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André MESSAGER (1853-1929)
Les P’tites Michu
Violette Polchi (mezzo soprano) – Marie-Blanche
Anne-Aurore Cochet (soprano) – Blanche-Marie
Philippe Estèphe (baritone) – Gaston Rigaud
Marie Lenormand (mezzo soprano) – Mme Michu
Damien Bigourdan (tenor) – M Michu
Boris Grappe (baritone) – Le Général
Artavazd Sargsyan (tenor) – Aristide
Caroline Meng (mezzo-soprano) – Mlle Herpin
Romain Dayez (bass-baritone) – Bagnolet
Chœur d’Angers Nantes Opera
Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire / Pierre Dumoussaud
rec. 2018, Théâtre Graslin, Nantes, France
BRU ZANE BZ1034 [59:25+43:30]

My introduction to the music of André Messager was his wonderful three-act opéra comique Véronique with the incomparable Mady Mesplé in the title role (EMI 5 74073 2). His music is not well represented in the catalogue. I had to donate to charity a recording of La Basoche: it was a bad transfer.

Les P’tites Michu was the nineteenth of Messager’s thirty dramatic stage works (he also composed nine ballets). It came after the dismal failure of Le Chevalier d'Harmental – a work he had lavished a great deal of time upon and had a deal of fondness for – which had been cancelled after only a few performances. He considered giving up music and retiring to England, but he was sent the libretto through the post for a new operetta. He instantly saw the potential. This new work became one of his most successful productions. It had a run of 150 performances at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, and it appeared in Berlin, Vienna, Rome and elsewhere in Paris. It was also a great success in an English adaptation; it ran 400 performances in London before moving to America, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

The story revolves around The Little Michus, the daughters of a Parisian shop owner, who were born at the time of terror of in revolutionary France. It appears one was the Michus’ daughter, but the other was the daughter of the Marquis des Ifs, whose wife had died in childbirth. The Marquis pays the Michus to look after his daughter. The babies are mixed up and they cannot remember who is who, so they bring them up as twins, Blanche-Marie and Marie-Blanche.

Act one is set in 1810 when the girls are seventeen, have gone through school run by the domineering Mlle Herpin, and still believe that they are twins. One of the girls is loved by the hapless Aristide, the Michus’ clerk, who is just not sure which one he loves. The Marquis des Ifs, now a general of the Empire, sends his orderly Bagnolet to find his daughter, because he has promised her hand to the young Captain Gaston Rigaud. The captain, who happens to be Mlle Herpin’s nephew, had saved the general’s life at Saragossa. He had already met the girls after he visited them with his aunt. Both girls fell for the galant soldier. Bagnolet finds the Michus, and informs them that they all must accompany him to the general’s house. The second act is set in the house of general des Ifs. He tries to find out who is his daughter so that he can fulfil his promise. Unhappy with the Michus’ story, they try to determine who should marry Captain Gaston Rigaud. Despite her feelings for the captain, Blanche-Marie makes a sacrifices so that Marie-Blanche can be the general’s daughter, become Irène des Ifs and marry Gaston. The final act has Blanche-Marie lamenting her decision and resigning herself to marry Aristide. However, it is now that Marie-Blanche realises that she is happy working in the family business. She is attracted to the captain, but she would prefer the simpler life married to Aristide. It is really her sister who is in love with Gaston. On the day of the double wedding Marie-Blanche looks ate the portrait of the general’s wife and dresses Blanche-Marie to look the same. The resemblance is plain to see, so much so that the general thinks he is looking at his dead wife. Therefore, Blanche-Marie must be his true daughter. The sisters swap places. Blanche-Marie marries the captain and Marie-Blanche marries Aristide. The work ends with Madame Michu refusing to let her husband give their daughters away to their respective bridegrooms: “Oh no! Don’t touch them again! You’d only mix them up a second time!” So, a happy ending for all with a round of applause.

It is clear why the operetta was so popular. With its comic twists and turns, the gaiety of the overall plot and the wonderful musical numbers it was bound to succeed. Why have I not heard it before?? The performance is splendid. The whole cast is on top form. A special mention goes to the mezzo Violette Polchi and the soprano Anne-Aurore Cochet as the two P’tites Michu. One cannot help but smile at this production. The cast and the relatively small orchestra bring out its charm and wit from the opening bars to the last. Yes, there is a lot of dialogue, which some might find off-putting, but the musical numbers will more than make up for this. To pick a few of these wonderful numbers out would be a shame: one can say something good about all of them. The opening chorus Le tambour résonne is a good place to start. It presents the aspect of the cast that I have not mentioned yet, and they add a great deal to this production. The general’s act 2 rondeau Non, je n'ai jamais vu ça is excellent. The act 3 sextet Assieds-toi là sets the scene well for the final happy ending Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche.

A wonderful performance is mirrored by a wonderful presentation. As all of the works in the label’s Opéra français series, it comes with the discs tucked into the covers of a hardback book, some 176 pages in total. The book gives all the information one could ever want about the work, including histories, synopsis and full text in both French and English. The sound is good, but here lies my only small gripe, the recording seems quite quiet, especially in the dialogue sections. One can turn up the volume, but a happy medium has to be found between hearing the spoken word and not having to reach for the remote every time the musical numbers come on. Once you get the right level, well then it is sheer indulgent pleasure all the way. A warning: if you are anything like me, you will end up listening to it again and again and again.

Stuart Sillitoe

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