I guess many opera goers in the English speaking world will have at least a passing acquaintance with Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle but I suspect fewer will have seen Offenbach’s take on Perreault’s rather grim tale. It will probably come as no great surprise that Offenbach’s Barbe-bleue is a somewhat tongue in cheek version of the story of the notorious serial killer.
As the plot is likely unfamiliar I’ll start with a (very) condensed summary. A shepherd, Saphir, and a shepherdess, Fleurette are in love but Saphir claims his family are not yet agreeable to their marrying. Meanwhile the pushiest girl in the village, Boulotte, has her sights set on Saphir. Simultaneously Bluebeard’s alchemist Poplani and King Bobèche’s chamberlain, Count Oscar, show up in the village; the one to crown the most virtuous maiden as “Rose Queen”, the other to find the king’s long lost daughter. The virtue of peasant girls being what it is, Poplani holds a lottery which is won by Boulotte. Oscar discovers that Fleurette is the missing princess. Bluebeard arrives, having just lost his fifth wife and decides that Boulotte; “un vrai Rubens”, will make a suitable, and well endowed, replacement. Oscar takes Fleurette off to court but she insists on taking Saphir with her.
At court, Bobèche wants Oscar to eliminate another courtier (he has already disposed of four apparently) but he demurs. Fleurette, now Princess Hermia, throws a hissy fit when she is told a marriage has been arranged for her but relents when the prince turns out to be Saphir. Bluebeard shows up to present his new wife but her “unsophisticated” behaviour and his sudden infatuation with Hermia determine him to bump off Boulotte and make Hermia number seven. Polani sort of poisons Boulotte then revives her and introduces her to the other five wives who he also revived and has been keeping for his own entertainment. Boulotte leads the plotting of revenge.
Bluebeard shows up at court demanding Hermia’s hand as the price for not invading. Saphir is apparently killed in a farcical duel with Bluebeard who carries off Hermia. Polani, Saphir, Boulotte, the not actually bumped off courtiers and the wives arrive disguised as gypsies. Bluebeard is unmasked. The courtiers and the wives are paired off, Hermia is reunited with Saphir and Boulotte decides she might as well keep Bluebeard.
It’s all fast paced, really quite funny and intensely subversive. Not only is Napoleon III and his court being mocked in the ridiculous pretensions of Bobèche but all along it’s really the women n charge. Queen Clémentine bosses Bobèche, Hermia clearly dominates Saphir and Boulotte ends up with Bluebeard firmly under her thumb. What’s being said about notions of conventional upper class/bourgeois marriage scarcely bears thinking about!
Laurent Pelly directed the piece for Opéra de Lyon in 2019. There are probably few houses that have produced as much Offenbach in recent times as Lyon and few directors who have tackled as much of his output as Pelly. It’s no surprise then that a largely French cast, made up of a mix of veterans of Pelly’s earlier Offenbach efforts and rising young stars, makes for a pretty fun experience. There are characteristic Pelly touches such as newspaper articles about Bluebeard being plastered over the set and a highly synchronised approach to moving both principals and chorus. And, of course, a real sensitivity to the humour; both verbal and visual, rooted in a real instinct for comic timing.
The cast is really excellent. Yann Beuron as Barbe-bleue, in one of his last roles before announcing his retirement from the stage, is in excellent voice and is, of course, a master of this genre. The (normally) incredibly elegant mezzo Heloïse Mas transforms herself into the hoydenish Boulotte in a performance that is intensely physical, sexy in a not very elegant way and just lots of fun to watch and listen to. Jennifer Courcier, as Fleurette/Hermia, has a light, bright soprano ideal for the role and transforms herself physically into every parent’s nightmare teenage daughter.
Christophe Gay as Popalani and Thibault de Damas as Oscar are suitably lugubrious. Christophe Mortagne as Bobèche produces the kind of facial expressions only ever seen in French comedy. But really it’s an ensemble performance and all the minor roles pus the chorus contribute. Michele Spotti conducts a lovely reading of the score; briskly paced for the most part but also apt when, for example, Offenbach is parodying Meyerbeer.
The video by Vincent Massip is straightforwardly excellent backed p by impeccable audio (PCM stereo and DTS-HD surround) and video, on Blu-ray at least. Subtitles are English, French, German, Korean and Japanese. The booklet contains a synopsis and a very good essay by Reiner Moritz.
But best of all Moritz directs an hour long documentary, Tales of Offenbach, about the man’s life and works. It’s narrated by Felicity Lott with contributions from many people with experience of directing, conducting and singing Offenbach. Laurent Pelly is especially good on what Offenbach is satirizing and Barry Kosky goes into some depth about Offenbach’s musical roots (especially the Jewish part) and his relationship to what was going on in the contemporary Paris music scene. It’s a must watch for anyone interested in Offenbach.
As far as i can tell this is the only recording of Barbe-bleue in any format and it’s well worth seeing for anyone who enjoys Offenbach.