Aspects of “Barbe-bleue”: Essays on Musical Theater Versions of the Bluebeard Legend

Michael S. Hardern
Operetta Research Center
5 August, 2014

Here’s a brand-new bundle of essays on musical theater version of the Bluebeard legend, published in a special edition of the German musicological magazine Die Tonkunst (Heft III / 2014). It contains an introductory article and eight full-length studies, of works by Grétry and Sedaine, Paul Dukas, Franz Hummel, Bartok (of course) and Jacques Offenbach.

DIE TONKUNST, Heft III / 2014, dedicated to Bluebeard operas.

DIE TONKUNST, Heft III / 2014, dedicated to Bluebeard operas.

Offenbach’s Barbe-bleue, written in 1866 for Paris and Hortense Schneider, was one of the composer’s greatest hits, yet it strangely fell out of favor in later years – probably because modern audiences had difficulty accepting that “operetta” could be about lust, murder and rendezvous in the grave. All these things did not fit with the current definition of the genre, as given by Richard Traubner in his 2003 update of Operetta: A Theatrical History: “Operetta! Flowing champagne, ceaseless waltzing, risqué couplets, Graustarkian uniforms and glittering ballgowns, romancing and dancing! Gaiety and lightheartness, sentiment and Schmalz.”

Offenbach’s Barbe-bleue is certainly none of the above. Kevin Clarke, in his essay “Je suis Barbe-bleue, ô gué! Jamais veuf ne fut plus gai“ Offenbachs Blaubart (1866) oder: Die Legende vom frauenmordenden Ritter als frivole Gesellschaftsgroteske (“the legend of the murderous knight as a frivolous social farce”), reminds us that there once was a different and very successful form of operetta that is worth remembering today, where the “Graustarkian” re-interpretation of the genre is widely considered old hat, boring and outdated. Clarke points out just how radical and modern Offenbach and his librettists were in telling the story of a fearless social climber Boulotte, who sleeps her way to the top – and defends her position with unheard of vigor.

The original stars of "Barbe-bleue": Hortense Schneider and the tenor Dupuis, caricature by Gill in "L'Eclipse."

The original stars of “Barbe-bleue”: Hortense Schneider and the tenor Dupuis, caricature by Gill in “L’Eclipse.”

Many writers on operetta have claimed that Barbe-bleue was not a success of the magnitude of other Offenbach shows. Yet, the essay cites Kurt Gänzl’s Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre, which gives an account of the world-wide impact Barbe-bleue had outside of Paris:

The week that [Barbe-bleue] closed [in Paris], the first of what were to be countless international productions throughout the next decade opened, at London’s Olympic Theatre […]. Presented as an English-style burlesque, squashed up into a four-scene jollification of comedy under the title Bluebeard Re-paired and subtitled ‘a worn out story done up a-new’ it announced its score as ‘the music composed by Offenbach, selected and arranged by J H Tully’. Its only concession to opéra-bouffe was that the text was written in prose dialogue rather than in the, up to then, inevitable rhyming couplets of English burlesque. Irish tenor William Mulready Terrott in a Hibernian version of the title-rôle and Susan Galton as Mopsa (ex-Boulotte), led the company, with two future stars in Miss Everard (Queen Greymare ie Clémentine) and Nellie Farren (Robert ie Oscar) in supporting rôles, through the month and a bit to the end of the season, playing the potted and played-about-with Bluebeard as an after-piece to The Lady of Lyons.

New York got its first Barbe-bleue in French, with Mlle Irma appearing as Boulotte to the Barbe-bleue of Aujac, and Marie Aimée made Boulotte a regular character in her repertoire during her years of touring America with French opéra-bouffe, but several English-language productions of the piece also put in an appearance soon after, albeit, as far as New York was concerned, in decidedly hacked-about shape.

The Worrell sisters appeared on Broadway in December of 1868 in a version which was ‘adapted by J P Ware, with all the original music arranged by Mr Tissington’. Sophie played Barbe-bleue, Jennie sang Boulotte and Irene was Hermia. However, if this production sported a female hero, there was another which sported a male Boulotte. It was the Kelly and Leon Minstrels’ lavishly-staged five-scene Barber Blu (Brooklyn 24 August, Kelly and Leon’s Theater 31 August 1868) with ‘the only Leon’ in his usual post as prima donna as Bullyette (‘a capital imitation of Irma, and not a burlesque..’) to the Barber of Edwin Kelly, and ‘the favourite airs of the opera carefully retained’. Not so much burlesqued, but potted. The San Francisco Minstrels followed up with a Barber Brown, or the Pacific Sloper. The west coast did rather better by Offenbach and his librettists. On October 12 Barbe-bleue was brought to the boards of the San Francisco Alhambra in the hands of a family rather better equipped to play it than the Worrells: for the Howson family of Australia boasted both girls — sisters Emma as Boulotte and Clelia as Hermia – and men – brother John was Popolani – amongst their numbers and their version, with the splendid Swedish operatic tenor Henry Nordblom starred as Barbe-bleue and Jeff de Angelis as Bobèche came much nearer to the ideal of opéra-bouffe than its very low-burlesquey fellows on the east coast.
In 1875 Alexander Henderson and Samuel Colville brought another botched Barbe-bleue to Broadway (Wallacks’ Theater 19 August) when they starred Britain’s Julia Mathews in what they called Boulotte alongside Alfred Brennir, G H McDermott and Haydn Corri. This version not only chopped around Offenbach’s score, it even popped some bits of Strauss’s Indigo und die vierzig Räuber into the proceedings. It was played for a fortnight on Broadway in repertoire with the more popular Grande-Duchesse and Giroflé-Girofla.

Australia did not get its first Barbe-bleue until 1872, when the Lyster & Cagli company introduced the piece in their Melbourne and Sydney seasons.

Alice May (Boulotte), Richard Stewart (Bobèche), Armes Beaumont (Barbe-bleue) and T H Rainford (Popolani) featured amongst the cast of a production which was followed, in years to come, by many another as Barbe-bleue became, as it had elsewhere, a standard part of the revivable opéra-bouffe repertoire in Australia. […]
Apart from its home city, it was London, which actually gave the piece more hearings than either Orphée aux enfers or La Belle Hélène, which proved the most interested in Barbe-bleue in the decades after its production. After Schneider and Dupuis’s visit in 1869, a new and more faithful English version of the show (ad Charles Lamb Kenney) was mounted at the Standard Theatre with Emily Soldene as a bosomy, mezzo-soprano Boulotte and Wilford Morgan as Bluebeard, and that version was taken up by John Hollingshead at the Gaiety, the following year, where Julia Mathews and E D Beverley starred. Miss Soldene, who had deputised for composer Hervé in the title-rôle of Chilpéric in his show’s London production, later renounced the rôle of Boulotte and gave Australian audiences her interpretation of the very masculine part of Barbe-bleue. The show was given again at the Alhambra in 1871, and in the 1880s the popular couple Florence St John and Claude Marius (Bobèche) found in the piece a vehicle for their highly effective talents. They appeared in Bluebeard, with Henry Bracy as their tenor, at both the Avenue Theatre (16 June 1883) and the Comedy (16 January 1885) before the piecewas put into suspended animation for three-quarters of a century. It was brought out in 1966 when the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company continued its memorable series of Geoffrey Dunn translations, in a staging by Gillian Lynne, which remained several seasons in the repertoire.

The Viennese diva Marie Geistinger as the first Austrian Boulotte.

The Viennese diva Marie Geistinger as the first Austrian Boulotte.

Of course, the most famous “modern” production of Barbe-bleue was the one by Walter Felsenstein at the Komische Oper Berlin, it opened in the early 1960s and was in repertoire till shortly after the fall of the wall, in the early 1990s. Because it was filmed, and is today available on DVD, it is the best-known version of the show. It certainly is a land-mark as far as operetta history and Offenbach interpretations go, but – as Clarke points out – it totally neglects the subversive sexual side of the show that forms its back-bone.

Perhaps this Tonkunst issue will stir new interest in Offenbach’s Barbe-bleue – of which, surprisingly, no modern-day recording exists, not even in the “operatic” EMI Offenbach series. Only the old French radio broadcast is available on disc, with the marvelous Lina Dachary in the Hortense Schneider role, and Henri Legay as the lusty lead.

As the essay in Die Tonkunst points out, the performance material was freshly restored for the Offenbach Edition Keck (OEK), including text books with the original Viennese version, a new German version based on the original censorship libretto from Austria, and a brand new translation by Wolfgang Böhmer.

For more information and a full list of the Tonkunst articles, click here.

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