Offenbach, the Opéra-Comique and “Vert-Vert”

Patrick O'Connor
Opera Rara (expanded version of their booklett text, with permission of the author)
28 January, 2010

In 1867, the year of the extravagant Paris Exposition Universelle , Offenbach’s success reached its apogee. His new opera bouffes, La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein at the Variétés and La vie parisienne at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, drew packed houses every night. Orphée aux enfers was revived at his own theatre, Les Bouffes Parisiens, and in London, Vienna and New York his works were applauded. Rossini had called Offenbach “the Mozart of the Champs-Elysées”, but in spite of his great popularity, like many artists, the composer hankered after a touch of respectability, the acknowledgement of the establishment. In Paris, this meant the Théâtre Impériale de l’Opéra, or at least the more solidly bourgeois Opéra-Comique – in his early career, as a cellist, he had played in the orchestra there.

Caricature showing the original tenor hero Victor Capoul (1839-1924).

Caricature showing the original tenor hero Victor Capoul (1839-1924).

Once Offenbach had established himself as the master of opéra-bouffe – between 1855 and 1859 he composed more than twenty-five stage works, culminating in the sensational success of Orphée in 1858 – he was commissioned by the management at the Opéra-Comique to provide the theatre with an original piece. This was Barkouf, in 1860. In January that year Offenbach had become a French citizen, and in April had been honoured by Napoleon III, who attended a performance of Orphée and presented the composer with a bronze inscribed, “L’Empereur à Jacques Offenbach”. It can hardly have been coincidental that both the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique saw fit to commission works from him later that year. The two-act ballet Le Papillon was given at L’Opéra in November, and on Christmas Eve came the premiere of Barkouf at the Opéra-Comique. The libretto by Eugène Scribe and Henry Boisseaux was a thin satire, in which a dog, Barkouf, is appointed Governor of Lahore by the Grand Mogul. Audiences and critics were hostile, Hector Berlioz reviewed it in the Journal des Débats, and mocked the plot, the harmonies, the orchestration and what he considered the lack of musical taste. He concluded that he had never seen the foyer in such a state, with people leaping up in anger.

For Offenbach this failure was just a tiny set-back. The early 1860s brought more successes with Le Pont des soupirs (1861), Les Bavards (1863), Il Signor Fagatto – in which Offenbach, and his librettists Nuitter and Tréfeu parodied Berlioz – and above all La Belle Hélène in 1864. In this, Offenbach’s favourite leading-lady, Hortense Schneider, had the greatest triumph of her career, and in the following years Helen was seen in Vienna, Prague, Stockholm, Berlin, London, Milan, Constantinople, Saint Petersburg and New York. So it was that the failure of Barkouf in 1860 was well and truly forgotten, and the Opéra-Comique asked Offenbach back once again. In 1867 he gave the theatre Robinson Crusoé. A comparatively gentle spoof of Defoe’s classic, to a libretto by Hector Crémieux and Eugène Cormon, in which Man Friday was played by a mezzo-soprano (Célestine Galli-Marié, later to be the first Carmen), it was received well enough, but was given only 32 performances. If Barkouf had been too broad in its comedy, then maybe Robinson was just too genteel
There is another consideration where Offenbach and the Opéra-Comique is concerned. Delightful though his music seemed, and it was played everywhere, the risqué element in most of his stage works, and the atmosphere that surrounded his theatres, were seen to be scandalous and distasteful to many commentators. The brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, in their Journal had this to say:
On cause sur ce grand petit théâtre, le Figaro des théâtres, les Bouffes: tout ce qu’il tient de place, tout ce qu’il occupe de curiosité, tous les mondes auxquels il touché, Jockey-Club, les biches, etc. Mauvais lieu bon genre de la jupe écourtée, de la musique grivoise et de la cascade de Désiré, bonbonnière de refrains et de bidets, à la porte duquel on voit les photographies des actrices dans leurs costumes décolletés, théâtre de cabinets particuliers et de petites loges, cirque de gandins…Ils sont là un petit monde qui se tient, allant d’Halévy à Crémieux à Villemessant, de Villemessant à Offenbach, chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur – tripotant, vendant un peu de tout…toute cette jeune génération – qu’on dirait mise au monde au sortir d’un vaudeville, entre deux coups de Bourse et qui, de suite, s’est élevée d’elle-même à calculer uniquement ce que rapport un couplet – tout ce qu’il y a d’immoralité dans tout ce qui monte, s’agite, prend le bruit, le public, tout ce que nous remuons de boue en parlant des uns et des autres, nous fait tristes et du dégoût plein de coeur.”

There would have been sections of the public who would never have entered the Bouffes Parisiens, known to be the haunt of the demi-monde. These same people, however, were comfortable at the Opéra-Comique. Adolphe de Leuven, director of the theatre from 1862 to 1874, was horrified when Bizet, Meilhac and Halévy proposed Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen as a subject for an opera. “Ce mileu de voleurs, de bohémiennes, de cigarières! – À l’Opéra-Comique, le théâtre des familles! Le théâtre des entrevues de mariages! Nous avons, tous les soirs, cinq ou six loges louées pour ces entrevues. Vous allez mettre notre public en fuite.” De Leuven was an old colleague of Offenbach’s, a librettist as well as a theatre director, he had been co-author of one of the composer’s earliest pieces, L’Alcove, first performed in 1847. Working under various pseudonyms, as well as his own name, de Leuven was author, or usually co-author, of more than 170 plays and operas, including Adam’s Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, Halévy’s Jaguarita l’Indienne and Bazin’s Maître Pathelin. While Robinson Crusoé was playing at the Opéra-Comique, La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein closed at the Variétés, after more than 200 performances. It had taken 87,000 francs at the box office. Offenbach was eager to follow up this success, and during the summer of 1868 worked furiously, finishing the score of La Périchole, a new triumph for Hortense Schneider at the Variétés in October, and commencing Les Brigands, La Princesse de Trébizonde, La Diva and Vert-Vert. All four works were given their premieres in 1869, the last year of peace for the Parisians of the Second Empire, and the last of Offenbach’s reign as the undisputed king of opera-bouffe.

With Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, Offenbach had enjoyed some of his greatest moments. Like many other musical-literary collaborators, theirs was not an altogether easy partnership, and while they supplied the librettos for La Périchole, Les Brigands and La Diva, they were not both available for Offenbach’s new commission for the Opéra-Comique.
Vert-Vert was inspired by the famous poem, written by Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset in 1734. In this, the parrot Ver-Vert is the adored pet in a convent at Nevers. He has learned to speak, and is admired by visitors and all the sisters.
Jamais du mal il n’avait eu l’idée,
Ne disait onc un immodest mot:
Mais en revanche il savait des cantiques
Des oremus, des colloques mystiques;
Il disait bein son benedicite,
Et notre mere, et votre charité

The bird is sent on a voyage to Nantes, to lodge with a different order, but on the voyage falls in with a bad crowd, forgets the sacred phrases he had learned from the nuns, and shocks his new companions with his gutter language.
‘Jour de dieu!…Mor!…mille pipes de diables!’
Toute la grille, à ces mots effroyables,
Tremble d’horreur; les nonettes sans voix
Font, en fuyant, mille signes de croix

Returned in disgrace, and confined to his cage, he is gradually weaned back to the paths of righteousness, and the parrot dies in a new state of piety. In its day Ver-Vert had been seen as anti-clerical, but had survived as a classic example of the conte en vers.

The book had already been adapted for the stage several times, in 1790 by Dalayrac (a one-act “Divertissement mélé d’ariettes”, when the parrot acquired the extra “t” as Vert-Vert), then as a vaudeville, written in 1831 by De Leuven with Pittaud De Forges for the famous actress Virginie Déjazet. One of her greatest triumphs in Paris, it was chosen for her first appearance in London in 1842. Déjazet played the title-role, en travestie, a young man who has been protected from the world, but goes on the razzle with some boisterous male companions. Fanny Kemble attended the season at the St James’s Theatre and recorded in her diary: “The performance was, I think, one of the most impudent I ever witnessed…She is a marvellous actress, and without exception the most brazen-faced woman I ever beheld, and that is saying a great deal.”

The subject was used again in 1851 for a three-act ballet, composed by Ernest Deldevez and Jean Baptiste Tolbecque and choreographed by Joseph Mazilier. This provided a debut role at L’Opéra for Olimpia Priora as the heroine, Blanche, with Adeline Plunkett as Vert-Vert. The story held to the same outline, with an ample ball-room scene added, to provide an opportunity for a ballet-within-the-ballet, Le Fruit défendu, which Plunkett and Priora danced in the traditional costume of shepherd and shepherdess. Theophile Gautier wrote of Plunkett’s appearance as Vert-Vert, “Impossible to dream of a little fellow daintier, more roguish, more arch, more prettily petulant than she”.

It was perhaps understandable that De Leuven saw a chance to score a third success with his by-then nearly forty-year-old reworking of Gresset’s theme. Although the publicity bore only the names of Meilhac and Charles Nuitter as librettists, according to Offenbach’s biographer Jean-Claude Yon (Jacques Offenbach, Gallimard, 2000), De Leuven, De Forges and Halévy all eventually had a hand in it. Too many cooks, no doubt, and critics were swift to point out that all the double-entendres that Déjazet had taken advantage of to amuse and scandalise her audiences had been expunged. The story as it remained was hardly likely to bring a blush to the most innocent cheek. Still, that was what De Leuven and his manager, Camille Du Locle, were looking for, a chance for their regular subscribers to enjoy an Offenbach premiere in more salubrious surroundings. The piece went into rehearsal in January and the first night was eventually scheduled for 10 March. Berlioz died two days before, so he was no longer there to level criticism at the man he had once called a musician with a twisted mind.

The cast assembled for the premiere was led by the tenor Victor Capoul (1839-1924), who had established himself as one of the favourites in the Opéra-Comique ensemble, especially amongst the female patrons. Capoul had given his name to a hair-style – “À la Capoul” for years meant a central parting, with a wavy curl on either side. Capoul was also proud of his fine moustache, and it was a shock to the audience to find that he had shaved it off, to play the innocent young Valentin/Vert-Vert. Many journalists made fun of this, le Moniteur des Théâtres et des plaisirs heading a typical piece “Les moustaches Récalcitrantes” and commenting, “Toujours l’histoire du fruit défendu!” Capoul’s singing, especially of the “Alleluia” and the drinking song in the second act were commented on favourably all round. As the sophisticated prima-donna La Corilla, Caroline Girard had a success. She had played the role of Suzanne in Robinson Crusoé, and Georgette in Massé’s Les Dragons de Villars. (Her daughter, Juliette Simon-Girard would later be Offenbach’s last leading lady, starring in Madame Favart and La fille du Tambour-Major.) The dancing-master Baladon was sung by Jean-Antoine-Charles Couderc and the two dragoons, d’Arlange and de Bergerac, by Pierre (Pedro) Gailhard and Pierre Armand Potel. Gailhard was just at the beginning of his career, he later became a favourite at Covent Garden, and after his retirement, was the director of L’Opéra. Vert-Vert’s love interest, the convent girl Mimi was sung by Marie Cico, another veteran from the cast of Robinson Crusoé, in which she had been the first to sing the great waltz-song, “Conduisez-moi vers celui que j’adore”. Sainte-Foy, who had been in Barkouf and Robinson Crusoé played the gardener, Binet.

Offenbach’s admirers wished for his success, just as much as his detractors were hoping to see him fall from grace with the public. The reviews were not unfavourable, but there was a sense of unease about what to make of the new piece. Paris-Comique on 21 March led with an editorial that noted the polychrome state of theatre in Paris: “Il faut avouer que les directeurs nous en font voir toutes les couleurs! Quand on ne joue pas åa l’Opéra-Comique, La Dame Blanche ou le Domino Noir, on donne Vert-Vert. Ici, c’est Barbe-Bleu; là Le Carnaval d’un merle blanc… et le Théâtre-Lyrique reprend Violetta.” Their reviewer asked, “Après le chien Barkouf, le perroquet Vert-Vert! Jacques Offenbach affectionne les bêtes. As-tu déjeune, Jacquot?” In a more serious vein, H. Moreno in Le Ménestrel wrote, “Dans son dernier ouvrage, il est deux parties distincte, celle qui se rattache à sa première mannière, la bonne; j’ai nommé l’oraison funèbre du perroquet, le madrigal passioné du Dragon, l’Alleluia, le récit de la traversée avec son accompagniment si poetiquement onduleux, la leçon de danse et ses airs pimpants de gavotte. Tout cela est bien écrit pour les voix comme pour l’orchestre, et l’inspiration y est venue à point.” What this critic deplored, though, was what he called the “l’impossible finale du deuxième acte“, which he considered loud, shrill and vulgar. “Ralph” in L’art musicale concluded, “On ne cultive pas impunément pendant quinze ans la bohème musicale. Le jour qu’on veut passer passer du bastringue au salon, on y est gauche, emprunté, mal à l’aise; on s’y sent intrus.”

The most original review came in the weekly La vie Parisienne. Cast in the form of a series of dialogues between theatregoers in neighbouring boxes at the Opéra-Comique, it exposed some of the expectations that a smart audience might have for a new Offenbach work. They chatter through the overture, they watch out for well-known figures taking their seats. (“Voici la duchesse qui fait son entrée; elle a des cheveux neufs.”) Everyone makes remarks about Capoul’s lost moustache, and for good measure they comment on Sainte-Foy’s front teeth. But then the boys start to ask when Dupuis (Offenbach’s leading tenor at the Bouffes-Parisiens) is going to appear. ( “Moi, d’abord, quand on joue de l’Offenbach, si je ne vois pas avancer Dupuis ou Léonce, cca me gene.“) They start singing snatches from La Belle Hélène until the people in the next box tell them to shut up. In the interval one of the critics announces that “Offenbach est le Paul de Kock de la musique.” He is swiftly answered, “Paul de Kock a fait rire MM les Peres, Offenbach fait danser le cancan à MM le fils. Le cancan est la musique de lavenir.” And so it goes on, “Au bout des seconds ectes d’Offenbach, il ya toujours une finale, voilà les chansons à boire.”
Once Mlle Cico is dressed in military uniform, the girls find her legs too thin. In the second interval, someone whispers, “On pretend que Wagner va passer le Rhin demain matin avec une armée de trios mille cornets à piston.” (There were many jokes about Wagner, as Rienzi had just been produced in Paris for the first time, at the Théâtre Lyrique, with Jules Monjauze in the title-role.) As soon as the wedding is announced, the girls send for their cloaks, and everyone makes off for the Café Anglais.

Several writers chose to review Vert-Vert alongside Offenbach’s next piece, which opened at the Bouffes-Parisiens only twelve days later. This was La Diva, an affectionate impression of Hortense Schneider’s early career, in which she played herself. The first night was a glittering occasion, but on every side, people whispered that the old team, Offenbach-Meilhac-Halévy-Schneider, had not pulled it off again. The wag in Paris-Comique summed it up, “La Diva a chanté dans le desert” and concluded his review with his own couplet:
Pauvre Offenbach! Pauvre Schneider!
Pauvre Meilhac!
Après Barbe-Bleu,
Après Toto,
Oh! Oh!
Après Barkouf,
Mais après La Diva,

Despite doubts expressed on all sides about the thinness of the libretto of Vert-Vert, the cast could hardly have been stronger, Capoul’s lady admirers all wanted to see him in his new guise, and it played through the spring, notching up a respectable 56 performances by September. It is perhaps interesting to consider what else the Parisian theatre had to offer that year. Gounod’s Faust had just entered the repertory at l’Opéra for the first time (until then it had been performed, as at its 1859 premiere, at the Théâtre Lyrique). Christine Nilsson was Marguérite to the Faust and Mephisto of Colin and Faure. There were two rival productions of Verdi’s La Traviata – at the Théâtre Italien with Adelina Patti and at the Lyrique (in French, as Violetta) with Mme Orgeni. Enthusiasts could compare their performances with that of the original Lady of the Camellias, Eugénie Doche, who was yet again in a revival of Dumas fils’ play at the Vaudeville. Those looking for something a bit meatier might have gone to the Odéon to see a five-act verse drama by M.E. Fournier – Gutenberg. At the Comédie Française, Sarah Bernhardt had one of her earliest triumphs as the adolescent musician Zanetto in François Coppée’s Le Passant.

Some of the Biriths "Vert-Vert" girls shwoing a bit too much leg for the official guardians of morality.

Some of the Biriths “Vert-Vert” girls shwoing a bit too much leg for the official guardians of morality.

In retrospect, though, the three most enduring pieces of 1869 were all by writers closely associated with Offenbach. Victorien Sardou, later to achieve a sort of immortality as the author of La Tosca, had a resounding success with Patrie! Sardou was later to provide Offenbach with the libretto for Le roi Carotte in 1872, and a couple of years later Offenbach composed incidental music for Sardou’s drama La Haine. Meilhac and Halévy, as well as writing several light pieces among them Le Photographe and Tous Pour les Dames, produced Frou-Frou, a moral tale about a frivolous society beauty who finds out too late that life has more to offer. Some years later this became a favourite role for Bernhardt, but the original production starred another remarkable leading-lady, Aimée Desclée. The other notable first night that summer must have sounded a sour note in the Offenbach camp. This was Le petit Faust, first heard at the Folies-Dramatiques on 28 April. With a libretto by Cremieux and Jaime and music composed by Hervé, it caught on in the same sort of popular and fashionable style that Offenbach had become accustomed to. Hervé (his real name was Louis Florimond Ronger), was an impresario and performer, as well as composer. He had played a leading role in one of Offenbach’s early opera bouffes, Oyayaye, and later appeared as Jupiter in a revival of Orphée aux enfers. That summer, though, critics hostile towards Offenbach took delight in comparing his new works unfavourably with Hervé’s irreverent parody of Goethe and Gounod.

The composer himself played Faust, with the notorious beauty Blanche d’Antigny as Marguérite, and a transvestite Mephisto from Anna van Ghell. “Viv Hervé!” wrote A. Lemmonier, “Offenbach peut s’avouer vaincu. Il a écrit de bien jolies partitions, c’est vrai, mais pas une qui ait la valeur de celle-ci.” Posterity has judged otherwise, but for that summer of 1869, the one musical-theatre piece that was a “must-see” in Paris was Le petit Faust. Soon it had crossed the Channel, opening in London at the Alhambra in April, productions in Vienna, Budapest, Berlin and New York all opened within a year.

Offenbach ended 1869 with the triumph of Les Brigands, starring Marie Aimée, José Dupuis and Léonce. One of the favourite moments in this was the chorus announcing the tramping of boots. Sadly prophetic, while the piece was still playing at the Variétés, war between France and Germany was declared. The Second Empire collapsed, Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie fled, the Siege of Paris, civil war, then the disaster of the short-lived Commune seemed to crush the last vestige of the Paris that Offenbach had loved. He was attacked in the German press for having renounced the country of his birth, and taken French nationality. In France, his enemies accused him of being Prussian. He replied in an open letter to the Editor of Le Figaro:

J’ai en Allemagne une famille et des amis qui me sont chers; c’est pour eux que je viens vous prier d’imprimer ceci:
Depuis l’age de quatorze ans je suis en France.
J’ai reçu des lettres de grande naturalisation.
J’ai été nommé chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
Je dois tout à la France et je ne me croirais pas digne du titre de Français que j’ai obtenu par mon travail et par mon honorabilité, si je me rendais coupable d’une lâcheté envers ma première patrie.
Ce qui me fait encore plus aimer la France, si c’est possible, c’est qu’il n’est venu `a l’idée d’aucun Français de me proposer de commettre une action qui, aux yeux des honnêtes gens de toutes les nations, serait une infamie.

By the time the bodies had been counted, France’s defeat and humiliation felt on all sides, and the Third Republic declared, Offenbach took up his pen again. His last years saw him working at the same furious pace, between 1872 and his death in 1880, he composed more than two dozen new operas and operettas, as well as re-working several of the old successes from the 1860s. New stars emerged, chief among them Anna Judic, who starred in Le roi carotte, Madame l’Archiduc, Bagatelle, Le Docteur Ox and La Créole, and then Juliette Simon-Girard who was Madame Favart (1878) and La fille du Tambour Major (1879). These last two achieved the kind of popular success that Offenbach had been used to – Vienna, London, New York, Budapest, Berlin and Melbourne soon heard them.

Although it was never heard in Paris again, Vert-Vert, too, had a future elsewhere. Translated into German as Kakadu, the opera reached the Carltheather in Vienna in February 1870, then Berlin in June, and New York (in German) in October. England had to wait until 1874 to see a version of the piece, that had by then been considerably altered. This English version was the work of Henry Hermann and Richard Mansell, and was presented at the St James’s Theatre in May 1874. Although they stuck more or less to the outline of the plot, the adaptation included music filched from several other Offenbach successes. Hermann and Mansell were no match for the wit of a Sardou, Gilbert or Meilhac, and their rhyming pantomime-like text makes pretty sorry reading. When Valentine/Vert-Vert is asked to say a few words at the parrot’s interment, he obliges with a couple of verses, of which this is a typical extract:
“With raisins and sweetmeats fed him each maid,
Of candies and bonbons he short work made
The good things that daily on him were shower’d
Hardly were offered, and they were devoured.
With buns and with cakes your Vert-Vert you filled
With nuts and with tarts your Vert-Vert you killed.”

The first night was a stormy occasion, with the cast being shouted down by the gallery patrons, who were never slow to voice disapproval. The title-role was sung by Mlle Manetti, George Barrett played the gardener, the dragoons were Greville and Mansell. Leonard Boyne was the ballet-master, and it was the dance element that led to the London Vert-Vert becoming something of a succès de scandale. As well as two dozen young ladies to play the convent boarders, the producers had engaged the Orpheon Troupe, four high-stepping girls who danced “The Riperelle”. The theatre critic and founder of the weekly journal Vanity Fair, Thomas Gibson Bowles, had little to offer in the way of praise. Having dismissed both plot and music, he turned his attention to the female performers. “What have these young women (the most of whom can neither act, sing nor dance) done that they should be thus christened, be-jewelled and thrust before the public?” His answer, libellous in the extreme, suggested that they were all the kept women of patrons in the stalls. “There are several rich young men about town, and some rich old ones, who devote their time and energies to the discovery and encouragement of dramatic talent in good-looking young women.” It was the listing that followed, under the heading, Plays To See that caused the trouble: “The worst orchestra, some of the flattest singing, and one of the most indecent dances in London.”

The Lord Chamberlain, the Marquis of Hertford, eventually visited the theatre, and demanded that the dancers’ skirts be lengthened (to 31 and a half inches). The manager of the St James’s Theatre, Francis Fairlie, issued a writ against Bowles and the publisher Blenkinsop. The listing was softened slightly in the next issue of Vanity Fair (“Brilliant dresses, pretty music, indifferent singing and a rather improper dance”) but all the publicity had made the show into a palpable hit. During the summer it went on tour, and in his history of the St James’s Theatre, Barry Duncan wrote: “There…were queues stretching all round the Liverpool and Manchester theatres to the accompaniment of spinsterish squeals in the local papers about the infamous dregs of London and Paris flaunting their long legs in the faces of respectable northern citizens.”

When the company returned to London, the show transferred to the Globe Theatre at the Strand end of Kingsway. The “Riperelle” was no longer danced, having presumably been banned, nevertheless Vert-Vert ran until Christmas. A representative from the Lord Chamberlain’s office attended, and pencilled a note in the file copy of the script: “Here a can-can step of a peculiarly brutal character has been interpolated by the actor, and an impudent allusion to the L.C. ‘They may try to put it down – but they can’t put it down’.”

When the action for libel eventually came to court, the Lord Chamberlain himself appeared as a witness for the defence, a possibly unique occasion in the history of British stage censorship. The members of the jury were so impressed that they didn’t need to leave the box before deciding in favour of the magazine. The case was reported at length in the press, and the leader writer in the Daily Telegraph surmised:
That we shall hear no more about the ‘Can-Can’ or the ‘Riperelle’ is most devoutly to be wished; but it is expedient that a great deal more should be heard about the shameless indecency of the dresses worn by the inferior grade of actresses and dancers in lyrical buffooneries and burlesques, with a view to that outrage being suppressed by the Lord Chamberlain and the official censor of the stage…the popular taste, with respect to theatrical costume, has not improved of late; that taste has been still further depraved by the shameless photographs of half-dressed women exhibited in the shop windows; and it is a notorious fact that the likenesses of common courtesans, arrayed in ‘tights’ and spangles, who have never been on the stage at all, are indiscriminately displayed with the portraits of well-known actresses and dancers.”

Vert-Vert occupies a special place in Offenbach’s oeuvre. The third of his four commissions from the Opéra-Comique (Les contes d’Hoffmann, of course, was not performed there until the year after his death), it found the composer attempting a fusion of his vaudevillian style with something gentler, as befitted the setting. Yet it contains all the elements that had made Offenbach such a master; the comic duets, the romantic solos, the marching dragoons, the drinking-song, the dancing-lesson and the irresistible finales. This seems to have bewildered, and in some cases irritated, the reviewers of the time. How could they have anticipated, that of all the Parisian theatre composers of his era, Offenbach’s posthumous reputation would outstrip his rivals a hundred times over? In a world where topical allusions, and ironic situations, were crafted by his librettists to fit the mood of moment, there can have been little thought that the works would become part of a standard, international repertory in theatres and opera-houses all over the world.

It was twenty years after the composer’s death that this began to occur. By the mid 20th century his five classic operettas were cast-iron certainties with public and critics alike. In Munich Maria Jeritza starred in Max Reinhardt’s production of La Belle Hélène, Berlin saw Fritzi Massary as La Grande Duchesse, Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree put on Orpheus in the Underground at His Majesty’s in London, La Périchole arrived at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1956, Jean-Louis Barrault staged La vie Parisienne. Perhaps the most startling thing for Offenbach’s detractors would have been the knowledge that Orphée would eventually gain the stage of L’Opéra itself. Many of his other works have been revived, and in some instances recorded. There is still an enormous amount waiting to be re-appraised, however. A fortunate visitor, arriving in Paris in almost any year, may find some small company of actors and musicians reviving one of Offenbach’s forgotten works. Occasionally, even the Opéra-Comique still plays host to one of the famous pieces. Refined musicologists may still sometimes raise an eyebrow, how can music that is so tuneful, such fun, be taken quite seriously? That was the attitude in Offenbach’s own time, so better leave the last word to the composer himself:
L’opéra-comique est une creation éminemment françcaise. Bien que formé à l’imitation de l’opéra-bouffe italien…il en diffère par le temperament de la nation qui, en l’adoptant, se l’est approprié…où son modèle sacrifiait exclusivement à la gaîté, il a sacrifié surtout à l’esprit…L’opéra-comique, en effet, qu’est-ce que le vaudeville chanté? Le mot lui-même l’indique: oeuvre gaie, récréative, amusante.”

Patrick O’Connor

The above is a slightly expanded version of the article published to accompany the Opera Rara recording of Offenbach’s Vert-Vert.

Patrick O’Connor is a regular contributor to Gramophone, Literary Review, Opera and The Times Literary Supplement. His books include Josephine Baker (Cape, 1988) and Toulouse-Lautrec: The Nightlife of Paris (Phaidon, 1991).