Reynaldo Hahn’s 1923 piece Ciboulette is considered one of the last great French operettas. It’s certainly tuneful and highly sophisticated. I lost track of the number of times the word “raffiné” is used during the interviews with production team and cast. It’s certainly a highly involved piece of meta theatre running the gamut of operatic conventions and adding a few touches of its own. It’s just as well really as all of this is wrapped around a conventionally paper thin plot.
To summarise, Antonin; a vapid but rich young man, has just been dumped by his mistress; a singer, in favour off a Hussar captain. Ciboulette; a village girl who sells her vegetables at Les Halles, falls in love with him. The match is brought off by M. Duparquet; the comptroller of Les Halles, with the help of the fishwife and fortune teller Madame Pingret. Along the way we find out that M. Duparquet is none other than Puccini’s Rodolfo who has, like all failed Bohemians, become a civil servant. We meet the Directeur of the Opéra Comique played, inevitably, by the Directeur of the Opéra Comique (who, in yet another layer of meta theatre appears before the show to announce that the audience will be deprived of some of the pleasure of his exquisite singing because he is slightly indisposed). The aging beauty Madame de Castaglioni is played by the stage director Michel Fau, who just happens to be a noted female impersonator.
It sounds completely daft but Pau and music director Laurence Equilbey do just the right thing. They take it entirely seriously (for some value of “serious”). They also cast three pretty much ideal singer/actors in the three principal roles. The star, quite properly, is Julie Fuchs as Ciboulette. She has a lovely voice but she’s not afraid to coarsen it in the regimental song of the 12th Hussars (to great effect). She handles the screeds of spoken dialogue extremely well and she has a terrific stage presence based on a robust prettiness and vivacity. She’s the sort of girl who 19th century French national determinists would have lumped in with l’attaque a l’outrance and hares with delicate physiques as characteristically, and uniquely, French. Julien Behr gives a slightly manic but beautifully sung account of Antonin. It’s a sort of Mozart tenor role. It requires great singing but the character still ends up as a bit of a chump. Finally there’s the glue that holds the thing together; the Duparquet of Jean-François Lapointe. This is a very fine singing and acting performance with just the right combination of cynicism and pathos.
Laurence Equably does a really good job in the pit. It’s very much a numbers piece with lots of dialogue but she seems to have a command of the various musical idioms that make up the piece. There all there. A couple of soldier’s chorusses, technical arias, popular chansons and elaborate set piece finales for each act. She’s well supported by the Orchestre Symphonique de l’Opéra de Toulon and a highly competent chorus.
François Roussillon directs for video and wisely decides that the somewhat formalized staging doesn’t need any help from him. The picture quality is good for DVD and both DTS surround and stereo sound tracks are clear and spacious. The piece is generously spread across two disks which leaves lot of room for bonus interviews with cast and production team. These are a must, preferably before watching the work proper. The packaging is unusual and quite sumptuous with a high quality booklet (synopsis and photos) built into the DVD case. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.
I really didn’t know what to expect of this piece but, in this recording at least, there’s a work to admire and, above all, enjoy.. Hahn’s craftsmanship is brought to a high degree of perfection by a team who thoroughly believe in the piece.