I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Joie de vivre
The phrase La Belle Époque is vividly dramatized in the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM)'s new production of Jacques Offenbach's famous operetta. It is performed by students from the RNCM School of Vocal Studies and Opera.
The Parisian railway station that greets us, when the curtains part, is unlike one you might commute from today or one that has ever existed. Set and costume designer, Simone Romaniuk, casts it in bold yellow and red and everyone from flower sellers to passengers and station staff are dressed alluringly and/or with panache.
The set design for the Moulin Rouge, in Act Two, is so stunning that it earns a round of applause before anything is sung or said.
La Vie Parisienne was first performed at the Theatre du Palais Royal, in 1866 (slightly before the start of the official start of the 'Beautiful Era'). This was the time when Napoleon III (Bonaparte's nephew) was emperor. The boulevards were being built and the Gare du Nord was reconstructed.
David McCaffrey (Gardefeu) entertains his guests. Photo Robert Workman.
Simone Romaniuk and director Stuart Barker decided to relocate the period setting for this production to the 1930s (technically later than La Belle Époque).
The characters in Offenbach's operetta look for love and indiscretions against the backdrop of genteel decadence. They make Downton Abbey or Noel Coward's plays look like gritty Ken Loach style dramas.
The translation used is a 1995 English one, by award-winning stage and TV writer, Alistair Beaton. He regularly wrote song lyrics for the satirical TV show Spitting Image but his script is more Allo Allo than Spitting Image. Taking its lead from the original, it pokes gentle fun at the characters, including the faltering attempts of English tourists to speak French.
Not having seen La Vie Parisienne before I cannot say how Alistair Beaton's translation differs from others. However, his dialogue includes many amusing set-ups and deadpan put-downs. One glamorous belle, rejecting the romantic overtures of an admirer, says: "There is a limit to happy endings."
I found the Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy harder to concentrate on than the spoken words, because my mind autotuned to Offenbach's sprightly music.
Despite the overall quality of the production, Act One, Scene Two did drag somewhat and the prospect of the interval became more and more appealing. Alistair Beaton's translation could not entirely save an overlong and laboured playing out of deceptions, misdirection and false identities, familiar to anyone who has seen a French farce.
I preferred the comic tension of Act One, where Raoul de Gardefeu (David McCaffrey) and Bobinet (Edward Robinson), wait, with flowers, for the same elegant beauty – Métella (Fiona Finsbury).
There is also a fine comic turn by Robert Brooks as Antoine, a dutifully unscrupulous tour guide.
To sing to operatic standard and also perform spoken dialogue is no mean feat. John Ieuan Jones is particularly good in both capacities as the pompous and petulant Lord Ellington. He enlivens any scene in which he appears with his comic timing and physical acting. It is perhaps not surprising that an Englishman is the closest thing this French nineteenth century operetta has to a villain.
David McCaffrey (Gardefeu) and John Ieuan Jones (Lord Ellington). Photo Robert Workman.
Act Two is more dramatically fluent, as it builds towards its crescendo (which is a bonus because the RNCM seats do not have an excessive amount of legroom).
One delight of seeing the whole cast on the stage is to marvel at Simone Romaniuk's costumes. They rival the glamour of BBC's Strictly Come Dancing and include suits, long coats, gowns and decorated military uniforms. The young performers, who stroll around the auditorium before they take to the stage, look as though they could have been dressed by Toulouse-Lautrec, if he had been given access to an Ann Summers catalogue.
Offenbach's score is played by the RNCM Opera Orchestra and conducted by Andrew Greenwood. I would call it high-class, light music. There are no heartbreaking arias but it works splendidly on its own terms in a stage production. It is not music I would choose to listen to outside of a theatre but I can't have been the only audience member humming Raoul de Gardefeu and Bobinet's Bon Viveur duet as we headed for the exit.
The RNCM's production of Offenbach's operetta brings high energy, and Baz Luhrmann-style technicolour to La Vie Parisienne. It is perhaps best described by borrowing Oscar Wilde's words - 'A trivial comedy for serious people'. It deserves to travel more widely than Manchester.
Jacques Offenbach in the 1860s, by Félix Nadar. Image from Wikipedia.