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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
La Périchole (1868)

Opéra comique (mono recording complete, with dialogue in French)
Susanne Lafaye (sop) (La Périchole), Raymond Amade (ten) (Piquillo), Louis Noguera (bass) (Don Andrès), Jean-Christophe Benoit (bar) (Le Comte), Pierre Germain (ten) (Don Pedro), Janette Vivalda (sop) (Guadalena), Monique Linval (mezz) (Berginella), Denise Monteil (sop) (Mastrilla), Agnès Disney (mezz) (Frasquinella), Jacques Pruvost (ten) & Christian Asse (ten) (Notaries)
René Duclos Choir
Orchestre de l’Association des Concerts Lamoureux/Igor Markevitch
Rec. Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, June 1958
EMI 574 0882 [CD1 48.20 CD2 45.16] Mono ADD
Midprice


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This set is one of the earliest of the recent EMI reissues of operetta recordings with dialogue in the French translation.

Jacques Offenbach has often been described as the king of operetta, or more precisely of opéra-comique. Various works can be found under the heading of "operetta", and the line separating them from opéra-comique is by no means a straight one. To look at what Offenbach does: he expressly gives his most important works the title "opéra-bouffes", to emphasise both their musical ambitions and their satirical side. This is the case with La belle Hélène, La Vie Parisienne, and of course with La Périchole. At the Théâtre des Variéties, La Perichole opened on 6 October 1868. On that occasion the title rôle had the voice and figure of Hortense Schneider (already famous for her incarnations of Hélène and the Grand Duchess of Gérolstein), and partnered by the celebrated José Dupuis as Piquillo. Offenbach had been joined in his efforts to bring the character to the lyric stage by the widely renowned librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. The piece was repeated, also at the Théâtre des Variéties, on 25 April 1874, this time re-worked into three acts instead of two. It had lost none of its charm and verve: La Périchole contains some caricature, as in the character of the viceroy, a petty potentate more concerned with his amorous conquests than with the well-being of his subjects, and who is surrounded by cowardly and malicious courtiers. It also contains parody, which is musical in nature, with undisguised allusions (recognizable to all at the time) to Donizetti's La Favorite, and in the famous "letter-song" to Massenet's Manon. In contrast, the atmosphere of La Périchole is tinged with seriousness (since the heroes are two poor, misunderstood street entertainers dying of hunger), and with tenderness (for they adore each other, an amorous couple in times of trial). So, is it an Opéra-bouffe? It's much more. It's a step towards the final masterpiece, The Tales of Hoffmann. – So writes Michel Parouty informatively in his CD notes.

The main character of this romantic operetta is a street singer, Périchole, who has a place of honour among operatic heroines, existing in works other than this one by Offenbach. She did in fact exist as an exuberant Peruvian street singer who had Lima worshipping at her feet. She was the daughter of José de Villegas and the heiress of an important Spanish family in the Peruvian capital, Teresa Hurtado de Mendoza. Her name was Michaela Villegas, born in 1748 and dying in 1819, she was famous not only as an entertainer but also as the mistress of the Viceroy of Peru. She ended her days as a Carmelite. In 1995 one of her descendants, Bertrand Villegas, living in Paris, wrote a fictional biography of her. This out-of-the ordinary character had fascinated others before him. First there was Prosper Mérimée, who as part of his Théâtre de Clara Gazul in 1829 recounted some stories about her in Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement, which in 1948 inspired an opera by Henri Busser (and another by the British composer, Lord Berners, recorded on Marco Polo). There was also Jean Renoir, whose Le Carrosse d'Or (1953) was a well-received success. And here Jacques Offenbach, and his La Périchole - the insult ("perra choia" which means "creole bitch") had been thrown at the impetuous, wayward young woman by her protector, where it stuck as if it were her name.

Act 1 is set in Lima on the Viceroy's birthday. The ruler himself is walking around the town, making new conquests and listening to what his subjects are saying. Despite his disguise he is recognized by all. A street-singer, Périchole, and her companion, Piquillo, do their act in vain before an indifferent audience. While the young man tries to go round taking a few pence, Périchole faints of hunger. Don Andrès sees her and is thunderstruck; he wants to take her to court and make her a lady-in-waiting, and racked with hunger, she accepts, after writing a letter to Piquillo. But a lady-in-waiting has to be married: a husband has to be found for her. The Count of Panatellas meets Piquillo, on the point of hanging himself; he suggests that he should become the husband of a lady of the court, and to persuade him, gets him drunk. Don Andrès has done the same thing to Périchole, and when the two young people face the registrar they are tipsy. The young woman may have recognized the man she loves, but the converse is not true. They are both taken to the palace.

In Act 2 the courtiers, having learned that the monarch's new favourite is an ordinary street entertainer, do not hold back their comments, including those to the husband, Piquillo, who now that his drunkenness has passed, has no recollection of what has happened. Only one thing matters to him: to find Périchole. But he has to present his wife at court. Recognizing her, he is convinced that his beloved has been unfaithful and repulses her violently. He is taken to the dungeon reserved for "recalcitrant husbands".

Act 3 opens in a dungeon cell where Piquillo is visited by Panatellas and the governor, who congratulates him on having saved the honour of husbands. He is also visited by Périchole, who comes to explain the situation. They decide to flee, and the young woman decides to bribe the jailer. But the person who answers is in fact the disguised Don Andrès. When they offer him jewels, he unmasks and orders the two lovers to be thrown into chains, specifying in an aside that Périchole will only have to sing a song for him to come and release her. This she does, but meanwhile, with the aid of an old prisoner, the captives are freed. When Don Andrès comes back they tie him up and escape. They are found in the streets of Lima, fleeing their pursuers. Finally, they come to ask forgiveness with a song, "The Clemency of Augustus". Of course, they end up pardoned.

Offenbach’s score contains some catchy tunes and stirring moments. Try the marching duet "Le conquérant dit a la jeune indienne" (CD1 tk.6) with its staccato catch-syllables. The most memorable number is Périchole’s letter song "O mon cher amant" (CD1 tk.10) which is sung by Suzanne Lafaye with the right quality of lyrical sensuousness. By contrast she also provides a comic drunken take-off (with balletic overtones) in "Ah! Quel diner" (CD1 tk.13) with good characterisation. Perhaps the nearest Offenbach gets to a Peruvian identity is in two numbers; the unusual, piccolo-led finale with the choir and notaries (CD1 tk12), and the finale to Act 3 with its accentuated minor key (CD2 tk.21). The music elsewhere is firmly French.

Raymond Amade is a particularly thin tenor with little vibrato that makes Piquillo sound unemotional in some of the romantic passages. He displays an interesting quality of timbre, which could work in the role on stage, but there is an occasional uneveness in delivery noticed in this recording. Generally, Lafaye and Amade make a good partnership. Their Act 1 duet (CD1 tk.6) is well delivered yet their Act 3 duet finale (CD2 tk.21) is harsh and sung without much feeling.

Markevitch has well rehearsed the company and maintains tight reins in his direction of the orchestra. In the Galop de l’arrestation (CD2 tk.7) soloists and choir are required to sing short syllables in unison at a rapid pace. All keep absolutely in step (a difficult achievement with so many singing). The duo singing of Pierre Germain (Don Pedro) Jean-Christophe Beniot Le Comte) in the catchy Bolero (CD2 tk.10) is good and well matched.

A more modern stereo complete recording (1992) of La Perichole can be found with the Rhine Opera and Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra under Lombard on Erato 2292-45686-2. The recording of this EMI 2 CD set was made in 1958 at the end of the mono era and shortly before stereo recording became a standard in international studios. However, this well-priced reissue should not dissuade the listener for the balance and clarity is good and does not distract from the confident performance and charming music. The transfer to CD is acceptable but the chorus sound shrill due to the exaggeration reverberation provided and the elimination of their low frequencies. The orchestra’s slightly distant placing gives the first violins a sense of fullness, which to my ear is pleasantly fitting for Offenbach. The track indexing sometimes unhelpfully cues the text leading into a number and could have been better arranged. With this mid price issue, brief notes in French and English are included. The track listing is in parts incomplete: on some tracks the soloist/s singing a number are missing.


Further reading: "Operetta", Traubner (Oxford 1883); ‘Musicals", Ganzl (Carlton 1995)


Raymond Walker


Pics:
1. Joan Sutherland as Périchole in a 1973 TV production (Courtesy of Kroll Productions, Inc./Oxford 1983)
2. Piano music sold in Britain c.1875 (Oxford 1983)


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