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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Maître Péronilla, opéra bouffe in three acts (1878) [100:40]
Véronique Gens – Léona
Antoinette Dennefeld – Frimouskino
Chantal Santon-Jeffery – Alvarès
Diana Axentii – Paquite / Marietta / Rosita
Anaïs Constans – Manoëla
Éric Huchet – Maître Péronilla
Tassis Christoyannis – Ripardos
Chœur de Radio France, Orchestre National de France/Markus Poschner
rec. live, 31 May & 1 June 2019, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
French libretto with English translation provided in the book with five essays also in English.
Bru Zane ‘Opéra français’ series of CD-books, Volume 23
BRU ZANE BZ1039 [44:06 + 56:34]

Palazzetto Bru Zane, the centre created for the rediscovery and international promotion of the French musical heritage, continues its French Opéra series with Offenbach’s Maître Péronilla a three-act opéra bouffe. Bru-zane’s previous Offenbach offering was La Périchole, far from one of the more obscure among the composer’s over a hundred works for the stage. In fact there was no scholarly reason for that issue either, since the two versions of it had both had complete recordings, so conductor Minkowski made a hybrid of his own! Which is not to say it was anything other than a delightful performance of a convincing text.

This though is more Bru Zane’s rediscovery territory, a later work (1878, the time of The Tales of Hoffman) and a world premiere recording. It was well worth recovering from its obscurity. We have the full score in a performance from 2019 (the bicentennial of Offenbach’s birth), which Bru Zane has issued in a limited edition of 4,000 (of which my review copy is No. 2,927). But I note that Presto Classical has many download versions of earlier Bru Zane issues where the CDs might now be unavailable.

Offenbach, who was married to a Spaniard, was quite a Hispanophile, and like his adopted countrymen Bizet, Massenet, Debussy, Ravel and Chabrier wrote Spanish themed pieces. One journalist even claimed of Maître Péronilla “There is more Spain in Offenbach’s brain than in Spain itself”. Offenbach largely wrote his own libretto, after his favourite librettists let him down, and he seems to have been as fluent with words as he was with notes. The text was once thought risqué, though only one line might raise an eyebrow now. (Péronilla wonders how to divide equitably a woman with two husbands. “Would we cut her vertically or horizontally? In the latter case someone would not get his fair share.”)

Péronilla may have the title role, but he is not especially central. His sole aria, devoted to his profession of Chocolatier, is wittily sung by Éric Huchet, as are his contributions elsewhere. The title role was nearly “Frimouskino” as that character drives the plot more than anyone else. It’s one of two trouser roles among the leads giving a female vocal dominance to the piece, and extremely well sung by Antoinette Dennefeld. The other such role is our hero Alvarès, and Chantal Santon-Jeffery’s piping soprano is bright and clear, if a little bit shrill at the top of her Malaguenia with chorus, the hit number at the premiere. The excellent Tassis Christoyannis, who features on a number of these Bru Zane operas, makes much of the role of Ripardos. Another frequent star of the label is Véronique Gens, who has the rather ungrateful role of the “aged aunt” Léona (who is 39 but answers only to 29), but she sings it as gracefully as possible while still seeming unsympathetic. The many other roles – there are twenty-three named characters – are all seemingly taken by Francophone singers familiar with the style.

The very fine Orchestre National de France (castanets and tambourines included) and the Choeur de Radio France are very well conducted by Markus Poschner, and the stereo sound offers plenty of atmosphere. The book’s five essays are all valuable, and the French libretto and English translation are included. We except that from Bru Zane, but nothing can be taken for granted these days even when a work is quite unknown. A real discovery, recommended to French operetta fans – or just lovers of good music.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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