Sunday, August 28, 2005

Et Piff, Paff, Pouff...

If you're a fan of Jacques Offenbach, you'll be pleased to know that the conductor Marc Minkowski has made a new complete recording of one of Offenbach's best operettas, La Grande Duchesse De Gerolstein ("The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein"). If you are not an Offenbach fan, listen to "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein" and you'll probably become one. (There will probably also be a DVD, but I suspect that I'll get more pleasure out of the studio audio recording; Offenbach productions are often too camped-up.) Minkowski and most of this cast already did an excellent recording of perhaps the best Offenbach operetta, "La Belle Helene" (The Beautiful Helen).

Like most of Offenbach's best operettas, "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein" has a libretto by Meilhac and Halevy, the best and most irreverent librettists of their era; they also wrote "Carmen" for Bizet, Meilhac co-wrote "Manon" for Massenet, and they came up with the brilliantly cynical story of Strauss's "Die Fledermaus." Their genius was in adding a harder edge to operetta, and for that matter opera, replacing the sentimentality of most operetta with satire and cynicism. "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein" is about the army, but it portrays the army as an absurd institution, war as pointless and declared for purely self-interested reasons, and government and the nobility as buffoons. The military songs are not patriotic anthems but sendups thereof; even the love songs are set up in such a way as to be slightly self-parodic. This unrelenting cynicism was like a tonic to Parisian audiences of the time, used as they were to the more uplifting style of the typical operetta and grand opera (which Offenbach spoofed mercilessly, even quoting directly from operas like Meyerbeer's "The Huguenots" the better to make fun of them). It also probably influenced the mocking attitude toward popular culture and patriotism in the librettos of W.S. Gilbert, and the brashness of American musical comedy.

Offenbach was at the height of his melodic powers when he wrote "Gerolstein," and almost every number has an instantly memorable tune or several -- the first big number, Fritz's waltz song, goes from one great waltz tune to another. He was also probably the greatest writer of genuinely funny music; unlike the other great operetta composers of the era, Strauss and Sullivan, Offenbach was willing to write music that wasn't pretty if it would get a laugh, and loaded up some of his songs with deliberately mis-accented words, brief quotations from other composers or even his own hits, and opportunities for crazy vocal effects -- one number, "Ah, C'est Un Fameux Regiment," requires the tenor to imitate the sound of a bugle at the end of each refrain.

There have been several recordings of "Gerolstein," but none of them were completely satisfying; if Minkowski's is anywhere near as good as his "Helene," this one should come the closest. Hopefully he will go on to do "La Vie Parisienne," the nearly-plotless but tune-filled operetta where Offenbach, Meilhac and Halevy turned their satiric attentions to then-contemporary urban life, making it one of the few operettas set in something resembling the "real" world ("Die Fledermaus" is another).

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