Music finds renewed life at French Embassy with L’Opéra Comique’s game Offenbach

Sat Mar 09, 2024 at 12:28 pm

L’Opéra Comique de Washington performed Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne Friday evening at La Maison Française. Photo: WCR

Quelle surprise to have the regional lacuna of Jacques Offenbach’s operettas filled twice this weekend. Before Washington National Opera’s adaptation of La Périchole, opening tonight, comes a new company called L’Opéra Comique de Washington. Founded last year by conductor Simon Charette, it presented a concert performance of the composer’s La Vie Parisienne Friday evening at La Maison Française (the French Embassy).

The libretto, by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, is set in the Paris of its time, at the end of the Second Empire. The story opens in the Gare de l’Ouest, part of the modern railway system built with impressive speed by Napoleon III. Kudos to Charette first for understanding that most important word in relation to Offenbach’s effervescent but often empty-headed works: abridged.

Two free spirits, Bobinet and Gardefeu, are disappointed to see the woman they both love, Métella, with another man. Gardefeu pretends to be a tour guide, showing a Swedish baron and his beautiful wife the pleasures of the Parisian demimonde, even pretending that his flat is a small extension of the Grand Hôtel. Over a series of champagne-fueled parties, the baron lusts after Métella, while Gardefeu pursues the baroness, until the couples are reconciled.

The details are unimportant, and here condensed into a narration read by Erica Ferguson, who also directed a modest semi-staging. Even with a 20-minute late start, caused by the embassy’s new security protocols, this performance of Offenbach’s four-act revision of the work added up to about ninety minutes of music, in other words, the best parts of the operetta without all the rigmarole.

Valérie Bélanger deployed her pert stage presence as Gabrielle, Gardefeu’s glove-maker, who leads the troupe of goofy servants posing as wealthy Parisian eccentrics to fool the Swedish visitors. Her slender soprano, evanescent at the bottom and middle with a brighter fullness up top, struggled to fill the embassy’s small auditorium, but she brought charming vivacity especially in the yodel-like Tyrolienne that ended the second act.

Marc-Antoine d’Aragon’s sturdy baritone made an insistent, Gardefeu, equally capable of stage antics. Baritone Emanuel Lebel’s more reserved voice pushed his Bobinet somewhat into the background, but with charming comic verve in his absurd number about the split in his jacket (“Votre habit a craqué dans le dos!”).

As the Baron de Gondremarck, baritone Chris Fistonich showed some power, especially in his fun-loving song “Je veux m’en fourrer jusque-là!” Soprano Hayley Abramowitz matched him as a dignified baroness, with modest volume buttressed by an imperious side-eye.

Stealing the show vocally was the frisky mezzo-soprano of Melanie Ashkar, a native of Washington, D.C. Her luscious-voiced Métella lit up the room, and proved especially funny in the Act I ensemble “Connais pas,” where she pretends not to recognize Bobinet and Gardefeu in the train station. Israel Lozano’s rough-and-ready tenor suited the vain character of Le Brésilien, who returns to Paris to spend more of his money on wine, women, and song.

Charette presided over the small orchestra of fourteen musicians with calm fortitude, arighting the ensemble ship when singers strayed from the beat. Violinist Ryo Usami impressed in particular, with a clean and present tone as concertmaster, seconded by a strong consort of woodwinds and discrete brass. Percussionist Barry Dove gets extra credit for ingenuity, often beating both the bass drum and a small pair of cymbals it simultaneously.

A treble-heavy chorus included some volunteers from Charette’s other project at the embassy, the French Choir of Washington. The ensemble rendered the rollicking choral numbers, which are in many ways the best parts of this lightweight entertainment, with gusto. Their opening number, about all the trains bringing visitors to the Gare de l’Ouest, sparkled just as much as their act-ending toasts, dances, and galops.

The French embassy’s small auditorium, as well as the modest performing forces that filled it, recalled Offenbach’s first attempts at the opéra bouffe genre, in small Parisian theaters often rented for the purpose. It is yet another sign of the revived musical offerings at the French embassy, since the appointment of Laurent Bili as ambassador last year. One hopes that this new company, announced under the ambassador’s patronage, will also blossom in the years to come.

Pianist Emile Naoumoff performs music by Fauré, Ravel, Nadia Boulanger, and his own “Valse pour Nadia” 7:30 p.m. April 9.

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