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Offenbach’s Secret - A film by István Szabo [97:00]
includes two operettas by Jacques OFFENBACHLes Deux Aveugles; Croquefer
The Missing Manuscript – the History of the Tales of Hoffman [52:00]
Jacques Offenbach – Tamás Jordan; Count de Morny – János Kulka:
Les Deux Aveugles: Patachon – Laurence Dale (tenor); Giraffier – Graham Clark (tenor):
Croquefer: Croquefer – Jorge Lopez-Yanez (baritone); Boutefeu – Justin Lavender (tenor); Ramass-ta-Tete – Jeffrey Francis (tenor); Fleur-de-Soufre – Inger Dam Jensen (soprano); Mousse-ŕ-Mort – Jonathan Barreto-Ramos (bass)
Broadcast Symphony Orchestra of Saarbrücken/Jia Lü
Filmed on location at the Katona József Theater, Kecskemét, Hungary
Region Code 0; NTSC 16:9; Dolby Digital 2.0/PCM (The missing Manuscript)
Language or subtitles – English, French, German
EUROARTS 2012488
DVD [149:00] Details: See end of review for details

The main film is probably one of the oddest I have seen, and I remain unclear as to what is its purpose. It shows performances of two of the short works Offenbach wrote for the Bouffes-Parisiens in the context of an evening at which the Count de Morny encourages Offenbach to re-write the libretti to make fun of several dignitaries in the audience, especially those from foreign countries. The two works are then played with interpolated reactions from the audience - usually indignation from the more expensive seats and delight from the gallery. Both reactions are incomprehensible to this viewer, as the "fun" is at the most puerile level imaginable and the various attempts at humour are played so slowly as to be more likely to embarrass the audience than to make them laugh. The whole concept of an opera within a play as devised here is simply ineffectual and actually does much to spoil the impact of two of the composer's best works.

Les Deux Aveugles (The Two Blind Men) was Offenbach's first big success at the Bouffes-Parisiens, the very small theatre which he ran himself. It has only two singing parts, both beggars who pretend to be blind, is less than half an hour long and can be immensely funny. It is not so funny here as the jokes are spoilt by tedious underlining but the music is as funny as ever. The first song, for instance, has one of the beggars singing to his own trombone obbligato, with odd notes from the trombone splitting words in two. This is followed by a duet in which the two beggars sing separate songs, one slow, the other fast before the two are combined. Given the work's popularity in London Sullivan must have known it and copied it on many occasions. Later there is the best number in the piece, a bolero in Offenbach's familiar imitation Spanish style. All in all it is a terrific work, and here it receives a vocally terrific performance from Laurence Dale and Graham Clark. I have no idea how they were recorded but from the occasional lack of coordination between them and the orchestra I suspect that the two were recorded separately. When in addition there is no coordination between what is heard and the singers' lips it is clear that the filming was yet another process. The songs are all in French, with subtitles in English or German, but the dialogue can be heard in any of the three languages but does not seem to match with the mouth movements in any of them. Technically and visually the result is unconvincing, and by my second "viewing" I simply listened with closed eyes. This was much more enjoyable, and indeed given singing of this quality this is in itself a good reason to buy the disc.

Croquefer is a later and longer work. I suspect that it would require considerable effort from a director to make it funny to modern audiences but the laboured treatment here once again is self-defeating. The music is less immediately attractive than Les Deux Aveugles but even then there is enough to entertain any fan of the composer's music. One of many oddities about the production is that whilst much of the humour is explained out of existence there is no explanation for why one of the characters, Mousse-ŕ-Mort, says nothing but shows little placards with his answers to questions. I believe that this is because the licensing of the theatre at the time of this work did not allow five speaking or singing parts but Offenbach got round this with this device. If this is the case this could have been more worth explaining in the film. Once again the singing is of a very high class, and once again a CD with these artists would have been much more enjoyable than this strange affair, produced with the aid of funds from the European Union which may explain why artists from so many countries are involved.
The so-called bonus item is quite another matter. It is a documentary telling the strange story of how Offenbach's last opera, Les Contes d'Hoffman, came to be very heavily cut at its first performance, was subsequently subject to various mutilations, and then the recent discovery of much of the lost material and the tussle between editors and publishers to produce a new and scholarly edition. It is a fascinating story and unusually for a television documentary the tale is told as if to intelligent adults, and even more unusually at the end I found myself wanting more.

As I explained at the start, this is a very odd DVD, but despite that I am sure that I will return to it for the musical quality of the performances of the operettas and for the fascinating tale of the missing score.
John Sheppard Very odd but I will return to it for the musical quality of the performances of the operettas and for the fascinating tale of the missing score.

John Sheppard