La Princesse de Trébizonde, Jacques Offenbach, libretto by Étienne Tréfeu & Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter, English narration adapted by Jeremy Sams, sung in French, London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paul Daniel, Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Friday 16th September 2022, reviewed by Leslie Jones
In ‘Go North, Young Man’, (QR, June 29th 2022), we commented that a concert performance of Wagner’s Parsifal “hardly constituted ‘the total integration of music and drama’ (gesamtkunstwerk) proposed by the composer”. However, given the exorbitant cost of staging opera, with scenery, costumes and chorus etc this pared down type of production seems here to stay. Witness this concert performance of La Princesse de Trébizonde, at Southbank Centre.
Opera Rara is on a mission “to restore, record, perform and promote the lost operatic heritage of the 19th and early 20th centuries” (Concert Programme p14). But this begs the question – why do certain operas get lost in the first place? Wagner, for one, considered most contemporary opera as “childish”. He would doubtless have regarded this ‘lost’ work by Offenbach, with its convoluted plot and contrived happy ending, as an example.
In order to pad out what is a slim enough piece, theatre director Jeremy Sams was commissioned to provide an English narration based on the original libretto. The narrator was the distinguished actress Harriet Walter. Crudely speaking, the cast are seemingly divided into two distinct groups, allegedly inhabiting two different worlds – the toffs and the riff raff (or Saltimbanques). Whenever Dame Harriet referred to a member of the former group, she adopted a stereotyped and plummy upper class accent. When referring to the latter, she opted for mockney. We were reminded of Dick van Dyke in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Billie Whitelaw in The Krays. Evidently enjoying herself, Walter also interjected off the cuff, sometimes prurient observations of her own, in a nudge nudge, wink wink, style.
In fairness, the leading singers (almost all French), the conductor (Paul Daniel) and the chorus all rose to the challenge with consummate professionalism and enthusiasm. There was more acting and expressive body language than in many concert performances. Mezzo soprano Virginie Verrez as the cross-dressing Prince Raphael gave the stand out performance of the evening, which, as the narrator observed, passed quickly enough.
Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of Quarterly Review