Chinoiserie musicale in 1 act
Composer: Jacques Offenbach
Libretto: Ludovic Halévy
First performed: Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, 29 December 1855
Hurrah for Jacques Offenbach!
Offenbach was one of very few clever, witty composers: a parodist who delighted in turning things on their head, putting familiar elements in strange contexts (and vice versa), toppling sacred cows, and mischievously quoting other composers in incongruous situations.
His contemporaries saw him as a musical Aristophanes; we can look back and compare him to the Pythons, Spike Milligan, Mel Brooks, or The Simpsons. Where else do you find sopranos in cannibal cooking-pots singing waltzes; Zeus disguised as a fly; or the hero pursued by Public Opinion? And the Opéra-Comique production of Les Brigands is like watching Astérix the opera.
I love Offenbach, as you’ve probably guessed. He sits quite comfortably next to Meyerbeer, Massenet, Berlioz, and Arthur Sullivan as one of my five favourite composers.
Ba-ta-clan was one of his earliest and biggest successes.
It’s giddily brilliant: a young composer and librettist really showing what they can do.
The operetta takes place in China – where all the characters are (naturally) Frenchmen in disguise. There are revolutionary anthems, conspiracies, and coups in this chinoiserie musicale.
The “Chinese” orchestra sounds like nothing else in opera, until possibly Hindemith: a mixture of cymbals, triangles, saxophones, saxhorns, and pianos, with passages of pure swing or jazz.
The Emperor Fè-ni-han (Anastase Nourrisson, of Brive-la-Gallarde) plans to escape with the courtiers Ké-ki-ka-ko (the vicomte Alfred Cérisy) and the princess Fé-an-nich-ton (opera singer Virginie Durand). Guard captain Ko-ko-ri-ko becomes Emperor; he was, of course, born rue Mouffetard, Paris.
The opera opens with a chorus and quartet in Chinese gibberish (“Maxalla chapallaxa … Bibixi midirixi … Molototo dododo … Turlunussu punussu…”), while the orchestra imitates a clock gone doolally, springs boiñngggging. It’s brilliant.
Later, there’s a nonsense duet in Italian, parodying Bellini.
“Morto ! morto ! Poignardato ! Etranglato ! Découpato ! Embrochato ! Déchirato ! Empilato !”
The highlight is the Ba-ta-clan itself, the revolutionary song that calls for the tenor to tootle melodiously at the top of his range like a bugle. It’s catchy – and utterly demented.
Its lunatic brilliance beats anything in German or Italian opera hands down. And Offenbach can’t resist a nod to Meyerbeer, the master of French grand opera. Expecting death, the characters face the audience, and launch into a parody of the great Huguenots Act V trio.
Two recommended recordings: Debart 1986, Couraud 1959.