The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre
6 July, 2021
In the midst of Meilhac, Halévy and Offenbach’s dazzling series of successes with the earliest of their famous opéras-bouffes – La Belle Hélène (1864), Barbe-bleue (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867) – the team collaborated on an equally successful non-burlesque work (which they, nevertheless, on the wings of the current fashion described as an ‘opéra-bouffe’), which was produced by Plunkett at the Palais-Royal on 31 October 1866.
That house and its company were not in the business of producing opérette, the members of the resident company (only slightly reinforced for the occasion) were not experienced singers, only actors, and the piece – a farcical comedy of manners which did not make extravagant vocal demands on most of its performers – was written (and re-written, for it was reduced from five acts to four shortly after its première) accordingly.
Bobinet (Gil-Perès) and Gardefeu (Priston) are a pally pair of men-about-Paris who have suffered some amour-properly bruising treatment in their affairs with the women of the demi-monde, notably the saucy Métella (Mlle Honorine). As a result they have decided to opt for an affair with a femme du monde instead. Gardefeu poses as a tour guide and picks up the visiting Swedish Baron (Hyacinthe) and Baroness (Céline Montaland) de Gondremarck and, in his attempt to seduce the lady, takes the pair to his own home, pretending it is an hotel. The Baron is hoping for a good Parisian time, and indeed has a letter of introduction to Métella, so Gardefeu gets Bobinet to arrange a jolly party – with all his servants and their friends dressed up as cavorting aristocratic guests – to keep the husband happy whilst he chats up the Baroness. However, the Baron has no luck with Métella who instead provides him with a masked friend as company whilst she turns her charms back on to Gardefeu. When the mask finally comes off, the Baron finds he has been charmed by his own wife. As for Bobinet and Gardefeu, they are back where they started.
Jules Brasseur had a triple rôle as an extravagant Brazilian (Acts I and IV) out to spend a fortune on a fling in Paris, as a bootmaker, disguised as an army major for the Act II party, and as a butler (Act III), Elvire Paurelle was the pretty maidservant, Pauline, who catches the Baron’s eye at the party, and Zulma Bouffar – added to the cast at Offenbach’s insistence to give some vocal values – played Gardefeu’s little glove-maker, Gabrielle, who partakes of all the fun and impersonations and ends up on the arm of the Brazilian as everyone prepares to live it up at the isn’t-Paris-wonderful final curtain.
Offenbach provided a glitteringly light-fingered musical score to go with the wittily concocted high-jinks of the text. The Brazilian gabbled out his joy at being back in Paris all over the railway station (‘Je suis brésilien’), the Baron declared gluttonously ‘Je veux m’en fourrer jusque-là!’, Gabrielle trilled into her upper-class disguise (‘Je suis veuve d’un colonel’) and described sexily how ‘Sa robe fait frou, frou’, whilst Métella had a showpiece letter song – the letter in question being the ‘recommendation’ of the Baron’s once-lucky friend to show the hungry Swede an extremely good time (‘Vous souvient-il, ma belle’) – all as part of a score which never left off laughing from beginning to end.
In spite of a lack of confidence prior to opening, La Vie parisienne – soon shorn of a fourth act showing what the Baroness gets up to whilst her husband is partying with Bobinet – was an enormous success, occupying the Palais-Royal for an entire year whilst the show began to spread itself to other parts of the world. Vienna’s Carltheater was first off the mark, opening its version of the five-act version (ad Karl Treumann) three months to the day after the Palais-Royal première.
Josef Matras (Bobinet), Franz Tewele (Gardefeu), Wilhelm Knaack (Gondremarck), Karl Treumann (Brazilian/Prosper/Frick), Josefine Gallmeyer (Gabrielle), Anna Grobecker (Pauline), Marie Fontelive (Baroness) and Anna Müller (Métella) took the leading rôles, and the piece became an instant favourite. It remained in the theatre’s repertoire for many years, being played 126 times (to 11 August 1876) in its first decade, and was brought back in a new production in 1889, with Knaack in his original rôle alongside Emma Seebold (Métella) and Karl Streitmann (Brazilian), which was played for the next four seasons.
A major Viennese revival was mounted at the Theater an der Wien in 1911 (28 October) with Louis Treumann (Brazilian etc), Mizzi Günther (Gabrielle), Luise Kartousch (Pauline), Paul Guttmann (Baron), Victor Flemming (Bobinet), Ludwig Herold (Gardefeu) and Ida Russka (Métella) featured through 43 performances.
Berlin, which followed Vienna in maintaining the five-act version, followed just months behind the Austrian capital, and, lthough it never became the favourite that Blaubart or Die schöne Helena did, the show did well enough that it was still to be seen on the berlin stage in 1906 (13 December) when it was produced at the Konische Oper with Karl Pfann (Gardefeu), Brose (Bobinet), Frln Hofmann (Gabrielle) and Frln von Martinowska (Métella) featured.
New York first saw the piece, in French, two years after Vienna, with Rose Bell, Marie Desclauzas and Paul Juignet heading the cast of the four-act version, and La Vie parisienne was subsequently played by Marie Aimée and by other opéra-bouffe companies throughout the country, but the first English-language version (ad F C Burnand) was seen not in New York but in London. Burnand considerably altered, resituated and generally anglicized the script and the result, which he even titled La Vie Parisienne in London,in spite of being played by such actors as Lionel Brough (Baron), Harriet Coveney (Baroness) and Lottie Venne (Polly Twinkle), was not long-lived. But the lesson of the flop was not learned. H B Farnie turned out another English adaptation which called itself simply La Vie (all things Parisian having been again deleted), which was mounted by Alexander Henderson with great fanfare at the Avenue Theatre in 1883 (3 October) with Brough again starred alongside Arthur Roberts, Camille D’Arville and Lillian La Rue.
It again proved to be a hamfistedly anglicized and altered version and, again, it was a failure although the production was kept doggedly on for 116 performances. This version was later sent to the country, in a production which reeked more of variety-show than of opéra-bouffe, and it was also produced on Broadway – duly americanized and its comedy even more roundly lowered – with Richard Mansfield as Baron von Wienerschnitzel (the name more or less typified the tone of the adaptation) and Fannie Rice as Gabrielle.
However, even more disastrous than these was an effort by A P Herbert and A D Adams to ‘improve’ Meilhac and Halévy (and Offenbach) with a feeble patchwork mounted at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1929 (29 April) and England had to wait until 1961 (24 May) and Geoffrey Dunn’s witty version for the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company to hear an English La Vie parisienne which approximated the original French one. The most recent British production was given in the 1990s by the resuscitated D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.
Budapest first saw Pariser Leben in its German version, but Endre Latabár’s Párizsi élet followed and it won much the same success that the French and German versions had. Swedish, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Danish and Czech versions were amongst those that followed. However, it was in France that La Vie parisienne won and maintained its greatest popularity. The show was taken into the repertoire at the Théâtre des Variétés in 1875 (25 September) where Mlle Bouffar repeated her creation alongside such seasoned musical performers as José Dupuis (Baron), Berthelier (Brazilian etc) and Cooper (Gardefeu), and Paris saw regular performances thereafter. Dupuis, Mlle Bouffar and Cooper repeated their performances in 1883, with Baron now appearing as Bobinet and Mary Albert as Métella. In 1889 (18 September) at the Variétés Jeanne Granier was Gabrielle alongside Dupuis and Baron.
The Opéra-Comique received the piece in 1931, the Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud company revived it at the Palais-Royal in 1958, with its principals appearing as the Brazilian (etc) and the Baroness respectively, a revised version (ad Jean Marsan, Raymond Vogel) was produced at the Opéra-Comique in 1974 whilst, in the desert of musical productions that Paris became in the 1980s, it was nevertheless produced twice (Théâtre du Châtelet 4 November 1980, Théâtre de Paris 16 October 1985). In 1990 further performances were given at the Opéra-Comique (4 December).
The characters of the Baron de Gondremarck, Bobinet and Gardefeu were reprised by Victor de Cottens and Robert Charvay in their 1899 Le Fiancé de Thylda in which the fiancé of the title, longing to taste the naughty world before marriage, dreams himself into a whirl round Paris with the folk of Meilhac and Halévy’s tale.
An important vertebra of the French musical theatre repertoire, the show is played regularly and still retains popularity throughout the world in varying forms – the German-language theatre, for example, still favours the five-act version and now, apparently, others are also casting eyes towards it – but in the English-language theatre La Vie parisienne has never wholly recovered from its initial poor adaptations and the unfavourable impression they left behind.
English and French versions of an inevitably messed-about-with version were filmed in 1935, with Max Dearly featured, and a slightly less cavalier version in 1977. A trendy, underfunny production from Lyon was videofilmed in 1991.
In the present century trendy, underfunny ‘versions’ seem to be the norm. Meilhac and Halévy knew what they were doing, so why …?
Austria: Carltheater Pariser Leben 31 January 1867; Germany: Friedrich-Wilhelmstädtisches Theater Pariser Leben 22 May 1867; USA: Theatre Francais (Fr) 29 March 1869, Bijou Theater (Eng) 18 April 1884; Hungary: (Ger) 25 May 1867, Budai Színkör Párizsi élet 1 July 1871; UK: Holborn Theatre La Vie Parisienne in London 30 March 1872, Avenue Theatre La Vie 3 October 1883.