Offenbach’s anniversary year: Jewish, German, and essentially French; painstaking emergence and eventual triumph

Offenbach turns 200 today, Thursday 20 June.

If you look hard enough, interesting anniversaries generally show up every year. But few recent years have been as interesting as this, especially for one who ranks the two best-known, French birthday celebrants right at the top of their class.

It’s the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death (on 8 March this year); and the 200th anniversary of the birth of two of the most successful composers of light opera, or comic opera, or operetta, or opera-bouffe – take your pick – in mid 19th century: Franz von Suppé and Jacques Offenbach. Outside Germany and Austria, Suppé is today known almost only for half a dozen sparkling overtures to his forty or so operettas: Die schöne Galathée, Boccaccio, Fatinitza, Die Banditenstreiche, Poet and Peasant, Morning, Noon and Night and Light Cavallery. There are, naturally, similarities between Offenbach and Suppé, but the greatest difference is in the survival of much of the huge quantity of stage works by the one and virtual disappearance of the works of the other.

As I was putting this article together, I was delighted to hear RNZ Concert advertising its week-long plan to celebrate Offenbach, although so far the pickings have been rather scrappy and insignificant. Given the typically breathless hype with which forthcoming programmes are announced, I’d rather expected something substantial every day: a scene or more from three or four of his best opéras-bouffes as well as a decent chunk of The Tales of Hoffmann – the Antonia act is the richest for me; and several of the overtures and samples of his compositions for cello; his very successful ballet Le Papillon – only half an hour or so long – or a suite from the brilliant pastiche ballet, Gaité Parisienne which used to be featured often on 2YC’s dinner music programme in my teens….. There were a few gems however, though I missed most of them. One that intrigued me was excerpts from Fées du Rhin, on Eva Radich’s midday programme. It was originally called Rheinnixen, one of the few he wrote for German audiences – Vienna – in 1864. I’m sure I had never heard any of Rheinnixen before, but the waltz was very familiar, and I thought it was perhaps from his ballet Le Papillon which he’d written a few years earlier. And my copy of Alexander Faris’s biography of Offenbach confirmed that borrowing; indeed, it’s from Le Papillon.

England v. France in comic opera
In the English speaking world Offenbach has till recently, been generally denigrated, certainly given a lower ranking than Sullivan; and given credit, reluctantly, for only The Tales of Hoffmann. But the criteria for assessing the musics of countries as artistically different as Britain and France simply make comparisons dangerous. Offenbach’s theatre works have conventionally been regarded, in Britain anyway, as insubstantial, licentious, clumsy burlesque, in comparison to Gilbert and Sullivan.

That’s reflected in English books about opera. For example, The Viking Opera Guide lists 23 works by Sullivan compared with only seven by Offenbach; a curious view, given that Sullivan’s 23 are his entire stage output while Offenbach produced around a hundred (no one pretends they are all masterpieces!). Inevitably, there are points of similarity since they were roughly contemporaneous: Offenbach’s productive operetta years were from 1855 to 1880, while Sullivan’s were from about 1870 to 1900.

Looking at Offenbach’s references in my own books on opera, ignoring him seems a national passion.
The following shows date of publication and the numbers of operas by 1) Offenach and 2) others.

J Cuthbert Hadden; Favourite Operas (1910)   None out of 57
Leo Melitz: The Opera Goer’s Complete Guide (1914)  4 out of 227
Gustave Kobbé: The Complete Opera Book (1922)  A cursory reference to Hoffmann out of 197
R A Streatfiled: The Opera (1925) Only Hoffmann out of c 320.
The Gramophone Company: Opera at Home (1925) only Hoffmann out of about 170
Ernest Newman: Opera Nights (1943)  None out of 29
Earl of Harewood (ed): Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book (1987)  4 out of over 300
The Viking Opera Guide (1993) 6 out of around 2000
Denis Forman: The Good Opera Guide (1994) none out of 84
Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie: The New Kobbé’s Opera Book (1997) 6 out of nearly 500 (Sullivan – nil)
Amanda Holden: The New Penguin Opera Guide (2001)  (a major updating of the Viking Opera Guide) 6 out of 2000

Things were very different in New Zealand

A glance at Adrienne Simpson’s splendid history of opera in New Zealand, Opera’s Farthest Frontier, is very interesting. While her references don’t allow a count of actual performances she does list all the traceable operas produced in New Zealand till 1970.

By then, Offenbach was the most performed opera composer in New Zealand – 14 different works had been seen here. Next came Sullivan with 11, Verdi, Mozart and Donizetti with 7 each and Puccini, Planquette and Lecocq at 5 each. That reflects the huge popularity of comic opera in New Zealand edging out major, main-stream opera from the 1870s. A little later the Sullivans and Offenbach’s were being replaced by more ephemeral works, by composers whose names are generally quite forgotten today (Leo Fall, Victor Herbert, Audran, Oscar Straus, and Planquette and Lecocq (mentioned above), After the turn of the century, even they were being replaced by musical comedy.

And after the First World War Offenbach was being bypassed by more mainstream opera, by the far fewer visiting opera companies that came to New Zealand from then.

The Offenbach pieces seen in New Zealand by 1970 were: Barbe-Bleu, La belle Hélène, The Brigands, La fille du Tambour-Major, Fortunio’s Song, Geneviève de Brabant (the one with the famous ‘Gendarmes Duet’), The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Madame Favart, Madame l’Archiduc, Orpheus in the Underworld, La Périchole, The Princess of Trebizonde, Monsieur Choufleur restera chez lui (RSVP), The Tales of Hoffmann.

Offenbach’s origins
Though Offenbach was a genuinely French composer in both style and spirit, he was born of Jewish parents in Cologne. His father led a peripatetic life as a musician – a cantor in various synagogues, finally settling in Cologne.

Jacques (born Jakob) Offenbach displayed the usual musical precocity of most great composers. Exposed first to the violin he soon fastened on to the cello and it was his playing the cello to Paris Conservatoire Director Luigi Cherubini that won him a place in 1833, aged 14. He abandoned the Conservatoire after a year and soon became a cellist in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique and also won notoriety as a cello virtuoso in Paris salons, and elsewhere. But the urge to compose took root early although he found no opportunities to compose other than instrumental or theatre music.

However, his mixture of conspicuous talent, engaging charm, wit, and an ability to make friends with certain conspicuous conductors, singers, musicians and composers like Flotow, Halévy, Adolph Adam provided him with constant musical activity. He became well known in the salons of society hostesses where his gifts and personality made a real mark. Biographer James Harding wrote: “His skill at the cello, his lively chatter, entertained people; his accent amused them and gave piquancy to what he said. He was quick and ready in conversation and the presence of smartly dressed men and women stimulated him. He loved the atmosphere of wealth and fashion. His friend, composer Friedrich von Flotow wrote: ‘My friend scored a great success and soon he became a favourite in the salon of the comtesse de Vaux’.”

Cellist as social butterfly
But try as he might his efforts to compose for the Opéra-comique led nowhere, as he seemed to have found an enemy in the shape of its director. Through the late 1830s and early 40s he led a comfortable, but for him, an unfulfilled existence as a popular cello teacher, an accomplished musician, very popular in fashionable society, composing ballads and arrangements of opera arias. At the age of 20 he was invited to compose a vaudeville, Pascal et Chambord, but it sank without trace. He gave his first public concert a couple of years later in a fashionable, new recital hall and that was not a success; another, this time with a well-known singer, was more successful.

Then there was a tour to London in 1844 and a critic wrote after one concert that “He is on the violoncello what Paganini is on the violin”.  He played at Windsor Castle before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

But still an invitation to compose for the Opéra-Comique didn’t arrive. When it looked as if his luck was changing as Adolphe Adam proposed staging a one-act opéra-comique by Offenbach, Alcôve, at Adam’s newly established Théâtre-Lyrique, the 1848 Revolution broke out and everything froze. He fled to Cologne.

All changes
After a year in Cologne, Offenbach returned to Paris and chanced to meet the man who had just become director of the Comédie-Française (France’s principal national theatre company) and was determined to revive its flagging reputation; he knew about Offenbach and asked him to take charge of the music. Even though it was not opera, it offered Offenbach the chance to compose and arrange incidental music, to manage musicians and build up the orchestra and enhance his reputation in the theatre world.

He flourished and it gave him confidence to set up his own theatre. The early 1850s slowly evolved in Offenbach’s favour. By 1853 his experience at the Comédie-Française was yielding opportunities and contacts that saw the first couple of successful one-act opéras-comiques. He was inspired by the enterprise of another young composer, Hervé, who had successfully set up his own theatre in an unpropitious part of Paris. Offenbach spotted a small run-down theatre near the Champs-Élysées; he recognised the potential of a lively theatre near the forthcoming 1855 Universal Exposition; and finally, he met the recent founder of the great French daily Le Figaro, Henri de Villemessant who recognised Offenbach’s talents, and his energy and agreed to fund the enterprise.

Thereupon, Offenbach threw himself into the huge task of refurbishing the theatre, recruiting singers and musicians, engaging librettists and writing his own music for the four one-act opéras-bouffes that were to be presented on 5 July 1855 at the launch of the Bouffes-Parisiens.

The money poured in and in a few months Offenbach had found another, larger, more suitable theatre on rue Monsigny, that backed onto the Passage Choiseul in the fashionable 2nd Arrondissement. His theatre became the Bouffes-Parisiens, Choiseul. He spent lavishly on its furnishings and amenities and moved there before the end of 1855.

It was the start of Offenbach’s astonishing 25 year career during which a new genre of comic opera, strong on satire and irreverence was created. It brought him into the limelight at once , gave him financial security (though, no matter how much he flourished, his extravagant spending on productions and his own life-style made life always precarious).

The revival of the obscure and neglected
Palazetto Bru-Zane: Centre de musique romantique française
In recent years there has been a remarkable revival of interest in the forgotten and misjudged music of earlier eras. It has moved from a concentration on the Renaissance and Baroque periods to an effort to repair the neglect of the music of ‘second-tier’ composers, of the late 18th and 19th centuries whose music has been forgotten; mainly because of the emergence of an admittedly great composer who has left all others in the shade. It’s a sad commentary on the tendency of most people to confine their attention simply to the most famous figures in an era – life is simpler like that.

In the past ten years, neglected French opera, and its various lesser genres, has been subjected to resuscitation. It has been led by the Venice-based organisation called Palazetto Bru-Zane: Centre de musique romantique française. Based in a palace of an ancient, rich Venetian family, Zane, it has been funded and vigorously supported by a Swiss pharmaceutical company, Bru, which has for ten years poured funds into the production of neglected French operas. They are premiered in the small Venetian theatre and then seen in several co-productions with French opera companies. It is part of a broader aim to reinterpret the meaning of Romanticism in France, to explore the period before the Revolution (operas such as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), Salieri’s Les Danaïdes (1784) and Sacchini’s Œdipe à Colone (1786), as well as to revive interest in orchestral works including symphonies by Gossec and Méhul.

The project has also awakened interest in the overlooked works of the post-Revolution period; in particular drawing attention to the creation of several important ‘Romantic’ works around 1830 and the time of the July Revolution that ended Charles X’s reign and launched that of Louis-Philippe (the July Monarchy). Great works of art, literature and music – essentially ‘Romantic’ in character – appeared as if the conservative atmosphere of the post-Napoleonic monarchy had finally gone: Victor Hugo’s Hernani and Notre Dame de Paris, Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir, Delacroix’s La Mort de Sardanapale, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle, Rossini’s (by now a Frenchman) William Tell, and the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz.

Their activities have been prodigious: look up:

And this year, naturally, it’s Offenbach. See: