La Grand Duchess du Gérolstein, BBC 4

What would we give for a little bit of style and a smidgen of panache?
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The Independent Culture

The period between Christmas and New Year is always a lean one for classical music lovers. With the notable exception of the Wigmore Hall's annual New Year's Eve programme from The King's Consort, Britain's classical music venues were dominated by the triple-time schmaltz of 19th-century Vienna this week: a jolly good reason to stay at home and watch television instead (though heaven help the music lover whose viewing was restricted to the terrestrial channels). As usual, Artsworld and BBC 4 saved the day.

The former channel's Christmas cracker was Robert Carsen's magical 2003 production of Les Boréades from the Palais Garnier (available on DVD from Opus Arte for those who missed it), the latter's Boxing Day bonanza a live relay of Offenbach's La Grand Duchesse du Gérolstein from the Théatre du Châtelet: an object lesson in how to perform light music with style and panache.

At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, I wonder how it is that Londoners end up with Elijah Moshinsky's diffidently executed production of The Pirates of Penzance at Christmas when Parisians can enjoy a show as tight and bright as La Grand Duchesse? Conducted by Marc Minkowski, played vivaciously on period-appropriate instruments by Les Musiciens du Louvre, starring Felicity Lott (as the dipsomaniac Duchess of the title), Yann Beuron (as the hapless squaddy Fritz), and Sandrine Piau (as his sweetheart Wanda), designed by Chantal Thomas and choreographed with precision and wit by Laura Scozzi, Laurent Pelly's production opens with the startling sight of a corpse-strewn First World War battlefield. That the corpses get up and dance within minutes scarcely matters. ("Do you know why we're fighting?" asks Franck Leguérine's Baron Puck. "Not anymore!" replies François Le Roux's trigger-happy General Boum.) Pelly has neatly illustrated the knock-on effect of Offenbach's subtle satire on the militarism of an inbred aristocracy, and, having made his point, moves into the crazed comedy of ranks raised and lowered with consummate ease.

Musically, La Grande Duchesse was pure delight. Lott's supple, silvery voice is tailormade for this repertoire, and she embraces the daffiness of the title role with infectious glee. Beuron's light, toothsome tenor made easy work of Fritz's vertiginous lines, while Piau was, as ever, a model soubrette. The acting, which was beautifully captured in well-directed close-ups, was excellent. Minkowski conducted with tenderness - the extended "Bonne nuit!" ensemble as Wanda and Fritz prepare to celebrate their wedding night was performed with notable delicacy - character and energy. Let's hope the Barbican might be persuaded to import La Grand Duchesse in the near future. In the meantime, three festive cheers to BBC 4 for such a bubbly live relay in what was otherwise a dry season for televised opera.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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