voice of Mademoiselle Paturelle is a little overdone, but this is the only tiny objection I can mount.
David Parry leads the Philharmonia Orchestra with great verve, and they of course go above and beyond what Offenbach could ever have expected from the theater orchestras of his day. The recording, made in Henry Wood Hall in London, is both detailed and atmospheric. If you enjoy Offenbach’s more famous operettas, you really should give Vert-Vert a try.
– Lee Passarella