Notes and Editorial Reviews
Here we present the first complete CD recording with William S. Gilbert’s English translation of Jacques Offenbach’s 1869 comic masterpiece.
Les Brigands achieved resounding success just as the Second Empire came to an end. Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy supplied Offenbach with a cheerfully amoral libretto that presents theft as a basic principle of society, not an aberration. The forces of law and order are represented by the bumbling carabinieri, who always arrive too late to capture the thieves. The carabinieri’s exaggerated attire delighted the Parisian audience during the premiere at the Varietes on December 10, 1869. Only the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in the following months dampened the festivities. W.S. Gilbert’s 1871 English adaptation for Les Brigands premiered on the London stage in 1889, starring Lillian Russell in the role of Fiorella. In his typical curmudgeonly fashion, Gilbert disparaged his own work and attempted to prevent use in London of his English version – happily to no avail. His arch lyrics give the Offenbach work a uniquely hilarious quality, delightful to an operetta audience happy to accept a rough-and-tumble pirate band speaking impeccable, drawing room English while describing dastardly deeds to gavottes and musical romps in three-quarter time.
Full review from FANFARE Magazine:
According to one biography, Offenbach wrote over 100 works for the stage (my hurried count was 103). He could churn out a half-dozen in some years. In 1869, he was bit less fecund, producing only
Vert-vert, La Diva, La princesse de Trépizonde, La romance de la rose, and
Les Brigands. I don’t suppose that even he knew why several operettas from his hastily composed output managed to survive:
Orphée aux Enfers, La belle Hélène, La vie Parisienne, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, La Périchole, and a few others, like
Les Brigands, presented here in an English translation by W. S. Gilbert (that W. S. Gilbert). In fact, he was so afraid of being forgotten that he desperately drove himself, unnecessarily, as it happens, to complete his magnum opus,
Les contes de Hoffmann, not quite finishing it before his death.
Tales of Hoffmann did enter the standard repertoire, as he had hoped, but companies still revive some of his other stage works.
An earlier recording of
Les Brigands on EMI features a French cast under John Eliot Gardiner. If I may assume that it is complete, then the Ohio version might be described as very nearly so, with most of the cuts coming in the dialogue, which is streamlined though one still can follow the story. The words aren’t always clear but, thank goodness, Albany has provided an English text. The plot is simple enough: Falsacappa and his band try to swindle the court of Mantua out of a three-million something-or-others dowry by imprisoning the Prince of Mantua’s intended bride (whom he has never seen) and her escorts, substituting his daughter, Fiorella (a role sometimes sung by the celebrated Lillian Russell), and having the members of the gang play her entourage. Unfortunately for him, the prisoners escape. Falsacappa’s scheme is foiled. Mantua’s treasurer turns out to be an even bigger crook than he is. The Prince, recalling a time when Fiorella may have saved his life, pardons the brigands. Falsacappa and the boys decide to reform. Fiorella gets to marry her boyfriend, Fragoletto (a "pants role" on the Gardiner recording—a tenor on this one). Outstanding in the cast is Nicholas Wuehrmann as Falsacappa, the leader of the brigands, who really relishes his comic chances. He more than matches Tibére Raffalli, his EMI counterpart; but in the other roles, I would give edges (mostly narrow) of various lengths to the idiomatic French cast. Gardiner has a larger orchestra and chorus, but Offenbach often had to work with even less than the adequate forces assembled for the Ohio performance(s) so that isn’t really a problem. I wish I could have seen the Ohio production, for I am sure that I would have had a great evening; one can certainly sense the enjoyment of the performers. Offenbach enthusiasts who can live without an authentic French text should certainly consider this recording, which comes in a slim "two-fer" jewel box that isn’t half the size of the EMI packaging.
James Miller - FANFARE