Offenbach Robinson Crusoé Opera Rara ORB3

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)
Celebrating Offenbach
Robinson Crusoé, opéra comique in three acts (premiered 1867)
Vert-Vert, opéra comique in three acts (premiered 1869)
Entre Nous (excerpts from forgotten operas)
rec. 1980-2008, Henry Wood Hall, London 
Opera Rara ORB3 [7 CDs: 448]

Opera Rara continue to champion the music of Jacques Offenbach with Celebrating Offenbach, a seven-disc box set of operettas comprising previously released material recorded 1980-2008: complete recordings of Robinson Crusoe (three CDs) and Vert-Vert (two CDs) plus Entre Nous, a double set containing excerpts from twenty-two of Offenbach’s neglected operettas. 

Devotees may recall that Opera Rara has also released other Offenbach sets: Christopher Columbus, a pastiche opera in English of Offenbach’s music taken mainly from La Boîte au lait (1876) an opéra bouffe and issued to commemorate the bicentenary of American Independence. It was released in 1977 on vinyl (Opera Rara OR2) and then in 2008 on CD (Opera Rara ORC2). A further release in 2014 was Fantasio,a well-receivedFrench opéra comique played with a period-instrument orchestra (Opera Rara ORC51, reissued 2017 on ORC351). Another record label also promoting Offenbach is Bru Zane, which has released several first rate-recordings in a CD-book format. 

Offenbach’s prolificity in producing stage works was remarkable. He wrote in excess of a hundred works that are usually classified very broadly as operettas (opérettes) and which traditionally include the subcategories opéra bouffe, opéra comique, opéra-féerie, bouffonnerie musicale etc. He also wrote a number of pieces of incidental music for plays. From such a prodigious quantity of works it is no surprise that a large number are generally unknown, the likely exceptions being La vie Parisienne, Orphée aux enfers, La Périchole, La belle Hélène, Les Brigands and La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein. In the sphere of Grand Opera, Offenbach wrote two works: the rarely encountered Die Rheinnixen (Les fées du Rhin) and his famous masterwork, Les contes d’Hoffmann.

A great success for Offenbach was La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein introduced in 1867 at the Théâtre des Variétés, Paris and the opéra bouffe was soon performed internationally in Vienna, New York City, London, Berlin et al. He wrote Robinson Crusoé an opéra comique in three acts to a libretto by Eugène Cormon and Hector Crémieux, freely based on Daniel Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe (1719). In November 1867 Crusoé was premiered in Paris, where Offenbach was hot-property, by the Opéra-Comique company at Salle Favart. Despite being well received, it received just thirty-two performances. It has undoubtedly now become better known and this Opera Rara recording from 1980 has surely helped that cause. Revivals of Crusoé are becoming more frequent and I notice that a Russian version was staged at Moscow in 2022. 

The libretto concerns Robinson Crusoé, an incorrigible romantic who is engaged to Edwige, and sets sail on the high seas for South America intent on seeking his fortune. Attacked by pirates, Crusoé escapes to an island inhabited by cannibals with Vendredi (or Man Friday) as his only friend. After many adventures Edwige arrives on the island to search for him. The pirate ship is captured by Crusoé and they all sail home with Crusoé and Edwige tying the knot on board ship.  

In 1973, Opera Rara was then a fledgling company giving concert performances, and this production of Robinson Crusoé, conducted by Ian Macpherson at the Camden Music Festival, London, was billed as the ‘stage premiere in this country’. Using the highly effective English translation of the French libretto by Don White (co-founder of Opera Rara with Patric Schmid), the Camden production received resounding acclaim. On vinyl, a private live recording of the Camden performance was produced by Unique Opera Records. In 1980 the centenary year of Offenbach’s death was marked by a concert performance of Crusoé using White’s English version at the BBC Proms. With the same cast Opera Rara honoured the occasion by recording White’s version of Crusoé under studio conditions at Henry Wood Hall, London. It was first released in 1981 on vinyl (Opera Rara OR7), then reissued in 1993 on CD (Opera Rara ORC7) and is now part of this new Offenbach set.

Opera Rara certainly chose a fine roster of singers and it is in Act Two is where many of the high points lie. It’s hard to fault Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny, then a resident soprano with the Royal Opera House company, in the role of Edwige to which she seems eminently suited. In ‘I am in love’ from Act One Robinson has booked his passage to South America and is due to sail when Edwige can no longer hide her feelings and declares her love with that aria. Radiating assurance, the stylish Kenny is a smooth-toned and characterful. In the final scene from Act Two and having been rescued from cannibals, Edwige has her celebrated waltz song with chorus ‘Take me away to the one I adore’; Kenny excels here in the song’s glorious lilt. Worthy of note from Act Three is Edwige’s air ‘I had a dream’ relating to dreams that she shared with Crusoe and which Kenny sings with a sweet tenderness. 

The late English tenor John Brecknock brings his precise, attractive tone and expressive use of the text into play as the eponymous hero. He is especially engaging, with well controlled high notes, in Crusoe’s Act Two air ‘Six years and seven days’ where Crusoé, living on the desert island with Man Friday, explains how pitiful his life is compared to the world he dreamed of. English soprano Marilyn Hill Smith convinces in the soubrette role of Suzanne, a maid in the Crusoé Bristol home. Her bright, focused tone and exemplary clarity are outstanding in both her substantial Act One air ‘My friend Tom was a dancing master’ and When I was small’, known as her ‘Black and White song’. Her enthusiastic approach is ideal for the role despite some occasional shrillness, and she achieves her high notes with relative ease.

Trinidadian mezzo-soprano Sandra Browne first sang the trouser role of Man Friday at the 1973 Camden production and is in excellent voice in this recording, displaying a rich expressive tone. A highlight is her Act Two air ‘Read me a story, master… That’s right, master, Saranha!’ rendered so impressively by Browne who sings to Crusoé about his relationship with the god Saranha. Friday’s love song from Act Three ‘A perfume fills the air’ is touchingly sung by Browne as he fans the sleeping Edwige with a palm leaf. There is a touch of unsteadiness to Brown’s voice although I feel this is compensated for by her level of sincerity. 

Giving their all, Brecknock and Browne sound outstanding together. Quite beautifully done is the act two duet between Crusoé and Friday ‘A pain that fills my heart when I remember Edwige… One day you’ll fall in love’. Crusoé, who is pining for Edwige, attempts to convince Friday that someday he will find a girl to love. Admirable, too, is the entertaining scene between maid Suzanne and servant Toby with their duet ‘Oh, hold me, Toby!’ after being informed by Jim Cocks that they are destined to be boiled alive in the cannibals’ cooking pot. Alun Francis conducts a fresh and well-paced account, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra strongly responds to his direction and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir makes valuable contributions. 

Following Robinson Crusoé Offenbach quickly wrote four opéra bouffes, then came the other complete work contained on this set, Vert-Vert, another opéra comique in three acts for the Opéra-Comique. For his libretto, Offenbach looked to Henri Meilhac and Charles Nuitter who based their story on the humorous poem Vert-Vert (1734) by French writer Jean-Baptiste Gresset. Vert-Vert was premiered in March 1869 at the Salle Favart, Paris with a strong cast. Popular with audiences, it received fifty-eight performances, which was more than Crusoé, but it didn’t find any enduring success. 

The libretto to Vert-Vert is set at an all-girls boarding school, the Convent of Saint-Rémy, and at the centre of its wacky comedy plot is a parrot named Very-Vert. Much-loved the parrot becomes a school mascot but dies and is buried. A replacement mascot is sought by the convent girls. The naïve Valentin, nephew of the headmistress, consents to take the parrot’s place, using its name. He goes off into the world where he becomes accustomed to swearing and drinking, and loses his innocence to the celebrated singer La Corilla. Valentin comes to realise that he loves his sweetheart Mimi, and his amorous feelings aren’t just a simple teenage crush. Sub-plots include the strict deputy headmistress Miss Paturelle secretly marrying dancing master Baladon, Mimi dressing up in a dragoon uniform to covertly follow Valentin/Vert-Vert, plus many other farce-like surprises such as mistaken identities and other secret marriages. As one might expect, after all the comedy capers there is a strong sense of happy ever after. The conductor here David Parry said of Vert-Vert that he ‘loves the absurdity of it all’ and ‘the story is extraordinarily complicated.’ This 2008 recording of Vert-Vert conducted by David Parry and released in 2010 (Opera Rara ORC41) has a sticker on the box front stating ‘World Premiere Recording’.

Stealing the show is London born tenor Toby Spence with his committed portrayal of Valentin/Vert-Vert. Spence demonstrates first rate expression and pleasing vocal control right from his opening Act One air ‘Mais on doit m’excuser’ where he sings of his distress at the death of the school parrot and the memories he is left with. Spence is in compelling voice in his Act Three air ‘Ah! ventrebleu!’ keenly singing of how the dragoons taught him cursing, drinking and the art of seduction. As the heroine, the role of convent schoolgirl Mimi is taken by Icelandic soprano Thora Einarsdottir. Sounding youthful and displaying a bright tone, Einarsdottir gives a convincing rendition of Mimi’s introduction air ‘Hélas! pour l’éternel voyage’ singing of her distress at Vert-Vert’s demise. From Act One too is Mimi’s reflective love-song ‘Vert-Vert n’est plus un enfant’ accompanied by the horn and beautifully sung by Einarsdottir, tenderly expressing her love for Valentin. In the Act Three duet ‘Faut-il en faire le serment? Je vous adore!’ between Vert-Vert and Mimi the voices of Einarsdottir and Spence blend together exquisitely.  

Baritone Mark Stone in the role of dragoon officer Le Comte sings ‘O la plus belle des amantes’ from Act One with a rich and expressive tone based around a steadfast core. As the kittenish and confident singer La Corilla, the American mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore raises the temperature with her Act Two air ‘Quels rôles, dites-vous… ma foi’ providing real verve and an impressive coloratura display. Reims-born baritone Sébastien Droy as the singer Bellecour in his Act Two arietta ‘Après m’avoir heurté, poussé’ does an admirable job describing how he nearly drowned in the river Loire. Most enjoyable from Act One is Mlle Paturelle and Baladon’s amusing ‘Duo de la Clé’ sung with sincerity and warmth by Anne-Marie Owens and Franck Leguérinel. Adding to the success of the recording are the remaining five members in this well-chosen cast. One senses just how much David Parry believes in Vert-Vert and the Philharmonia Orchestra is clearly on the same page, playing marvellously. The characterful Geoffrey Mitchell Choir is hard to fault, too.

Released in 2007, the double CD set Entre NousCelebrating Offenbach is a compilation comprising of forty-one excerpts from twenty-two neglected Offenbach operas (Opera Rara ORR243). Evidently the praise for Entre Nous encouraged Opera Rara to record another complete Offenbach work which resulted in the recording of Vert-Vert (1869). The album title Entre Nousis the name of the excerpt chosen from Le château à Toto an opéra bouffe from 1868. 

Spanning twenty-five years the opéra comique selections on Entre Nous range from the 1855 premiere of the one act Une nuit blanche to the 1880 premiere of Belle Lurette in three acts (unfinished at Offenbach’s death and completed by Léo Delibes). This is a judiciously chosen compilation of extracts from neglected works and I couldn’t detect any weak links. The album, which opens with the overture to Le voyage dans la Lune, contains a range of solo airs, duets and ensemble pieces with or without chorus. Singling out a particular extract over another is tough, but I have chosen a handful of highlights.

Thoroughly enjoyable from Geneviève de Brabant (1867) is the Rondo du pâté from Drogan, a trouser role sung by Cassandre Berthon. To assist duke Sifroy to father an heir, pastrycook Drogan bakes a magic pie in the hope of increasing his fertility. Bright and enthusiastic, the French soprano gives an upbeat performance hitting her high notes splendidly. From Les Braconniers (The Poachers), premiered in 1873, the duet ‘Oh! Ma chère femme’ between Ginetta the barber’s niece sung by Diana Montague and Mark le Brocq as muleteer Marcassou, is especially pleasing. Marcassou is to be married to Ginetta and they describe various aspects of each other that they love. This is uplifting singing from the elegant mezzo-soprano Montague and tenor Le Brocq, their voices complementing each other delightfully.

The catchy duet ‘Reconnais-tu la voix’ from Les bergers (The Shepherds) (1865) is sung by French soprano Elizabeth Vidal as shepherdess Anette and South African-born tenor Colin Lee as her suitor Colin. This amusing patter-duet where the two lovers gauge their heartbeats is realised most successfully by Vidal and Lee. Sung by Atlanta born mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore are Caprice’s melodic couplets ‘Ohé! Ohé! Les badauds!’ from Le Voyage dans la lune (The Journey to the Moon) (1875)an opéra féerie. With this light-hearted text Larmore’s dark, crystal-clear mezzo provides an impressive contrast to the choral accompaniment and an out-of-tune band. One senses just how passionate David Parry is for these overlooked works of Offenbach. His enthusiasm rubs off on the London Philharmonic Orchestra who provide spirited performances. As I have come to expect, the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir provide first-rate singing. 

All three recordings that make up Celebrating Offenbach are new to me so I cannot make comparisons with the sound of the original recordings that Opera Rara states have been ‘remastered to the best audio quality’. Overall, I am satisfied with the sound quality, except the spoken dialogue in Vert-Vert is set too far back for my taste. 

This Opera Rara Classics set does not contain individual essays or a libretto for each work, which is a common practice for previously issued recordings. Nevertheless, in the accompanying booklet there is a new essay ‘A Different Side of Offenbach’ by Marco Ladd, especially written for this release. In addition, each work has cast and track listings and both Crusoé and Vert-Vert have a synopsis provided. By some way of consolation, on the Opera Rara website there are links to the full English libretto for Crusoé and for Vert-Vert the full French libretto with an English translation. For the Entre Nous compilation there is a link with detailed introductions for each of the twenty-two operettas plus each of the forty-one excerpts is provided with its French text and English translation.

Celebrating Offenbach is a splendid way to explore some of the composer’s lesser-known operettas. The complete opéra comiques Robinson Crusoé and Vert-Vert are certainly worth adding to a collection.  

Michael Cookson

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Robinson Crusoé, opéra comique in three acts (1867)
John Brecknock (Robinson Crusoe), Yvonne Kenny (Edwige), Roderick Kennedy (Sir William Crusoe), Enid Hartle (Lady Deborah Crusoe), Marilyn Hill Smith (Suzanne), Alexander Oliver (Toby), Sandra Browne (Man Friday), Alan Opie (Jim Cocks), Wyndham Parfitt (Will Atkins), 
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir,
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Alun Francis
rec. 1980 Henry Wood Hall, London
Originally released in 1981 on vinyl (Opera Rara OR7): reissued in 1993 on CD (Opera Rara ORC7)

Vert-Vert, opéra comique in three acts (1869)
Thora Einarsdottir (Mimi), Ann Taylor (Emma), Lucy Crowe (Bathilde), Toby Spence (Valentin), Mark Le Brocq (Binet), Mark Stone (Le Comte d’Arlange), Anne-Marie Owens (Mademoiselle Paturelle), Franck Leguérinel (Baladon), Loïc Félix (Chevalier de Bergerac), Jennifer Larmore (La Corilla), Sébastien Droy (Bellecour), Franck Lopez (Friquet/Maniquet)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir,
Philharmonia Orchestra/David Parry 
rec. 2008 Henry Wood Hall, London
Originally released in 2010 on CD (Opera Rara ORC41)

Entre Nous – Excerpts from the forgotten operas
Soloists: Jennifer Larmore, Alastair Miles, Yvonne Kenny, Mark Stone, Diana Montague, Laura Claycomb, Elizabeth Vidal, Colin Lee, Loïc Félix, Mark Wilde, Cassandre Berthon, Mark le Brocq, Alexandra Sherman, Andre Cognet
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir,
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Parry
rec. 2006 Henry Wood Hall, London
2 CD set, originally released in 2007 on CD (Opera Rara ORR243)
CD 1
Le Voyage dans la lune
[1] Ouverture 
Geneviève de Brabant
[2] Rondo du pâté ‘Salut, salut, noble assemblée’ 
La Jolie Parfumeuse
[3] ‘Je peins, je crayonne’ 
[4] ‘Pardieu!’ 
[5] Air de Polacca ‘Cher et noble La Cocardière’ 
Le Pont des soupirs
[6] ‘Ah! Le Doge!’ 
Les Braconniers
[7] ‘Oh! Ma chère femme’ 
La Permission de dix heures 
[8] ‘Ah! Quelle douce ivresse!’ 
[9] ‘Allons’ 
[10] Oraison Funèbre ‘Il était beau’ 
Les Deux Pêcheurs ou Le Lever du soleil
[11] Ballade ‘Castilbêta’
La Créole 
[12] ‘J’avais bien vu’ 
Monsieur et Madame Denis 
[13] ‘Dansons la Chaconne’ 
Le Voyage dans la lune
[14] Ariette de la princesse ‘Je suis nerveuse, je suis fiévreuse’ 
[15] Final de la neige ‘Courons tous’ 
Belle Lurette
[16] ‘Ce fut à Londres’ 
[17] ‘Belle Lurette a de beaux yeux’
La Diva 
[18] ‘L’air, disait-il’ 
[19] ‘Tu la connais’ 
[20] Act II Finale, ‘Chez nous la vie est si douce’ 
CD 2
Les Bergers
[1] ‘En attendant l’hymen’ 
[2] ‘Reconnais-tu la voix’ 
Le Voyage dans la lune
[3] ‘Je regarde vos jolis yeux’
[4] ‘Ohé! Ohé!’ 
La Rose de Saint-Flour
[5] ‘Chette marmite neuve’
Boule de neige
[6] Conspiration des guitares ‘Mais ne parlons pas si haut’ 
L’Île de Tulipatan
[7] Couplets de Canard ‘Prince doux et fort débonnaire’ 
La Boulangère a des écus
[8] ‘Ce qu’ j’ai’ 
[9] Ah! Qu’il est beau’ 
Une Nuit blanche
[10] ‘Allons, Fanchette… Aimons le vin’ 
Il Signor Fagotto
[11] ‘Nous voilà seuls’ 
La Créole
[12] Berceuse ‘Petit noir dans la case chaude’ 
Maître Péronilla
[13] Couplets des petits valets ‘Pédro le petit bohémien’ 
Le Fifre enchanté ou Le Soldat magician
[14] ‘Oui! ce fifre’ 
[15] ‘Ah! Pour moi’ 
Le Château à Toto
[16] ‘Va-t’en donc’ 
[17] ‘Entre nous’ 
Le Roi Carotte
[18] Ronde des chemins de fer 
‘Dans ce grand temple des voyages’ 
[19] Barcarolle ‘Le bateau marchait lentement’ 
Boule de neige
[20] Choeur du lunch et Brindisi ‘L’Hospodar nous invite’ 
Belle Lurette
[21] Ronde et ensemble ‘Colett’ sur le lavoir’