“Barbe-Bleue” In Lyon: A Night Of Perfection

Chris Weber
Operetta Research Center
26 June, 2019

It is so easy to rip a performance apart. But what do you do if you see perfection? Alright, if I have to pick nits about this Barbe-Bleue at the Opéra Lyon there is the woman singing Queen Clementine, who has one lovely and poignant song about how she was taken as a 16 year old innocent and married the King, and has been miserable ever since. Somewhere there is a record put out by the old East German company of Offenbach songs sung by good singers I’d never heard of, and the sadness of her situation comes through so very well. On the same record, the great Karl Kraus, who put on one-man ‘performances’ of Offenbach in the German he translated himself in the 1920s and very early 30s, has someone sing his “Opportunisten Canzonette” about the bowing and scraping of the courtiers in the presence of the King, and also does a great job.

Last night, I thought of the cabinet officials of the current US president each in turn going around telling him and the world how great he was. You probably saw it. So some things never change. And indeed, that’s why a piece from 1866 still connects so strongly with audiences since.

But my mild criticism of the Queen last night only stands in relief against the excellence of everything and everyone else. I was so lucky to snag a wonderful seat: each of the remaining performances is sold out.

But luckily there were cameras set up. Opéra Lyon has put out DVDs before, and I hope this one joins those others. I only know that I was in heaven from start to finish.

Once in a great while you see something that makes up for the many mediocre performances which require you to bring your own imagination to fill in the many blanks.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Barbe-Bleue since 1982′s East Berlin’s Walter Felsenstein production. That was like starting at the top. My first stand-up comedian was Chris Rock in 1997 trying out new material in a small club. “My God”, I said to myself: “what have I been missing all these years?”

But then as I saw other comics I realized how lucky my first experience had been. It’s been like that with Barbe-Bleue. I saw it last exactly six years ago when the late, great Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducted a semi-staged version in his home town of Graz, Austria. It was recorded and shown on Austrian TV.

At age 83, three years from his death in 2016, he was an institution. It didn’t hurt that he was descended from the Holy Roman Emperors: such things are important in Austria. But he made his name as a proponent of Early Music starting in the 50s.

But as he turned 80 he began to concentrate on sorts of music he loved; music that was far from what he was associated with. And being so highly venerated, he was able to do what he wanted. So one of the last things he did was Ritter Blaubart as it is known in German.

He said that Offenbach was far too underrated as a musician, and wanted to help his reputation. What I saw him do in 2013 was good, but Lyon Opéra last night simply was on another level. Everything meshed; it all came together in perfection.

I’ve now used that word three times, but I don’t know what else to say. I had to dig deep about that one singer to find any flaws at all in it. The director, Laurent Pelly, is apparently a big deal in France, but I had not heard of him. The conductor, Michele Spotti, was just perfect, as was his orchestra.

Overall, it was one of those far too few nights in the theatre where you feel lucky to be alive and where you are. And you feel: privileged.

I only hope the world can see this if they put out the DVD. And I know that seeing it live in the theatre is no perfect substitution for a DVD. But still, if it even captures half of the greatness I saw last night, I will be happy.

A word about Lyon Opéra. It was my first experience. In all my years traveling and living in France I had never been. A lovely city with enchanting architecture, extremely friendly people, and prices half those in Paris. The theatre itself, while housed in a 19th century building, is a modern one, in the traditional ‘horseshoe’ style. But it had air conditioning. You didn’t hear it, but it was extremely comfortable during France’s current horrific heat wave, and you were grateful for that as well.

Opéra Lyon is a tremendous company. Even the smallest roles of the chorus are done without blemish. They act as well as they sing. I was simply transported from start to finish. Every so often you just get lucky, and last night was one of those times. Things like that make up for so many lousy shows … but I’ve already said that.

I don’t know how much to get into the story. For a publication like this you have to assume that most anyone who reads this knows it. But still, on the off-chance you don’t know it, I don’t want to give any surprises away. It’s a reworking of the 1697 grisly fairy tale of Bluebeard, who was famous for marrying many wives and killing them.

Offenbach and his two ace collaborators, writers Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac so very obviously had a fun time putting this together, and critics at the time were fairly unanimous in praising the text. Indeed, 150 years later it is as fresh as ever. Halévy was the private secretary of the very powerful Duke de Morny. Morny was Napoleon III’s half brother, each sharing the same mother (Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense). Morny was really the power behind the throne of the Second Empire, as the wonderful new biography of Napoleon III (The Shadow Emperor: A Biography of Napoleon III by Alan Strauss-Schom) makes quite clear. I’ve promised to write a review of this book and hope to do so.

"The Shadow Emperor: A Biography of Napoleon III" by Alan Strauss-Schom.

“The Shadow Emperor: A Biography of Napoleon III” by Alan Strauss-Schom.

Morny’s power made life so much easier for Offenbach, who was very sad upon his early death in 1865, a year before Barbe-Bleue came out. Morny’s death was also a catastrophe for Napoleon III. The Second Empire continued for another 5 years, but the heart and brains had gone out of it with Morny’s death.

Charles Auguste Louis Joseph, duc de Morny, half-brother of Emperor Napoleon III.

Charles Auguste Louis Joseph, duc de Morny, half-brother of Emperor Napoleon III.

And what a difference a few years make! Compare this 1866 work to the 1878 Madame Favart and you see how the world had changed. Before the 1870 Franco-Prussian war put an end to France’s Second Empire – and some historians would say ‘put an end to the greatness of Europe and European culture’ – the audiences were different. They wanted elegant, edgy shows that had many more than just one level. In short, it was a Golden Age. After 1870 it all changed. Audiences wanted to wallow in the past, to hear sentimental stories of when France was great.

I’m not saying that everything after 1870 was bad. In fact, the one show I love the most from that era which is not by Offenbach is by Charles Lecocq from late 1872. I happen to love the exciting period in French history – the 1790s – that the story was set in. The first time I saw it was at one of my favorite French theatres, the Chatelet.  I’ve gone out of my way to see it since.

The film version by Jean-Bernard Derosne.

The film version by Jean-Bernard Derosne.

My friend, the great scholar Kurt Gänzl, has told me that this is the one piece he most regrets never having seen. That night at the Chatelet was also as close to a perfect performance of anything I’ve ever seen. Like other shows, it doesn’t seem to ‘travel well’. You can say this about the great German opera Der Freischütz. I saw a San Fransisco production of Madame Angot, and the people involved very much believed in it, but somehow it just didn’t come off. Every other showing has been in provincial French houses, always to enthusiastic audiences. If you ever get a chance, please try to see it.

Franz von Suppé, in 1885.

Franz von Suppé, in 1885.

I feel a little badly for poor Franz von Suppé. He, like Offenbach, was also born in 1819, but almost no notice is being taken of that. His 1879 Boccaccio, if done right, is absolutely tremendous. Both Kurt Gänzl and I saw the old production in the Vienna Volksoper. It was in the late 1970s, probably to commemorate the centenary of the show. It was simply wonderful, and for 35 US cents you could see it with a standing room ticket which was easy to translate into an actual empty seat when the guards looked the other way.

I never saw it again, but Kurt saw the next production and his abject disappointment was still evident when he told me about it many years later. Never had such a great production been followed by such a foul one. As I recall, it was so bad that Kurt left early (though I’m not sure about that).

My traveling and interest in Offenbach and his time have brought me into contact with two memorable people: Kurt Gänzl and the late Antonio de Almeida. The latter I got to know through my efforts to get a complete text for La Princesse de Trebizonde in the mid-1980s. It was for a small San Francisco opera company whose head was crazy about Offenbach and wanted the best text possible to translate from. It resulted in a wonderful run of Trebizonde that I couldn’t get enough of, along with others like Les Bavards, Les Brigands and The Bridge of Sighs.

San Francisco in the 1980s, with Donald Pippin’s Pocket Opera doing these pieces and many more, was just a wonderful place to live. I know that to most people, what I’ve seen in my life would not mean much. But for me, I know full well how lucky I’ve been.

Anyway, I got to know Almeida and quickly became close to him. I spent Christmas of 1984 with Almeida, his wonderful, beautiful and elegant wife Lynn, and their three children in their dream of a place near St Remy de Provence. He had a huge cache of original manuscripts. Not just Offenbach, either. One of the great thrills of my life was touching Mozart’s manuscript for the “Rondo alla turca”. Just like you hear, it had no corrections: Mozart had worked out the music in his head and simply set it down.

Antonio de Almeida had spent a lifetime accumulating these manuscripts. It helped that Lynn came from a wealthy family. Not long after I saw them he sold them. I believe they now belong to Fred Koch, one of the four Koch brothers, and one who is not political the way Charles and David are. Fred lives a very low-profile life. He is gay, and has no heirs that I know of, so I don’t know what will happen to those wonderful manuscripts when he dies.

I wonder about this only because of the tremendous collection of Offenbach manuscripts. In a recent letter, the great Andrew Lamb – who I unfortunately have never met – wrote to Robert Folstein of the Jacques Offenbach Society. Lamb looked back over 50 years of writing about Offenbach and the vast difference in research about him from that time to this: “As far as research is concerned, the situation would have changed even more if Antonio de Almeida’s monumental  Offenbach catalogue – the result of so many years’ labour – had reached publication.”

I know that Tony’s work on this catalogue was extremely important to him, and I don’t understand why it has never been published. I only saw a fraction of it. But his untimely death 22 years ago – the result of a lifetime of smoking – left us all much poorer. And these are not just words I’m writing. Sure, he had flaws: we all do. But in his love for Offenbach and knowledge to back that love, his death left a gaping hole. I don’t know the condition of that catalogue, who owns it, or what it would take for it to finally see publication. I wish I did.

Sheet music cover for Offenbachs " Madame l'Archiduc."

Sheet music cover for Offenbachs ” Madame l’Archiduc.”

Incidentally, everyone has their own favorite Offenbach which to their minds should be performed all the time. For Antonio de Almeida it was Madame l’Archiduc. This show, which I’ve never seen, dates from 1874. That is the very period where people say his work suffered.

So back to comparing Madame Favart to Barbe-Bleue. The 1878 show has sweetness and tenderness, and in Act One some beautiful music. But Barbe-Bleue has it all. Simply stated, it is a masterpiece. And when you get a company with people who believe in it and are good enough in both singing and acting, you get a slice of heaven.

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.”

Madame Favart is Offenbach running out of steam: a 59 year old man whose life is nearly over. But with Bluebeard he is at the very top of his game. The times, the collaborators, the audience desires, everything comes together.

Incidentally, Offenbach’s shows nearly always have strong women who either put things right or keep them right. And never did he create a more memorable woman – to my mind, anyway – than he did with Boulotte in Barbe-Bleue. He was a feminist long before it was fashionable to be one. And the original Boulotte, the famous Hortense Schneider, must have been something to see. Boulotte is a peasant woman, but she’s not taking crap from anyone, even from dukes or kings. She’s her own person who lives and acts just the way she wants to, and doesn’t care two figs if anyone else is outraged by it. In the scene where she is introduced at the palace, in a world of opportunists and fakes, she is the only real human being there. And she’s not only interested in her own freedom: in a very memorable scene she is the perfect libertarian: proclaiming liberty because it will result in a joyous life for at least five other women, and, by extension, for all the world. But it was 1866: the clock was ticking down on the liberal and exciting era which would end when the Prussian boots marched into Paris. But for that short and wonderful time in history and culture, we are all lucky to have things like Barbe-Bleue. And for a performance like this, I only hope that those cameras I saw will capture even half of the excitement I witnessed last night.

I have to mention the Boulotte: Heloise Mas. She is a wonderful actor and singer, and has the requisite “Rubenesque” figure that Bluebeard immediately falls for, even though it is probable that she is not the virgin he normally requires of his wives. I have never heard of La Mas, but that means nothing. My attitude toward the artists who make these things possible is closer to either Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder’s attitude toward actors: that they are “cattle” who exist to serve the piece. I wouldn’t use that word, “cattle”. But you’ll never catch me in love with any divas. The closest I ever got was the respect for the mezzo Frederica von Stade, who, quite incidentally, has said that she would have loved to since fully mounted Offenbach productions. She mentioned one in particular: La Diva.

Poster for Offenbachs "La Diva."

Poster for Offenbachs “La Diva.”

I only know that it saw the light of day on March 22, 1869, that fateful last year and a great year of fecundity by Offenbach. And La Diva has the same trio that brought forth Barbe-Bleue with Meilhac and Halévy.

As far as I know, there has not even been a production of it in modern times. It all goes to show you how much more there is waiting to be discovered. All it takes is people who believe in them.

To read part 1 of Chris Weber’s Offenbach travel stories, click here.

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