TROMB-AL-CA-ZAR, OU LES CRIMINELS DRAMATIQUES
Bouffonnerie musicale in 1 act
Libretto: Charles-Désiré Dupeuty & Ernest Bourget
First performed : Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, 3 April 1856
RTBF recording, conducted by Alfred Walter. Starring Albert Voli (Beaujolais), Claudine Granger (Gigolette), Jacques Legrand (Ignace), and Yerry Mertz (Vert-Panné).
The prolific Offenbach wrote nearly 60 operas for the Bouffes-Parisiens, the small theatre he founded in 1855 to perform opéra bouffe and pantomime. Many of the early pieces were limited by law to one-act works, with only four characters. Some are brilliant, like the chinoiserie musicale Ba-ta-clan. Others are too topical or suffer from slight plots.
Tromb-al-ca-zar is a case in point. An innkeeper in the Basses-Pyrénées thinks that a theatrical troupe are really bandits and brigands. That’s the plot. The little opera is high-spirited; the music is witty music and the tunes catchy, as always with Offenbach, including a syllabic trio in honour of Bayonnais ham, with a flourish of (pig?) Latin…
… but a modern audience won’t get most of the jokes.
Quick! Who were Buridan, Gastilbelza, Gaspardo, and Marco Spada? Can you recognise a quote from Auber’s Sirène, Adam’s Chalet, and David’s “Hirondelles“? More – Anglophones: can you get jokes about the difference between rural dialect and theatrical fustian, malapropisms, and French puns about “pau”?
The opera parodies a sub-genre that’s no longer performed: French brigand operas and plays, with dashing heroes who murder their father, poison their mother, and strangle their brother-in-law. They were performed throughout Europe, but today’s operagoer is only likely to encounter the Italian variety – Verdi’s Ernani (based on Hugo’s play that shocked the conservative Parisians and wowed the Romantic young Turks) and, more rarely, I masnadieri.
Offenbach would write a funnier opera about bandits 13 years later. Les brigands contrasts honest criminals with corruption in the Second Empire – but we don’t need to know the satirical target for this to be funny,. Tromb-al-ca-zar is too specific a spoof. That’s the problem with parody; it requires some knowledge of what is being parodied.