BARBE-BLEUE Opéra-bouffe in 3 acts

Kurt Gänzl
The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre
1 January, 2001

After their enormous success with La Belle Hélène at the Théâtre des Variétés, the Meilhac-Halévy-Offenbach team followed up with a burlesque of another favourite old tale, that of the gruesomely oversexed and apparently necrophiliac Chevalier Raoul, commonly known as Bluebeard, and his string of murdered wives. By the time Meilhac and Halévy had finished having their fun with Perrault’s version of this bloody, revengeful tale, it had rather a different ring to it.

The original stars of the "Barbe-Bleue" production in Paris.

The original stars of the “Barbe-Bleue” production in Paris: José Dupuis and Hortense Schneider.

Bluebeard’s last and avenging wife, the ladylike Fatima of the legend, became, in the opéra-bouffe version, a bubbling country wench of burstingly obvious charms and indifferent morals called Boulotte (Hortense Schneider). Boulotte attracts the attentions of the many-wived local overlord, the Sire de Barbe-bleue (José Dupuis), when, against all natural justice, she wins the raffle for the virginal post of rosière and, unaware of the fate of her predecessors in the post of Mme Barbe-bleue, she is delighted to have found herself such an advantageous match. Boulotte, however, has to share Meilhac and Halévy’s plotline with the area’s obsessively jealous over-overlord, King Bobèche (Kopp), a monarch who has the habit of executing courtiers who look too appreciatively at his Queen, Clémentine (Aline Duval), and with the complex family affairs of this curious royal family. The helpful courtier Count Oscar (Grenier) rediscovers Princess Hermia (Mlle Vernet), the baby daughter Bobèche and Clémentine exposed when they thought they had a son, living disguised as a florist in Boulotte’s village, and takes her back to court. Hermia’s favourite shepherd, Saphir (Paul Hittemans), turns out, in the best operettic tradition, to be the prince she is scheduled to marry. All would now be well at the court of Bobèche, did not the newly wed Bluebeard now decide that he prefers Hermia to Boulotte. He arranges with his alchemist, Popolani (Henri Couder), to dispose of Boulotte in the same way as he disposed of his previous wives, and sets off to besiege the defenceless Bobèche (who has melted down all his guns to make statues of himself) into giving him Hermia. But Nemesis is nigh. Popolani hasn’t actually killed any of Bluebeard’s wives, but has instead kept them all stashed secretly away, alive, for his own entertainment. And soft-hearted Oscar hasn’t executed Clementine’s admirers either. They are all hidden in the royal basement. And so, Boulotte comes ‘back to life’, leads the undead in the exposure of the nasty habits of the two potentates, and drags Blubeard home by the ear to live unhappily ever after.

Offenbach’s score to the deliciously comical text of his collaborators was as sparkling as its predecessor. Barbe-bleue stalked the countryside declaring in the quickly famous Légende de Barbe-bleue: `Je suis Barbe-bleue, o gué, jamais veuf ne fut plus gai…’, gaily condemned Boulotte to her death (`Le voila donc, le tombeau’/`Vous avez vu ce monument’) and threatened Bobèche with his cannons (`J’ai pas bien loin dans la montagne’) in gay tenorial tones, but it was the prima donna who had the showiest rôle. She began as a saucy country lass (`Y’a des bergers dans le village’) elected May Queen, got to play both a maiden under threat of murder (`Pierre, un beau jour, parvint’) and a death scene (`Holà! Holà! ça me prend là!) in the second act, and invaded Bobèche’s court disguised as a gipsy in the third (`Nous possédons’). The ingénue florist turned Princess was equipped with two numbers, her mother with one, and the piece also included a goodly amount of bristling choruses — notably a decidedly pointed one of fawning courtiers — to make up a score which bubbled with burlesque gaiety.

Barbe-bleue thoroughly confirmed the success of La Belle Hélène and ran through five solid months up to the summer recess.

The week that it closed, the first of what were to be countless international productions throughout the next decade opened, at London’s Olympic Theatre (ad H Bellingham) under the management and direction of Horace Wigan. 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.

Marie Geistinger as Boulotte. in Vienna.

Marie Geistinger as Boulotte. in Vienna.

Friedrich Strampfer and Vienna’s Theater an der Wien followed with a rather less hacked-about Blaubart (ad Julius Hopp) a few months later, using many of the team that had won such a triumph with Die schöne Helena at the same theatre the previous year. Marie Geistinger and Albin Swoboda swapped the rôles of Helen and Paris for those of Boulotte and Bluebeard in the same way that Schneider and Dupuis had done in Paris, Karl Blasel went from Menelaos to Bobèche, Carl Adolf Friese from Agamemnon to Oscar and Matthias Rott from Calchas to Popolani. The newly discovered singing voice of actor Jani Szika was put to use as Saphir. The success of the earlier piece was at least partly repeated and, although Blaubart did not and never would equal the outstanding record of Die schöne Helena in the German language, the show was played in repertoire through the 1870s and was brought back at the Carltheater in 1887 with Geistinger starred alongside Alexander Guttmann (Bobèche), Adolf Brackl (Barbe-bleue) and Antonie Link (Hermia), again in 1897-8, and again in 1902. Hopp’s German version was readapted by Emil Pohl for Berlin’s Friedrich-Wilhelmstädtisches Theater, which welcomed Josefine Gallmeyer as its original Boulotte.

Hungary, although a little slow off the mark, also reserved a fine welcome for Kékszakállu herceg when Endre Latabár’s version was produced first at Kassa and then in Budapest — where the German version had already been seen — with Ilka Medgyaszay and Halmi (another pair who had introduced La Belle Hélène locally) starred.

In 1873 a major new production was mounted in Budapest, with Lujza Blaha (Boulotte) and János Kápolnai (Barbe-bleue) in the lead rôles, and this star pair later played the piece at the Népszinház as it settled comfortably into the Hungarian Offenbach repertoire.

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.

In Paris, Barbe-bleue was brought back in 1872 with Dupuis and Schneider, who had in between times given London their original characterizations in a visit to the St James’s Theatre (28 June 1869), repeating their now famous rôles, whilst an 1888 revival gave Jeanne Granier the opportunity to play Boulotte on the same stage and opposite the same leading man as her illustrious predecessor, followed in 1904 by Anna Tariol-Baugé. The most recent Parisian production, in 1971 at the Théâtre de Paris, was of a foolishly revised version souped up to create a starring rôle where none was before, but Barbe-bleue has subsequently been seen in its original form outside Paris.

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.

Aging opera superstar Leo Slezak as Blaubart in Berlin.

Aging opera superstar Leo Slezak as Blaubart in Berlin.

Germany has similarly shown an enduring fancy for Blaubart (aka Ritter Blaubart). A 1929 Metropoltheater production by Fritz Friedmann-Friedrich with Leo Slezak starred as the randy Ritter alongside the Boulotte of Kathe Dörsch was taken to Vienna in 1930 with Slezak, Grete Finkler, Fritz Imhoff (Bobèche) and Hanns Wilhelm (Popolani) featured, and in 1963 the Berlin Komische Oper mounted a highly successful production of a revised version (Ritter Blaubart), with Anny Schlemm as a bubbling Boulotte. This has led to regular further German stagings of an opéra-bouffe which, in spite of all its extravagant charms, remains today firmly in the shadow of Orphée aux enfers and La Belle Hélène.

The originally gory tale of an oriental wife-killer whose last spouse survives and proves his undoing is found in many cultures, but it has come down to the modern Western world through Perrault’s Histoires et contes du temps passé (otherwise Contes de ma mére l’Oye) as originally translated into English by Robert Samber. It has found its way on to the stage in many different versions, from spectacular melodrama to musical extravaganza, of which Offenbach’s has survived as by far the most memorable, but of which several others found success in their time. André Gretry’s 1789 `heroic comic-opera’ [Raoul] Barbe-bleue (lib: Jean-Michel Sedaine), played in German as Raoul der Blaubart, was an early success and it was followed by the first English-language stage musical versions: a 1791 pantomime at Covent Garden written by George Colman, and a 1798 Drury Lane `musical dramatic romance’ with music by Michael Kelly. Paris welcomed a 16-scene féerie Barbe-bleue by Alphonse Kellér at the Funambules in 1851 (23 August), and a verse piece, Sept Femmes de Barbe-bleue, in 1852, whilst another féerie of that same title by Anicet-Bourgeois and Masson was produced, at the Théâtre Beaumarchais, two seasons later (23 April 1854).

Bluebeard remained a favourite British pantomime topic for a century, whilst also coming regularly into the hands of the burlesque makers. Planché provided a Bluebeard, or Female Curiosity for Vestris in 1839 (Olympic Theatre, 1 January), and later efforts included Hints to the Curious, or Bluebeard according to Act of Parliament at the Strand Theatre (27 June 1853), H J Byron’s Bluebeard from a new point of hue (Adelphi Theatre 26 December 1860), a Crystal Palace piece by H T Arnold (29 March 1869) with Lionel Brough featured, The Latest Edition of Bluebeard (Alexandra Theatre May 1870), H B Farnie’s celebrated burlesque Bluebeard, or the Mormon, the Maiden and The Little Militaire written for Lydia Thompson and played by her throughout Britain (Globe Theatre 1 March 1875) and America, a Bluebeard Retrimmed (Royal Park Theatre May 1877), F C Burnand’s Gaiety piece Bluebeard, or the hazard of the dye (12 March 1883) and J Pitt Hardacre’s touring Bluebeard-up-to-Date (1893). In America, where the subject was long a favourite as a mid-19th-century circus production, Fred Eustis, Richard Maddern and Clay M Greene brought out a Bluebeard jr in Chicago (11 June 1889) and at New York’s Niblo’s Garden in the following year (13 January 1890).

The 20th century has seen the man with the overly replaceable wives go rather out of fashion both as a tale and as a stage character, but in 1918 Béla Bártok turned out the most famous of operatic Bluebeards with A kékszakállu herceg vara (Bluebeard’s Castle), a one-act opera composed to a text by Béla Balázs and produced at Budapest’s Opera House (24 May) prior to productions around the world. Another, full-length, operatic Bluebeard was composed by Emil Reznicek (Ritter Blaubart Darmstadt 29 January 1920).

UK: Olympic Theatre Bluebeard Re-paired 2 June 1866; Austria: Theater an der Wien Blaubart 21 September 1866; Germany: Friedrich-Wilhelmstädtisches Theater Blaubart 13 March 1867; Hungary: Kassa A kékszakállu herceg 7 November 1868, Budai Színkör Blaubart 15 June 1869, Kékszakállu herceg 29 May 1870; USA: Niblo’s Garden (Fr) 13 July 1868, National Theater, Washington (Eng) Bluebeard 9 December 1868, Worrell Sisters Theater Bluebeard 19 December 1868, Australia: Princess Theatre, Melbourne 22 April 1872

Recording: complete (Bourg), selection (UORC)

Film: Classic Video Dreamlife (Berlin Komische Oper) (1973)