As I sat in the bar at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music sipping my pre-opera gin, my eye was drawn to a stunning vision of a young Parisian woman in a revealing corset, fishnet tights and courtesan ankle boots. With my other eye not far behind, she sauntered past me with a street-walker swagger and speed.
As my mind wandered, it took me a few seconds to realise that she was part of the cast of RNCM’s end of year production of Offenbach’s operetta La Vie Parisienne. In fact, I began to notice more of these spirits of Paris dotted among the throng. A nice prelude to an evening full of delicious possibilities.
Offenbach’s two-act operetta was first performed 150 years ago when Paris was the cultural centre of the modern world. This performance has been moved to the 1930s and is sung in English, giving it the sartorial elegance of the jazz age and more than something of its sexual freedom.
It opens appropriately in that cathedral to French modernism, the railway station. We meet Raoul de Cardefeu (David McCaffrey) and Bobinet (Edward Robinson), replete with bouquets, awaiting the same woman, Metella (Fiona Finsbury) who arrives with another man. Our two young men are distraught. While Bobinet declares that being a bon viveur is very difficult and forswears women altogether, de Cardefeu, after a chance and funny meeting with Antoine (Robert Brooks), a hotel guide, takes his place in order to meet women of high quality. So begins our romantic and comic journey through la vie parisienne.
His intended guests are Lord and Lady Ellington (John Ieuan Jones and Charlotte Richardson) who are in Paris to sample its’ baser delights, certainly implied by Lady Ellington’s shameless handling of the pink Tour Eiffel. While Lord Ellington has his eye on just about anyone in French frilly knickers, Lady Ellington has hers on de Cardefeu’s tower as much as he has on her Eurotunnel. W.H. Auden declared that ‘no opera plot can be sensible’ and this one relied heavily on innuendo and high farce where timing is god. I have to say that some of the verbal exchanges between the principles were a little creaky but I put that down to first night nerves. Furthermore, I was here for the singing – and brilliant it was too.
While the plot energetically moved on with all the saucy irrelevance of a Carry On movie, the level of the musical performances by the company in its totality, from the chorus to the sexy spirits of Paris to the main characters supported by a well-drilled orchestra was extraordinary. Performances by Frick (Matthew Palfreyman), Urbain (Edwin Kaye), Leonie (Charlotte Badham) and her assistants, Clara and Louise (Juliet Montgomery and Emma Wheeler) and a great Brazilian (Matt Mears) all added to a winning night. I was particularly taken with Gabrielle (Charlotte Trepess) whose voice and slinky, voluptuous nature brought the house down. And there was the Can Can!
I arrived a man almost broken by work and life, tired and down, but I left revived, enlivened and happy by La Vie Parisienne and all those spirits who live there. Merci.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent