Thursday, January 11, 2007

Non-Viennese froth

In the NY Times, Anne Midgette writes about an upcoming operetta series in New York. Since it takes places at the Austrian Cultural Forum, it obviously focuses on the Viennese strain, which, as Midgette makes clear in her intro, somehow has become one of only two styles of operetta for many Americans (the other being Gilbert & Sullivan): "The term [operetta] mostly conjures up visions of ostrich feathers and rhinestones; Central European duchies with ornate military uniforms; pretty melodies crooned by bright-eyed ingénues." Jeez, and you wonder why people think it's irremediably corny.

But wait a minute! Operetta's not all Viennoiseries. Not only did France contribute a little Alsatian dude called Offenbach, but operetta remained a viable artistic and commercial form there way into the 1950s. (Francophones can check out this thorough, instructive site on French musical theater.) On a trip to Paris last year, for instance, I caught a charming revival of Toi C'est Moi, composed by the Cuban exile Moïse Simons in 1934, with loony lyrics by (mostly) Albert Willemetz. The show was a frothy mix of Parisian humor and the Latin rhythms Simons incorporated into his score, and I think it could seduce Broadway fans here. The yummy Susan Graham actually covered Toi C'est Moi's "C'est ça la vie, c'est ça l'amour" and "Vagabonde" on her 2002 CD dedicated to French operetta, but here's the show's comic highlight in a 1933 recording by Pauline Carton and the mononamed Koval. Now forgotten, Carton once was one of the most popular character actresses of French stage and film (think Marjorie Main).

MP3 Pauline Carton "Sous les palétuviers"

The style is tricky to bring back to life though: For every brilliant staging of Offenbach by Laurent Pelly, you get a failure like Alain Resnais' stultifying 2003 film adaptation of Maurice Yvain's 1925 Pas sur la bouche. (I'd love to have seen last year's Châtelet revival of Francis Lopez's catchy Le chanteur de Mexico—which upped the kitsch factor by starring Rossy de Palma and boasting a flamboyant poster by Pierre et Gilles.)

Our most outspoken advocates in town are Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeil, artistic directors of L'Opéra Français de New York; they know how good French operetta can be—their enlightening six-part TV doc about it in 2002 is required viewing for anybody with an interest in the popular music of the 19th and 20th centuries—and last November put together a program titled "Les folies de l'opérette" that included Yvain next to Offenbach. (The company's music director, Yves Abel, is no operetta slouch either, since he worked on Graham's CD, among other accomplishments.) Let's hope these guys help raise the consciousness level so we can start seeing more French operetta in New York—including some Offenbach other than Tales of Hoffman, please. I'm totally convinced that Offenbach shows such as La Belle Hélène, Orphée aux Enfers and La Périchole could draw New Yorkers, and possibly start off a classical fashion similar to baroque.

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