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Offenbach to the rescue

Librettist Stephen Plaice explains about how Offenbach’s Mesdames de la Halle represents a crucial turning-point in the composer’s output.

Offenbach’s Mesdames de la Halle, premiered in Paris in 1858, represents a crucial turning-point in the composer’s output, which includes nearly a hundred operettas.
In the preceding decade, Offenbach had grown dissatisfied with the limitations of life as a cellist in a conventional orchestra. His own ambitions as composer, conductor and theatrical producer were too strong to keep him in the pit of the Opéra-Comique. His employers weren’t in the least interested in staging his work, so he broke out and began to produce the bouffes, small opera buffas, usually comprising a single act. These short, humorous entertainments by various young French composers (though Offenbach himself was of German origin) were produced in summer and winter seasons at small Parisian theatres from 1855 onwards, under a licence Offenbach had obtained for performing a ‘new and original’ kind of musical theatre.

Harry Coe (Kate Lindsey) and Ciboulette (Danielle de Niese) in our summer 2020 production of In the Market for Love

Astonishingly, Mesdames de la Halle was the first operetta in which Offenbach had legally been allowed to work with a chorus. The reason for this was the rigid control over cast numbers exercised by the prefecture of police in mid-19th century Paris. When the Bouffes-Parisiens began, the composer was allowed a maximum of only three singers. Though there was perhaps a moral agenda here, a desire by the authorities to restrict licentiousness around theatrical events, there was also a financial one. The bouffes were rapidly became popular and were even threatening the ticket-sales of the conventional theatres. However, this success was to be explained not only by the hilarity of the entertainments; audiences were also attracted by the louche society around the bouffes, the promise of social and indeed sexual interaction with the demi-mondaines who attached themselves to the enterprise, including the performers. The corruption of this permissive society was later explicitly captured in Émile Zola’s novel Nana.

In 1857, rather than continuing to suppress the new theatrical craze, the establishment did a volte-face and responded to public demand by removing the restrictions on cast size entirely. The theatrical institutions had come to realise that in order to keep their audiences, Offenbach’s works, and those of others working in the same opera-buffa genre, would have to be included in their repertoire, along with fringe performers like Hortense Schneider who had made them popular. This prepared the way for Offenbach’s larger works –notably La belle Hélène, La vie parisienne, Orpheus in the Underworld (the theatrical origin of the famous Can Can) and The Tales of Hoffmann, which the composer did not quite live long enough to see in production.

So Mesdames de la Halle was the stepping stone from the bouffes of Offenbach’s early days, to his full-scale operas. Though it is still a one-act opera buffa, one can feel in its endeavour an aspiration towards grand opera (even including some element of ballet in the finale), and towards the choral and choreographic possibilities that were opening up for the successful composer. Yet the piece is still tight in terms of scale, conforming to the Aristotelian dramatic unities of time, place and action, rolling out in a single sequence of events.

Madame Mangetout (Michael Wallace) and Raflafla (Allan Clayton) in our summer 2020 production of In the Market for Love

Offenbach chose as his librettist Armand Lapointe, a vaudevillian and journalist, who knew the very tick of Paris and was well acquainted with its history. Lapointe took for his precinct the iconic Marché des Innocents, a huge market square in the 1st arrondissement. The market was formerly dominated by a fountain housed in a huge structure the size of a church-tower. This was demolished in the late 18th century (though the fountain itself was resited outside in the square); but it retained a sentimental significance in public consciousness. Composer and librettist deliberately wanted to elicit nostalgia for pre revolutionary Paris by recapturing the feel of the old market. So the operetta begins with the cris des vendeurs (traders’ cries) that might have been heard in the 18th century. Lapointe and his composer may even have been responding to the imminence of a second demolition, which took place in the same year as the production. Perhaps Mesdames de la Halle was an early conservationist protest? If so, it was partly successful. One can still visit a reduced version of the fountain in what is now Les Halles. In our production the fountain has become no more than a public hand sanitiser.

Subtract the choruses and the numbers, and this is perhaps Offenbach’s purest farce. It is, surprisingly, also his debut at Glyndebourne. In the current climate, his works seem ripe for revival, especially the short and irreverent opera buffas, many requiring only a few performers. Perhaps the era of the Bouffes Nouvelles is upon us.

From phone call to delivery of the vocal score, Marcia Bellamy and I had three weeks during lockdown to write, set and deliver the new version, now titled In the Market for Love. We came to imagine that we were working under the same conditions that Offenbach himself had experienced during the early days of feverish composition on his one act bouffes. We could always feel the composer’s genial, twinkling spirit at our shoulder, encouraging us to take as many liberties with the text as we desired, while leaving his brilliantly effervescent music in its original form, to speak for itself. Mesdames et Messieurs, applaud it all, life is a roaring waterfall.

By Stephen Plaice, Librettist for In the Market for Love 

Join us this autumn for our socially distanced indoor production of Offenbach’s
In the Market for Love.

Image credits: Richard Hubert Smith | In the Market for Love, Summer 2020

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