August 01, 2019
(++++) THINKING AND OVERTHINKING
Offenbach: La Périchole. Aude Extrémo, Stanislas de Berbeyrac, Alexandre Duhamel, Éric Huchet, Marc Mauillon, Enguerrand de Hys, François Pardailhé, Olivia Doray, Julie Pasturand, Mélodie Ruvio, Adriana Bignagni Lesca, Jean Sclavis; Chœur de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux and Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski. Bru Zane. $36.99 (2 CDs).
There is no conductor today who has thought as long and hard and well about Offenbach’s stage works as Marc Minkowski. His carefully researched and beautifully presented performances of Orphée aux Enfers (featuring Natalie Dessay and Yann Beuron) and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (with Felicity Lott and, again, Beuron) are so good and so complete – including the restoration to the latter recording of major musical material that had long been omitted from performances – that any new Offenbach from Minkowski creates very high expectations indeed. And the chance to own a Minkowski La Périchole from Bru Zane, an organization that is devoted to rediscovery of French musical heritage from 1780 to 1920 and that presents recordings packaged within books that include musical, historical and analytical essays of considerable style and erudition, is enough to make Offenbach lovers positively giddy with anticipation.
Yet this La Périchole, although it earns and is entitled to a very high rating for the skill and pacing of the performance and the beauty and intelligence of the packaging and presentation, is not quite the resplendent success that it could have been. Minkowski is just not thinking at his highest level in this live recording of a Bordeaux Opera production.
There are two primary issues here. One is the lead singers: Aude Extrémo as beautiful street singer La Périchole, Stanislas de Berbeyrac as her somewhat inept and inordinately jealous lover Piquillo, and Alexandre Duhamel as lecherous Peruvian viceroy Don Andrès de Ribeira. Offenbach’s absolute mastery of comic characterization in La Périchole requires genuine singer-actors who can overplay their parts, not merely play them. None of these three does so. Extrémo, for example, does not make her “letter song” nearly as heart-wrenching as it can be (it is a remarkably emotionally trenchant piece for a comic work), and she seems at most a very little bit drunk in the famous “tipsy song.” (Singers such as Teresa Berganza and, especially, Maria Ewing have been far superior in this role.) Berbeyrac has his own chance for an anguished aria after being thrown in prison, but his repeated exclamations of worry about what La Périchole is doing while he lies in the dungeon are barely delivered with any emotion at all. And Duhamel seems unsure whether to play Don Andrès as genuinely smitten and lovestruck after meeting La Périchole or as a standard stage villain with no motivation but evil designs on a woman’s virtue. Nothing in Minkowski’s conducting helps pull these characters into a realm beyond caricature – but what makes La Périchole so special is that in both its versions (1868 and 1874) the characters rise well above the cardboard clownishness of protagonists in earlier Offenbach works and become real human beings in a genuine (if exaggerated) predicament.
Minkowski conducts all the interactions among the principals with his usual outstanding sure-handedness and understanding of the music, and his overall pacing for the entire work is first-rate. Orchestra and chorus are excellent, and all the singing itself is very fine: certainly everyone involved learned how to put the arias and ensembles across and how to project them with a basic level of emotional involvement. But Minkowski, elsewhere in Offenbach, has extracted much more than that. Why he does not do so here may be a function of the quality of the cast or may have something to do with the overall Bordeaux production – but in either case, this is a very solid performance that could have been considerably more convincing.
Strictly musical matters add to the frustration. Minkowski has an admirable habit of studying multiple versions of stage works, when they exist, and putting together hybrid forms that partake of the best parts of several of them. Offenbach himself would have approved: he was very much in tune with changing audience expectations, and had no problem adding new material or discarding old numbers (even wonderful ones) if he thought of new ways to please his paying customers. But Minkowski’s decisions here do not produce a satisfactory hybrid. Although he does pick and choose material from both versions of La Périchole, he truncates rather than expands the overall work by dropping four significant elements from Act III for the purpose, apparently, of producing a tighter conclusion. But this is a significant mistake. Having already strangely neglected to provide jingling keys for the song and trio of the jolly jailer (Don Andrès in disguise), with the result that the many ringing “tin-tin-tin” lines fall flat, Minkowski then omits material that would actually show how La Périchole and Piquillo escape from prison; and then he leaves out, among other things, the scene in which soldiers search for and eventually find them – which means dropping a particularly nice number, the Chœur des patrouilles. The result is a speedy dénouement, yes, but also a nearly incoherent one.
The book-style presentation of this recording, with one CD bound into the front inside cover and the other into the back inside cover, is superb. The several essays on Offenbach and on La Périchole itself are fascinating. The inclusion of the complete libretto (for this specific version) is a big plus. And the illustrations of the covers of multiple sheet-music publications of various composers’ works based on themes from La Périchole are a delightful bonus. And, really, La Périchole is a delight, and Minkowski conducts it with knowing flair. The big problem here is that this La Périchole could have been so much more than it is – as revelatory as Minkowski’s versions of other Offenbach works have been. The issue is not what Minkowski does, which is certainly very fine; it is what he has done elsewhere, and might have done here, but, for whatever reasons, did not.