OFFENBACH Bluebeard • Michael Borowitz, cond; Peter Foltz (Bluebeard); Jessie Wright Martin (Boulette); Michael Denos (Saphir); Betha Christopher (Fleurette/the Princess); Patrick Howle (Count Oscar); Jacob Allen (Popolani); Gary Moss (Read more class="ARIAL12i">King Bobèche); Ohio Light Op O & Ch • ALBANY TROY 993 (2 CDs: 116:23 Text and Translation)
“He was primarily an entertainer, a man of the theater whose immediate ambition was a full house. As such, in his time and ours, he has often been contemptuously dismissed. Yet his music survives, even hindered by libretti that are no longer topical. Where, today, are the grand operas of Meyerbeer, once deemed a ‘serious’ composer and a far greater one than Offenbach? Where are the works by Auber, Halévy, and Ambroise Thomas which held the stage for so long and were judged superior to the inspirations of a mere entertainer? Only a small handful of isolated arias are left. Offenbach, on the other hand, can show half a dozen operettas continually being played throughout the world and frequent revivals of many others.”
I was going to begin this review with a similar paragraph, but Offenbach’s biographer, James Harding, has put it at least as well as I might have, so I have begun with a paragraph from his book. It is not such a distant journey from Offenbach to the Strausses to Lehár to Romberg to Kern to Rodgers to the present day musical. There are, to be sure, various detours and side roads (like Gilbert and Sullivan) along the way, and some might even go back beyond Offenbach to, say, the Singspiel, which would link Mozart, of all people, with Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’m not entering that minefield, but I don’t think the Champs-Elysées to Broadway link is all that far-fetched.
Barbe-Bleu, first performed in 1866, is not one of the operettas that is “continually being played throughout the world,” and it is overshadowed by his other 1866 opus, La vie parisienne, which is, but recordings suggest that it is worth an occasional revival and this revival by the Ohio Light Opera, though far from ideal, makes a good case for it. The libretto, by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, typically, turns the Bluebeard legend into a joke and something of a cynical satire on the fatuity of royal courts. There are two parallel stories running: one deals with a florist’s discovery that she is actually a king’s daughter and her wish to marry a shepherd who, conveniently, turns out to be a prince in disguise; the other is Duke Bluebeard’s decision to choose his sixth wife via a lottery (according to the annotations, in one Chicago production, Bluebeard is discreetly described as “an elegant gentleman of Mormon proclivities”). Naturally, the “winner” of the lottery turns out to be a beautiful but earthy and shrewd peasant, Boulotte (though the name, in French, suggests that she is, shall we say, “full-figured”). After various misadventures, it turns out that Bluebeard’s previous five wives are actually alive, since his henchman, Popolani, didn’t have the heart to kill them; the Princess gets her Prince, and Bluebeard settles down into what looks like it’s going to be an “interesting” marriage to Boulotte (two to one he ends up henpecked).
There are two available recordings at present. Since I own them both, I will deal briefly with the one that isn’t under review. This is an Opera d’Oro release of a 1967 ORTF broadcast. Jean Doussard conducts a strong cast of French professionals, led by Henry Legay and Christiane Gayraud—in fact, as singers, per se, they are probably superior to anything that Offenbach had at his disposal. Score a point for Opera d’Oro. Some people will prefer this set, because the performance is in French. There are ample annotations, a cue list, and a plot summary (which isn’t 100 percent accurate as far as this production goes). The broadcast has good sound—or, I assume, once had good sound. That’s the good news. Yes, the cast is strong, but each scene is set by a narrator This may make sense in a one-shot broadcast of an unfamiliar (even in France) stage work, but is an eventual irritation in a recording that will be listened to several times. Yes, the performance is in French, but there’s no libretto at all. I expect that obtaining a libretto for Barbe-Blue, especially if you want an English text, won’t be a simple matter, unless you choose the Albany set, which does have one. And the sound . . . I can’t believe an ORTF broadcast originally sounded this lousy. I am assuming that, somewhere along the line, someone decided that the original mono acoustics were too dry and decided to inject some resonance—far too much resonance. The narrator and singers sound as if they’re using bullhorns or performing in an empty cathedral.
The Albany set, featuring the Ohio Light Opera company, is also not without its faults, but as a production, it’s far superior to the Opera d’Oro. It also costs more than twice as much. The Ohio Light Opera is based at the College of Wooster, about 60 miles south of Cleveland. Since 1979, they have probably produced more than 100 operettas, ranging from Broadway to Vienna, with much attention devoted to Gilbert and Sullivan. In addition to providing entertainment, the company’s purpose is to give less experienced singers and instrumentalists a chance to work in a professional setting. If I lived anywhere between Cleveland and Columbus, I’d make the trip. I doubt that you’ll be hearing any “stars of the future” on this performance, but you will hear a cast that is dedicated to getting the message across and, seemingly, enjoying it. In the title role, which doesn’t sound easy, Peter Foltz has his work cut out for him and strains a bit on top; and, along with her stage smarts (the audience probably loved her), Jessie Wright Martin brings a distracting vocal wobble—and so on. Michael Borowitz seems to have an appreciation of the score’s wit and the orchestra’s playing is clearly recorded. You can almost “see” the performance taking place before you. The libretto is in English but the French production is so close to this one that it can be used with the Opera d’Oro set and, actually, it might be more useful there since these singers articulate the text so clearly that you probably won’t need it with the Ohio performance. If I had to choose between them, this is the one I would take.
Barbe-bleueby Jacques Offenbach Performer:
Michael Denos (Tenor),
Sahara Glasener-Boles (Alto),
Jessie Wright Martin (Soprano),
Jacob Allen (Baritone),
Patrick Howle (Bass),
Anthony Buck (Baritone),
Peter Foltz (Tenor)
Ohio Light Opera
Period: Romantic Written: 1866; Paris, France