In 1791, in the midst of revolutionary tumult, the so-called ‘Le Chapelier Law’ had given Paris theatres complete freedom of programming, allowing the comic genres to be performed much more widely in a cluster of small popular Paris theatres. Napoleon’s edicts of 1807 could not stop the spread of these works – songs, vaudevilles, playlets, short operas or parodies (possibly performed by puppets) – which came to be regarded as the hallmark of French wit and were enjoyed throughout Europe. Although Offenbach was of German origin, he skilfully assimilated this brand of humour, making it his own with a highly personal tone. Composers and librettists gravitated around him, some of whom he took as models. Of these, Hervé is slowly regaining his rightful position among this company, gradually acquiring the status of Charles Lecocq, while many others are still waiting for their true worth to be re-evaluated: Laurent de Rillé, Gaston Serpette, Robert Planquette, Edmond Audran, Louis Varney, Frédéric Toulmouche and Claude Terrasse, among others, who paved the way for works by André Messager and Reynaldo Hahn.
All over the globe,
when people want
a good laugh after
a few drinks,
they go and see
a French operetta. Camille Saint-Saëns, 1876
I was not allowed more than two characters,
I wanted to have a chorus in Agamemnon,
but they were against it.
I was forced to hide the chorus singers in the wings. Hervé, Notes
Several key dates
Moving towards musical comedy
As the café-concert type of entertainment declined and motion pictures were born, music hall, on the one hand, and musical comedy, on the other, led to a modernisation of older-style productions by introducing innovative new styles and incorporating dance, acrobatics, magic, special lighting effects and complicated pieces of machinery to revitalise shows that had sometimes become a little outmoded. The variety revues put on by leading music halls were rivalled by the foxtrot rhythms and ‘jazz’ harmonies of the new interwar operetta. The French composers, increasingly well-travelled, discovered, like Messager, the art of the London operetta. Many French works, translated into English, acquired new unpublished numbers which satisfied the tastes of English-speaking audiences. Such was the case with Messager’s Les P’tites Michu, which was taken to England, then Broadway, under the title of The Little Michus, with a great many modern choruses and songs. Reynaldo Hahn (Ô mon bel inconnu), and Henri Christiné (Dédé, Phi-phi) stretched their musical technique by favouring unusual forms and approaches to orchestration. They paved the way for a generation led by Maurice Yvain, who was able to call on remarkably good librettos by Guitry or Willemetz.
Although La Périchole is now regarded as one of Offenbach’s most famous opéra-bouffes, its premiere did not bode well. After the successes of 1867, 1868 got off to a disastrous start with the failure of the Château à Toto. However, Offenbach’s fears were allayed in the autumn of that year with the performance of La Périchole at the Théâtre des Variétés on 6 October 1868 with Hortense Schneider in the title role. Partial success… or partial failure. The audience did not take as much pleasure as expected in the gallery of poor, starving characters despised by a tyrant, albeit a comical one. People were even outraged at the drunken scene – showing a woman intoxicated! – which brought Act I to a close with the marriage between a tipsy bride and groom… The few successful numbers (The Couplets espagnols and the Lettre) were not enough to keep the work in the repertoire, given the particularly tense political climate. It was not until the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 that the opera was staged again in an extensively revised version. Although the first version was in two acts, the revival of 25 April 1874, again at the Théâtre des Variétés, was in three. This marked a new chapter for the opera, whose music was less abrasive than that of the previous decade, heralding a new ‘opéra-comique’ aesthetic.
Offenbach has resolutely
ventured down a new path
in operetta, which is more
cheerful than boisterous,
more refined than farcical. Lavoix, Revue and Gazette musicale de Paris.
Hurrah for Favart,
The Queen of her art!
Before her grace and charms,
All must lay down their arms. Madame Favart, Act III