The theme of a gauche adolescent boy, who is taken in charge by a glamorous older woman, tutored in the arts of love, before then finding a suitable girl of his own age and circumstances to marry, is a favourite on the opera and operetta stage. Offenbach's 1869 Vert Vert, written not for his own beloved Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens but for the slightly more elevated Opéra Comique in Paris, has at its heart this central narrative: the shy and innocent Valentin (nicknamed Vert Vert, in honour of their recently deceased pet parrot, by a bevy of remarkably grown-up convent schoolgirls) leaves the convent grounds for Nevers, meets the glamorous and fascinating diva 'La Corilla', performs 'duets' with her in place of the stricken tenor originally engaged for the Nevers booking, and finally returns to the convent to declare his love for Mimi, the girl who has loved him all along. Valentin now knows love: he is self-confident, he is a man. There are shades here of Albert Herring (based as it was on a Maupassant short story), shades of Nemorino in L'Elisir d'Amore, shades even of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (whose prototype Faublas enjoys plenty of 'duets' before he marries his beloved Sophie). To this familiar tale, Offenbach's librettists Meilhac, Nuitter and others have added a nearby regiment of dragoons, a severe deputy headmistress at the convent, a comic gardener and a lively dancing master and two dragoon officers who have recently married two of the girls in secret: all the ingredients for colourful imbroglio, for boy meets girl, and for situations with mistaken identities along the way. Vert Vert was a reasonable popular (but not critical) success in 1869 and was taken up, in adapted form, elsewhere: but the 2014 performances at Garsington are described as the UK première of the complete original. Bravo to the team for giving us the chance to enjoy and to appraise it.
To start with the most important: this is a witty, delightful and sparkling production of a neglected piece. Successful operetta performances are all to do with idiom, and the idiom at Garsington is spot on. The new, tongue-in-cheek English translation is by David Parry, who also conducts the piece with careful love and attention. Dynamic contrasts are precise, the sound warm and playful, the sense of rhythm and pace often irresistible. The tautness of the ensemble work never faltered (indeed, the performance I attended was even better than the results achieved on the 2007 Opera Rara recording) and the sense of liveliness, good humour and freshness proved to be infectious. If one then adds to the musical excellence achieved an attractive, versatile set, colourful costumes and a cast with scarcely a weak link among them, the evening's entertainment has to be judged as a five star success. In fact, I can hardly imagine this piece being performed any better. For this, much credit must go to insightful and sympathetic direction by Martin Duncan, delightful designs by Francis O'Connor, and a shared vision by principals and chorus alike of how the piece as a whole has to be put across.
As the three principal schoolgirls, Fflur Wyn, Raphaela Papadakis and Katie Bray had nicely contrasting voice timbres and stage personalities. Papadakis has a warm, full and secure soprano sound and Bray an incisive mezzo: both showed strongly in their roles. Wyn proved to be as delightful as I had anticipated—she has huge reserves of power but managed to control the voice so as to suggest the pure, slightly artless, slightly vulnerable heroine that Mimi has to be until she finally gets her man. Her Act 3 duet with Valentin (Vert Vert) was beautifully articulated and phrased, with outstanding breath control and sense of melodic line. A star performance, and her appearance in dragoon uniform alongside two tall 'fellow officers' was skilfully and attractively achieved.
Those two fellow officer dragoons (the secret husbands) were well acted and strongly sung by Quirijn de Lang and Andrew Glover, each feeding off the other and giving the action much-needed forward momentum. There is a fine line to be drawn between parody, over-acting, tiresome stage business and lively characterisation: both stayed firmly with the latter, on the right side of that line. As a result, the dialogue passages moved on swiftly and purposefully, and the action never sagged.
The starring cameo role in the piece belongs to La Corilla, splendidly taken by Naomi O'Connell (who attracted favourable attention as La Périchole in the 2012 Garsington season). O'Connell is a singer-actor with great flamboyance and stage presence, and from the moment of her "Hallo boys" entrance to the coloratura of her set-piece number, she nailed the part. When Valentin had sung his 'Allelujah' test aria in Act 2, and O'Connell fixed him with smouldering eyes, he was clearly going to be toast. But her voice has come on since 2012: without eclipsing notable coloratura specialists, she delivered her "Which roles?" aria incisively in the lower register and with clarity and sparkle above the stave. Hers was a striking performance.
Yvonne Howard was a confidently assertive deputy headmistress, her rich mezzo always a pleasure to listen to and her characterisation exactly what the part requires. Opposite her, as her secret husband, Geoffrey Dolton gave a pitch-perfect performance both as dancing instructor to the girls (his 'history of dance' song proving one of the evening's highlights) and as the ardent, frustrated lover: their Act 1 'key' duet was not only laugh-aloud funny, but musically absolutely riveting—a textbook example of how a patter song can be delivered with finesse, wit and grace. In the other supporting roles, Mark Wilde proved to be sympathetic in the role of Binet, the gardener, but slightly under-projected his music, while Alessandro Fisher as Bellecour pulled off the impossible trick of establishing the persona of a tenor with a bad head cold, and then delivering a beautifully-phrased, genuinely-felt aria. He has an open, warm and soft-grained tenor: a delight to listen to.
That leaves Robert Murray as Valentin (Vert Vert), on whom much of the piece's success depends. Murray proved equal to the task in every way: it is quite a long and demanding part, calling for different singing styles at different times, but from the piano and pianissimo of the 'Allelujah' aria and the duet with Mimi, to the wonderfully assertive "Bloody Hell!" swearing aria in Act 3, Murray delivered, never putting a foot wrong. Murray's tenor sound is open, never strangulated, and delivered with easy assurance. I always felt that the role was well within his compass, and that he was enjoying himself onstage—not difficult, perhaps, with such a coterie of female admirers onstage wherever he looked!
For Parry, the Garsington Opera Orchestra played with precision and terrific style. I have not examined the new critical edition of the score by Jean-Christophe Keck, but having heard it played, I strongly suspect that his orchestration is even better than Offenbach's original. Subtle woodwind flourishes, little variations in the repeats, all suggest that time and trouble has been taken to give the piece the musical sophistication that proved to be so telling in performance (Offenbach was a master of tempo and rhythm, but not—in general—a great orchestrator, in the opinion of subsequent French musicians). The result, in musical terms, is little short of a triumph. For sheer panache, musical wit and sophistication, this is Offenbach just about as good as it gets.
Vert Vert runs at Garsington until 9 July: anyone with a love of lighter French nineteenth-century music should make a beeline for the Wormsley Estate and beg, borrow or steal a ticket. A team triumph!
Photos: Garsington Opera