La Vie Parisienne, OpÃ©ra-Comique, Paris
Friday 31 December 2004
Jacques Offenbach's opera La Vie Parisienne has been thoroughly hijacked by its Argentinian-born director, Jérôme Savary, responsible for both the adaptation and the production at Opéra-Comique in Paris. Offenbach created it as a crowd-puller for the 1867 Exhibition, composing it for actor-singers. I don't suppose he ever imagined that his sparkling music and witty libretto (Meilhac and Halévy) would be reduced to the level of a circus, Savary's declared aim being to attract new audiences to opera.
Since taking over the Opéra-Comique, and repackaging it as Théâtre Musicale Populaire, Savary has embarked on the project with unashamed brashness. Not surprisingly for a man whose work with the Grand Magic Circus involved a "life show" played in an unusual spaces and drawing on techniques associated with children's theatre, circus, and carnivals, he has thrown everything at La Vie Parisienne.
The plot is pretty farcical, involving two young playboys scorned by a beautiful courtesan. An elaborate prank is played on a Swedish baron in order to seduce his beautiful wife. What with a gun-toting Brazilian millionaire, a group of oddly characterful tradesmen and servants who disguise themselves as socialites and eccentric aristocrats, and a series of extravagant machinations and high-kicking hits, it's a heady mix.
But in Savary's staging there are also gags galore, gustily performed by dolls and drolls, stilted interaction with the audience, acrobatic feats that grow tedious, impersonations, improvisations, allusions and cluttered effects. All this is at the expense of the famous melodies of the waltzes, gallops and can-cans played in new arrangements by Gérard Daguerre.
Rather than grand spec-tacle there's a parade of stock-in-trade clichés from busy crowd scenes and Toulouse-Lautrec is depicted busy at his easel in the street. But there's nothing of the sensual sophistication of Paris's glittering nightlife in the 1860s. In fact, there's something peculiarly unalluring about having frilly-knickered bottoms brandished practically in your face and breasts bared for no reason, and the can-cans are danced with a violent vigour rather than gay abandon.
The singing (in French with English surtitles) is good enough, and Patricia Samuel, as the glovemaker, is particularly lovely. But the show on the whole, while it raises the roof, is wild and vulgar.
Savary has claimed that to modernise operetta is "to make it musical comedy, by cutting, tightening, adding contemporary gags". I wonder if he's ever heard of over-egging the pudding.
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