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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Barbe-bleue: opéra bouffe in 3 Acts and 4 scenes (1866) [123 mins]
Libretto by Meilhac and Halévy
Barbe-Bleue - Yann Beuron (tenor)
Boulotte - Héloïse Mas (mezzo-soprano)
Popolani - Christophe Gay (baritone)
King Bobèche - Christophe Mortagne (tenor)
Fleurette - Jennifer Courcier (soprano)
Count Oscar - Thibault de Damas (bass-baritone)
Prince Saphir - Carl Ghazarossian (tenor)
Queen Clémentine - Aline Martin (mezzo-soprano)
Lyon National Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Michele Spotti
Karine Locatelli, Chorus master
Laurent Pelly, stage director and costume designer
Chantal Thomas, set designer
Joël Adam, lighting designer
rec. live, 25 & 29 June 2019, Opéra de Lyon
Bonus: Tales of Offenbach
Picture format: 1080i High Definition
Sound format: LPCM 2.0 / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, French, German (main feature only), Japanese, Korean
Reviewed in surround
OPUS ARTE OABD7290D Blu-ray [181 mins]

Faced with a ludicrous plot and wonderful tunes, any intelligent musician simply has to play, sing and occasionally dance for all s/he is worth. This is what happens in this welcome disc of Offenbach’s Barbe-bleue. Overacting is permitted at every stage, this most notably coming from the wonderful Héloïse Mas as Boulotte, Yann Beuron as Barbe-bleue himself, and Christophe Mortagne as King Bobèche. I did, at the start, wonder if conductor Michele Spotti was also following this instruction, but he seems to calm down later! Both cast and orchestra perform with skill and style. Spotti was a new name to me, but since graduating from the Milan Conservatoire Giuseppe Verdi in 2014, he has gained much experience in mainstream opera all over Italy and further afield in Europe. I expect to see his name come up more often because he clearly knows how to maintain the lyric and rhythmic flow of this repertoire - no small skill. Héloïse Mas has a well-established presence in European opera. Appropriately she is to sing yet another Bluebeard early in 2022, Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe Bleue at the Opéra National de Lorraine. That will be one to watch out for, because she is a very fine singer indeed. Stage Director Laurent Pelly has a world-wide reputation for managing stagings that look modern but still have lightness and humour. One cannot imagine this Offenbach confection being staged better.

I am usually first in the queue to criticise unnecessary updating of operatic staging but the arrival of the eponymous Bluebeard in his chauffeur-driven limousine (its silent drive suggesting an electric vehicle version) and his smart modern suit, emulated by his hangers-on, is just accepted as part of the joke. Similarly, the gathering of courtiers in Act 2 could be the Westminster Parliament, save for the bowing and scraping (hmm?). The wedding guests later on would not look out of place today, either. The actual events of course are very Whitehall farce; the wonderful hand-kissing chorus is a great moment. This is Offenbach after all, and he had a penchant for poking fun at current events.

The problem with “fun” and Bluebeard is the appalling nature of the story. Even the early Perrault fairy tale is very nasty. In the 20th century Bartók nailed the essence of our current view that the story is so awful it has to be seen as a psychological drama to be acceptable. The alternative is trying to make entertainment out of a serial killer’s activities! Meilhac and Halévy solved the problem for Offenbach by making the killing of the wives, and the courtiers with whom the wives are eventually married, all pretence. None of Bluebeard’s wives is actually dead, they are just hidden away, and the condemned courtiers merely imprisoned in the dungeons - so that’s all right then. That still leaves Bluebeard’s relentless search for his next virgin wife. Even the grovelling guests and parliamentary courtiers look utterly shocked when the protagonist segues from mourning into a jolly dance after admitting his latest wife is already dead and he’s seeking another, the sixth.

There is much to be gained from the superb accompanying documentary by Reiner Moritz, Tales of Offenbach. This is almost worth the purchase price alone in explaining the milieu into which the composer presented his series of satirical operettas. The presence of Dame Felicity Lott as a lead commentator helps not a little. What we have to realise is that Offenbach’s audience had a strong background in cultural and political history that allowed all sorts of comedic reference to make their mark. They were expected to laugh at not only the narrative parallels with contemporary events but also the musical jokes, the quotations from serious operas and other operettas that are mostly no longer in our repertoire. The theatres of 1866 must have rung with laughter throughout this piece, as all the references were understood. By contrast, we are both more staid and less culturally aware, not to mention our present political correctness which makes so many subjects of humour unacceptable, at least in public.

Lyon Opéra has done an excellent job of allowing a somewhat mystifying operetta to make an impact. The performance is well-filmed and the sound well-recorded. The surround effects are subtle and place one in the front few rows of a quiet audience. The disc menus are a little confusing but useable. Why is it still easier to get into a menu than out of it? The booklet has an essay and a plot summary and, in conjunction with the excellent documentary described above, helps one to enjoy this unlikely operetta. Under no circumstances should one make comparisons with Bartók!

Dave Billinge

Previous review (DVD): Raymond Walker

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