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Monday, December 11, 2023



(Above: La Princesse de Trébizonde cover)

(Pics supplied)

William Charlton-Perkins writes a regular feature for the media titled Classical Notes. This one is titled Introducing Offenbach’s La Princesse de Trébizonde

Opera Rara’s latest excursion into the wonder world of Offenbach unleashes the unfettered pleasures of the composer, gleefully let loose on a scenario that involves “a travelling circus, an innocent prince in love with a waxwork and a lottery ticket to win a magnificent castle.” As the label’s pithy marketing division asks, “What could possibly go wrong?”

After several months of absence, I’m back on my Classical Notes beat with this belated tribute to Offenbach’s La Princesse de Trébizonde, the latest gem to grace the vaults of Opera Rara’s treasure chamber. With the festive season bringing with it the traditions of bestowing gifts on special people in our lives, here’s a suggestion I’d find irresistible were I at the receiving end of a friend’s generosity.

(Left: Paul Daniel)

Released in September this year, this world premiere recording, made in 2022 in the Henry Wood Hall, preceded a concert performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. It is imbued with all the zest and commitment that British conductor Paul Daniel exudes with every beat of his mercurial baton.

In an enticing video that preceded the release, Daniel, a French music specialist and former Music Director of English National Opera and Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, shares fascinating insights into the new critical edition of the Offenbach rarity. 

He notes the work marked “a step forward” in Offenbach’s approach to his hugely popular genre of light musical entertainment, embracing a more sensitive, romantic ambience, while still retaining elements of the robust characteristics of predecessors such as Orpheus in the Underworld.

Watching Daniel speak is in itself a rare treat. A man of immense charisma, his passion shines through as he recounts exploring the newly-revived score, with its wealth of ingenious ensembles. He extrapolates the complexity of Offenbach’s socio-political stance towards sending up all the different layers of 19th century French society, right from the Emperor Napoleon III (who espoused the German composer, to the point of overseeing his being granted French citizenship, and personally interesting himself in Offenbach’s career trajectory), down through the ranks of the wealthy to the pretentions of the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. All these flocked to his works to see themselves as fodder to be lampooned in his successive stage pieces.

In another pre-release video of clips from the Princess’s recording sessions, the conductor’s joie de vivre is seen to transmit itself into what must have been the happiest work environment imaginable, affecting each and every member of the cast, crew and orchestra.

The result is a performance that combines elegance, precision and sparkle, with an irrepressible energy that sweeps the listener along its exuberant course.

La Princesse de Trébizonde exudes a torrent of melody, subtle harmony and ingenious orchestration characteristic of Offenbach’s ever-evolving style. This debut recording of Jean-Christophe Keck’s critical edition of the Parisian premiere that took place in December of 1869 also includes several extracts from the Baden-Baden “try-out” version from July the same year.

In the booklet that accompanies this release, Mr Kek appraises the highpoints of the latter event thus: “The most popular numbers were the Grand Duo between Raphaël and Zanetta, the Hunters’ Chorus and the Ronde de la Princesse, themes that the composer introduced to the audience in the overture, along with the Ronde des Pages and the Grand Galop from the third act. Offenbach received unanimous acclaim for his musical art, an alchemy combining tenderness and extravagance with characteristic skill.”

It’s a daunting task to simplify the convoluted plot of the piece. Suffice it to say it all hinges on the precis I included in the opening paragraph of this tribute. There are two camps, the fairground bunch, with their waxwork exhibit, headed by fairground owner, Cabriolo and his daughter, Zanetta and her family, on the one hand. Zanetta is dismayed to find, while dusting, she’s broken off the nose of the wax Princess of Trebizond, the main attraction of her father’s collection. At the last minute, she has to pretend to be the wax princess herself as the gates open and the public flock into the exhibition.

The other faction is headed by the crusty old Prince Casimir and his engaging young son, Prince Raphael (a britches role sung by a mezzo soprano) who unwittingly falls for Zanetta, thinking she is the wax princess.

Chaos follows in various permutations of romantic pursuits between diverse characters until the final curtain finally comes down to everyone’s satisfaction, Offenbach having lampooned his successive audiences to their hearts delight in evening after evening throughout those enchanted Parisian nights.

As ever with Opera Rara projects, the creative team comprises a powerhouse line-up of talent. With Daniel at the helm of the Opera Rara Chorus and the London Philharmonic, the cast comprises: Anne-Catherine Gillet (Zanetta); Virginie Verrez (Le Prince Raphael); Christophe Gay (Cabriolo); Antoinette Dennefeld (Régina); Josh Lovell (Le Prince Casimir); Katia Ledoux (Paola); Christophe Mortagne (Trémolini); and Loïc Félix (Sparadrap).

Paul Daniel says it’s impossible to single out any particular moment in the score as a stand-out highlight. Having listened to the entire piece several times, I have to second this. That said, one marvels at the complexity of Offenbach’s command of ensemble construction, building from one climax towards the next, across diverse topographies of highs, and higher climactic levels of tension, mood and dramatic resolution, as if the composer is consciously paying tribute to both Rossini, and to Mozart, the latter being Offenbach’s idol.

One can but endorse the critical accolades that flowed from the pens of the international press, who attended the project’s South Bank performance last July.

Hat’s off, once again, to Opera Rara, for a superb new addition to their priceless catalogue. If you’re in a quandary what to buy an opera-loving friend for Christmas, this one will provide untold delight. - William Charlton-Perkins


For more information, and to purchase Opera Rara releases, visit the label’s website