Ciboulette at the Opéra Comique, with Fuchs, Behr and Lapointe
© Elisabeth Carecchio 2013
The opening night of Reynaldo Hahn's Ciboulette at the Opéra Comique began with a moving tribute from theater director Jérôme Deschamps to one of the great stars of the past, soprano Géori Boué, who sang the title role of the operetta here in 1953. In her ninety-fifth year, the diva looked chic and elegant, earning rapturous applause from the capacity audience on February 16, before a younger generation took to the stage in a performance produced by Michel Fau, with Laurence Equilbey conducting the Toulon Opera orchestra and the Accentus chorus.
Hahn wrote Ciboulette for the Théâtre des Variétés in 1923, at the behest of librettist Robert de Flers to write a "traditional operetta set in Les Halles, like Lecocq's Fille Angot." France had already begun to develop popular review-style comédies musicales — a genre in which Hahn would later excel, with shows such as Mozart and Ô Mon Bel Inconnu. Ciboulette has an interwar nostalgia but is elevated above sentimentality by the composer's sophisticated score, full of the witty pastiche you would expect from this prodigy pupil of Massenet and admirer of Messager.
Fau's production found the right lightly ironic approach for the story of the promiscuous Ciboulette's rise from market trader to happy fiancée, with simple sets evoking the Baltard structures of the old Paris market and the then pastoral suburb of Aubervilliers. All the ushers of the Opéra Comique were wearing a stem of muguet (lily of the valley), a reference to the Act I finale, which celebrated this Mayday tradition in retro operetta style. Years ago, it was not unusual for audiences to sing along with well-known numbers. This tradition was revived, with pre-performance training offered to the audience, which was then encouraged to join in with the soloists for both finales. Hahn's melodies echoed around the house, and an often haughtily sophisticated Parisian public seemed at ease with the repertoire; the right to enjoy operetta had been given back to an audience that cheered to the rafters this bucolic and soothing musical language.
Fau sensibly did not try to update the show, but he tightened and abridged the spoken dialogue without losing its period charm. He also cleverly introduced Jérôme Deschamps as the "theater director" responsible for Ciboulette's bursting onto the Parisian scene as a fake Spanish cabaret star. The real-life director of the Opéra Comique and cousin of Jacques Tati is a fine comic actor, who brought zany surrealist humor to scenes with producer Fau, who appeared in drag as the Countess of Castiglione, interpolating an outrageous pastiche number taken from Hahn's incidental music for the film La Dame aux Camélias. Adding to the extra-musical fun was great screen actress Bernadette Lafont as fishmonger/fortuneteller Madame Pingret, with a voice as cracked as a packet of unfiltered Gauloises cigarettes.
Heading the cast was soprano Julie Fuchs, an operetta diva to the manner born, with a brightly placed soprano to match. She joined with her colleagues in exemplary projection of the all-important text, and her wistful contemplation of suburban life brought a treasurable interpretation. She was joined by the delightfully goofy Antonin of sappy tenor Julien Behr, and by Jean-François Lapointe, as the worldly, damaged Duparquet. Lapointe's baritone is a heftier instrument than that of the first Duparquet, Jean Périer — Debussy's first Pelléas — but Lapointe found the necessary delicacy. The remainder of the cast showed the strength of the Opéra Comique's new academy, which aims to train young singers for this particular repertoire. Tenor Patrick Kabongo Mubenga, as a quick-witted Victor, and soprano Eva Ganizate, as a spoilt Zénobie, made particularly strong impressions under the smooth, careful baton of Equilbey, who brought welcome musical sophistication to the score, drawing more-than-adequate playing from the Toulon orchestra and superior singing from the Accentus chorus.
STEPHEN J. MUDGE
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