Opéra bouffe in 3 acts and 4 tableaux
Music: Jacques Offenbach
Libretto: Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy
First performed: Théâtre des Variétés, Paris, 12 April 1887
“C’est tout-à-fait ça,” said Bismarck, after seeing Offenbach’s satire of war and petty German princedoms.
Offenbach and his librettists Meilhac and Halévy skewer the military mind, court protocol, favoritism, corruption, and absolute monarchy, and reject war for the simple, human joys of love, laughter, and good, strong drink.
Offenbach composed the operetta for the World Exhibition of 1867, and the crowned heads of Europe flocked to hear the charms of the tunes, and see the charms of Hortense Schneider as the lady with a penchant for private soldiers and her soldiers’ privates.
The scene is a small German duchy, early in the eighteenth century. Gérolstein is at war; the Grand Duchess’s advisors have started the fight as a distraction, while they amass power.
Our hero is one Fritz, a handsome young soldier who would rather flirt with his girlfriend Wanda than fight – much to the disgust of his C.O., General Boum, a martinet with a mania for discipline.
The Grand Duchess arrives to boost her troops’ morale, and she’s very fond of soldiers.
Her eye falls on Fritz, and she raises him from private to general, and ennobles him – to the fury of General Boum, her tutor Baron Puck, and her fiancé Prince Paul. Fritz, bearing the Duchess’s father’s sabre, sets off to fight the enemy, while his rivals scheme and plot.
Fritz is triumphant; his brilliant strategy was to get the enemy absolutely blotto, and in no fit state to fight. The Duchess hints that “a close friend of hers” is in love with him, but Fritz is oblivious.
Boum, Puck, and Paul plot to murder the interloper.
The Duchess discovers the plot. She’s torn between jealousy and love for Fritz, but gives the signal for the assassination: a carillon danced at Fritz and Wanda’s wedding.
The Duchess has fallen in love with Baron Grog, a diplomat from Prince Paul’s father’s court. Why bother to kill Fritz? She calls off the assassination, but lets the conspirators have their revenge. Boum gives Fritz a horse which takes him straight to a woman he knows well – who has a jealous husband. Fritz comes limping back, holding the now bent sabre. The Duchess sends him hurtling back through the ranks; he wisely decides to resign and live happily with his Wanda. The Duchess, for her part, resigns herself to marrying Prince Paul; if one can’t have what one loves, one must love what one has.
The brilliant, tuneful Offenbach may well be the antidote to Wagner’s long-windedness.
“If one understands genius in an artist to be the highest freedom under the law, divine lightness, frivolity in the most serious things,” wrote Nietzsche, “then Offenbach has far more right to the name ‘Genius’ than Wagner. Wagner is difficult, ponderous; nothing is more alien to him than those moments of high-spirited perfection such as this Harlequin Offenbach achieves five, six times in each of his buffooneries.”
The opera brims with melody; not endless melody, forsooth, but actual melody, inspired tunes that dance in the ear. Offenbach blends pathos (the Duchess’s “Dites-lui”, which Offenbach’s librettist Halévy thought a jewel) with excellent trios and ensembles, including an elaborate, multi-section finale à la Meyerbeer.
La Grande Duchess de Gérolstein is fun. It’s clever. It has tunes and rhythm. It lives.
Felicity Lott (Grande-Duchesse), Sandrine Piau (Wanda), Yann Beuron (Fritz), François Le Roux (Général Boum), Franck Leguérinel (Baron Puck), and Eric Huchet (Prince Paul), conducted by Marc Minkowski, Paris, 2004. Available on both CD and DVD (Virgin).
The most complete recording of the score; it uses Jean-Christophe Keck’s critical edition which restores cut numbers, including the Act II finale.
Régine Crespin (Grande-Duchesse), Alain Vanzo (Fritz), Charles Burles (Prince Paul), Robert Massard (Général Boum), and Mady Mesplé (Wanda), conducted by Michel Plasson. Sony, 1976.