230. Pepito (Offenbach)

  • Opéra-comique in 1 act
  • Composer: Jacques Offenbach
  • Libretto: Léon Battu and Jules Moinaux
  • First performed: Théâtre des Variétés, Paris, 28 October 1853, conducted by Offenbach

VERTIGO, hotelierBaritoneLeclère
MIGUEL, a young Basque peasantTenorBiéval
MANUELITA, a young orphanSopranoMlle Larcena

SETTING: Elizondo, a Basque village.


Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pepito was Offenbach’s first success. The young man had long dreamt of a theatrical career – ideally at the Opéra-Comique – but he faced an uphill struggle.

Offenbach was born in Frankfurt in June 1819, the seventh child of a Frankfurt musician, later cantor. He was a child prodigy: he composed songs and dances by the time he was eight, and he performed with his siblings in dance halls, cafés, and taverns. At the age of 14, the formidable Cherubini accepted him as a pupil at the Paris Conservatoire, but young Jacques was bored, and left after a year. He found work as a musician at the Opéra-Comique, while Fromental Halévy, the composer of La Juive, and a fellow Jew, taught him composition and theatrical composition; Halévy told Offenbach’s family that their wayward son would one day become a great composer.

By the time Offenbach hit his mid-20s, he was a celebrity. He composed dance-tunes for café-concerts, waltz-suites, and cello-suites (with Friedrich von Flotow, the composer of Martha), and became a virtuoso cellist, touring France, Germany, and England. He married Herminie d’Alcain, the daughter of a Carlist general, and converted to Catholicism. But theatrical success eluded him.

In 1846, he composed a one-act opera, L’alcôve; the director of the Opéra-Comique promised to put it on, but kept delaying. In the end, Offenbach had the work performed himself in 1847, as a concert d’un genre neuf. Adolphe Adam was impressed, and commissioned an opera for his Opéra-National – but the 1848 revolution scuppered those plans: Adam’s theatre folded after four months, leaving him bankrupt. Another one-act opera, Le trésor à Mathurin, was written for the Opéra-Comique, but that theatre was still not interested; Offenbach eventually staged it a few years later, as Le Mariage aux lanternes, when he had his own theatre. In the meantime, Offenbach worked as conductor (chef d’orchestre) of the Comédie Française.

His break came in 1853, when the Théâtre des Variétés produced Pepito. It was, Julius Lovy (Le Ménestrel) declared, a real success; the other critics agreed. It was a charming little opéra-comique; it was amusing; almost all the pieces were applauded; some were encored, one was even encored twice, and everyone left the theatre whistling the tunes.

Cover of a “Scottisch” composed on Pepito. Source: Gallica (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Pepito never appears: he is a soldier who went away to war four years ago, leaving behind him his fiancée, Manuelita, in the little Basque village of Elizondo. Despite its small size, Elizondo has two inns: Manuelita runs one, À l’Espérance; the other, Au Crocodile, is run by the flamboyant Vertigo, who is also tailor and wigmaker, oculist, dentist, postman, and apothecary; he shears dogs, destroys rats, and plays the serpent (a primitive tuba). Vertigo is in love with Manuelita; so too is Miguel, her childhood friend, and a bit of a lad. Manuelita has not seen Miguel for some time; his father sent him to Madrid to study, then sent him away again because he was living it up too much. Miguel, used to city girls, wrongly assumes that Manuelita is a woman of easy virtue – she is insulted by his suggestion of a fling – but soon realises that he is in love with her, and proposes. She cannot marry him, she explains, because she is waiting for Pepito. At the end, Miguel receives a letter from Pepito: he has married a cantinière in his regiment. Manuelita, however, is not sorry to marry Miguel.

“The libretto is amusing and musical,” Henri Blanchard (Revue et gazette musicale) said. “M. Offenbach has embroidered on this canvas a charming melodic fabric of a very Iberian colour. If it lacks restraint, conciseness, especially for the habitués of the place, who do not really understand the development, the logic of a dramatic or musical thought, these listeners were nevertheless seduced by the local colour, the picturesqueness of the instrumentation, and they rightly applauded it all.”

Pepito has only been recorded in French once (1975). Several numbers are cut: Manuelita’s opening couplets, Miguel’s couplets, and a duet.

The overture is ‘Spanish’ in flavour; the rhythms of the allegretto section are delightful. Blanchard remarked that it combined the fandango, the bolero, the tambourine, and the castanets, “this national instrument which, it is said, has skilful teachers in the conservatories of the Iberian Peninsula”.

Vertigo’s bravura catalogue aria, “En tous les métiers, moi, j’excelle!” is a lively parody of Figaro’s famous “Largo al factotum”, in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Spanish serenades (with “digue, digue” imitating the guitar), and Andalusian boleros. Those couplets, Darthenay (Le Nouvelliste) wrote, were lively, and exuded the true feeling of bouffe music. Lovy praised the bass: “What you have to see, what you have to hear, is Leclère in the character of Vertigo. His singing, his enunciation, his mimicry, his guitar, his cachuchas, his serpent made the theatre ring with laughter. This rôle of Vertigo is a creation.”

Onomatopoeia runs riot again in the toe-tapping Chanson à boire: “Pan, pan, pan!”; “Gloux! gloux! gloux!”; “Tin tin tin” (and Vertigo snoring on the beat). This was the piece that was encored twice: “The colour and lively rhythm captivated the entire audience,” Lovy reported.

After the success of Pepito, Roxane Martin declared, the press no longer spoke of Offenbach as the chef d’orchestre at the Théâtre-Français, but as a talented composer.


Recordings

Listen to: Mady Mesplé (Manuelita), Yves Bisson (Vertigo), and Albert Voli (Miguel), with the Orchestre Lyrique de l’O.R.T.F., conducted by Catherine Comet, Paris, 1975.


Works consulted

  • Henri Blanchard, Revue et gazette musicale, 30 October 1853
  • Darthenay, Le Nouvelliste, 30 October 1853
  • Peter Gammond, Offenbach: The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers, London: Midas Books, 1980
  • Louis Huart, Le Charivari, 31st October 1853
  • S. Kracauer, Orpheus in Paris: Offenbach and the Paris of His Time, trans. Gwenda David & Eric Mosbacher, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938
  • J. Lovy, Le Ménestrel, 30 October 1853
  • Roxane Martin, “Offenbach à la Comédie-Française”, in Offenbach, musicien européen, ed. Jean-Claude Yon, Arnold Jacobshagen, and Ralf-Olivier Schwarz, Actes Sud / Palazzetto Bru Zane, 2022

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