- Composer: Jacques Offenbach
- First performed: Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, 5 July 1855
In March 1855, Offenbach opened his own theatre: the Bouffes-Parisiens. The little theatre on the Champs-Elysées – a bonbonnière (“chocolate box”) seating 50 people – would put on pantomimes with ballets, harlequinades, genre scenes, musical scenes, and operettas with three characters (or a fourth dead or dumb character). It was, Le Figaro (24 June) reported, “one more theatre devoted to open laughter, to fantasy, to lively and elegant melody, to spirited tunes” – and, in Offenbach’s vision, a challenge to the established theatres.
“I say to myself that there is no longer any opéra-comique at the Opéra-Comique, that music that is really bouffe, fine, witty, music that lives, in short, is gradually being forgotten,” Offenbach declared. “The composers working for that theatre make little grands opéras.”
He may have had in mind Meyerbeer’s 1854 opéra-comique, L’étoile du nord, with its army rebellion and extended mad scene for the prima donna.
But Offenbach believed there was an audience for lighter, funnier fare, and one where young composers could have their first works performed. He formed a company – himself as managing director; Henri de Villemessant, publisher of Le Figaro, as backer; and Duponchel, the former manager of the Opéra, assisted, while Alexandre Dumas and Théophile Gautier promised their aid.
Offenbach bought a little theatre, the salle Lacaze, which had been built for a magician after the 1848 Revolution, but not been used for years. He obtained the privilege on 15 June, and opened on 5 July. Within 18 days, Le Figaro’s Benoît Jouvin noted, Offenbach had formed a theatre troupe, restored the theatre, had the décors painted, organised the works, and written the music.
Offenbach’s early biographer André Martinet gives this description of the theatre:
“Rows of tiered seats up to a line of boxes, tiers with a slope so steep that a caricature shows us a scaffolding of heads, clasped arms, outstretched bodies, with this caption: “Stratagem of the young Offenbach who makes himself a theatre with a ladder”. For a foyer, a kind of terrace exposed to rain and wind.
The maximum takings hardly reached 1,200 francs, on evenings when the theatre was crowded. On those evenings, Mme Offenbach, coming to the performance, could only find a seat on a step of the staircase, which was already overcrowded.André Martinet, Offenbach: Sa vie et son œuvre, Paris: Dentu & Cie, 1887, pp. 22–23
Offenbach’s new theatre was built near the site of Napoléon III’s International Exposition (1855), and swiftly attracted local and international visitors. For all its shortcomings, the theatre – “decorated with taste, lit by day, carefully ventilated” – favourably impressed the eager crowd (even if they were a little too pressed into its stalls), J. Lovy (Le Ménestrel) reported.
The first night set the tone: a brief prologue, a couple of sketches, and a pantomime.
In the prologue, Entrez, Messieurs, Mesdames, Fantasy describes (wittily and elegantly, the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris thought) the programme of the new theatre. The verses were by Méry and Ludovic Halévy. This was Offenbach’s first collaboration with Fromental Halévy’s nephew, who would later write the libretti for many of his most famous operettas – Orphée aux enfers (1858), La belle Hélène (1864), La vie parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), La Périchole (1868) – and for Bizet’s Carmen (1875).
Une nuit blanche
- Saynète lyrique in 1 act
- Libretto : Edouard Plouvier
|JEAN GUSTIN called JEAN SAMSON||Baritone||Darcier|
SETTING: In an Artois village, near the frontier.
A bride, Fanchette, learns on her wedding night that her husband, Jean, is a smuggler – and her cousin, Hercule, a customs officer, hiding in the cellar, has overheard everything.
Lovy (Ménestrel) thought it was charming. “For my part, I certify that I have seen, that I have heard, on this side of the Champs-Elysées, many little opéras-comiques – and the best received, I assure you, – which are not worth this operetta.” Jouvin (Figaro) thought that a phase in the final trio touched the heart: “This little phrase, ineffably tender, circulates, without losing anything of its nature, through the joyful tone of the piece.” G. Héquet (Revue et gazette musicale) thought Hercule was an amusing caricature, but the two other characters were much too serious: “This is not the Italian farce promised by the programme.”
Fanchette’s romance, “La voilà donc, cette nuit de mystère”, could be by Grétry in its artlessness, and there is a lively kissing duet for the newlyweds, but the best number is the catchy drinking song, “Aimons le vin”.
- Listen to: Monique Stiot (Fanchette), Joseph Peyron (Hercule), and Bernard Demigny (Jean), with the orchestre lyrique de l’ORTF, conducted by Robert Martignoni, 1969
Les deux aveugles
- Bouffonnerie musicale in 1 act
- Libretto : Jules Moinaux
SETTING: A bridge, Paris.
Les deux Aveugles, a bouffonnerie musicale by Jules Moinaux, was far more acerbic. The two “blind men”, Stainslas Giraffier and Giacomo Patachon, are conmen who pretend to be disabled. They compete for the same “patch” – a Paris bridge – squabble over a coin, try to cheat each other at cards, and end up fighting.
There were concerns the work was in bad taste: de Villemessant called it impossible and shocking, and urged the authors to withdraw the work; Ludovic Halévy predicted certain failure – but Moinaux and Offenbach were confident.
They were right. The public laughed and applauded enthusiastically, Martinet wrote: “It was a concert of acclamations in which the gloomy prophets of the day before played their part joyfully.”
“This is truly hilarious buffoonery,” Héquet (Revue et gazette musicale) reported. “We will not attempt to analyse it; but we will say to you, without fear of compromising ourselves: Go and see Les deux aveugles on a day when you feel melancholy. It would cure an Englishman of spleen.”
The most famous number is the bolero duet (“La lune brille, le ciel scintille”) accompanied by trombone and guitar, which was encored every night. “It’s the funniest parody you’ve ever seen in a bouffe theatre,” Lovy (Ménestrel) said. The bolero was turned into a waltz – and, according to Albert de Lassalle (Histoire des Bouffes-Parisiens, 1860), a story was born from that waltz. He does not say what – its telling would lengthen his book by six to seven hundred pages – but he hints that it involves bandits in black clothes, sword blows, kidnappings, and women who are crazy without knowing it. (!)
The little skit also contains parodies of Donizetti’s Belisario and the gambling scene in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. Héquet thought one could not imagine anything more cheerful and droller than this score.
Les deux aveugles was performed more than 400 times – including a command performance before the emperor.
The two singers, Pradeau and Berthelier, were nervous about appearing before such an illustrious audience, Martinet writes. They had hardly finished their duet when the Grand Chamberlain, Count Bacciochi, raised his arm towards them and waved frantically. The Empress had stopped the performance. Armed with their musical instruments, the singers fled the stage. The Chamberlain rushed after them, and breathless with agitation, told them, in a mixture of Italian and French, that the gesture that frightened them so much was “per bisser” (an encore). The singers returned, and finished their play – and Offenbach received a bronze statue a few days later, as a token of the imperial couple’s delight in the play.
- Listen to: Aimé Doniat (Girafier) and Joseph Peyron (Patachon), with the orchestre lyrique de l’ORTF, conducted by Marcel Cariven, 1971.
- Watch: Offenbach’s Secret, directed by István Szabo, 1995. (YouTube)
The French press rang with praises for Offenbach’s venture. “Grand succès sur toute la ligne !” Jouvin reported (Le Figaro, 8 July). A week later, he wrote: “Paris is full of profound, learned, elegiac, and witty musicians; there was not a single bouffe composer: it has one today, and the commodity is rare enough – since Italy no longer provides any – for him to sincerely rejoice.” He developed this comparison of Offenbach to the Italian school: “The first quality of the Italian school was far presto, with this important distinction that, for her, to do quickly was to do well. The German Offenbach is a member of this school; he knows and he improvises; his facility respects art; he has the suppleness of talent, he also has its abundance; he does not always choose his melodies: he prefers to pick them with both hands, and since his hand is lucky, he ultimately encounters more flowers than weeds.”
“M. Offenbach has ease, naturalness, spirit,” Héquet wrote. “He always sings, which is indispensable in the genre he cultivates. His melody is not constantly new; but it is usually gay, and abounds in burlesque fantasies.” He warned, however, that Offenbach’s instrumentation – timpani, trombone, and flute – were sometimes too loud for the theatre, which was as big as a large living-room.
The composer, Lovy wrote, was an artist rich in ideas, with a rich future, and one was surprised not to have yet seen his name on the posters of the Opéra-Comique or the Théâtre-Lyrique. Eventually, his works would be performed there.
As for the Bouffes-Parisiens itself, Offenbach’s little theatre had become so popular that he was able to move into one twice the size by the end of the year.
- Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 24 July 1855
- Benoît Jouvin, Le Figaro, 8 and 15 July 1855
- J. Lovy, Le Ménestrel, 8 July 1855
- G. Héquet, Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 8 July 1855
- René Brancour, Les Musiciens Célèbres: Offenbach, Paris: Librairie Renouard, 1929
- Peter Gammond, Offenbach: The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers, London: Midas Books, 1980
- S. Kracauer, Orpheus in Paris: Offenbach and the Paris of His Time, trans. Gwenda David & Eric Mosbacher, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938
- Albert de Lasalle, Histoire des Bouffes-Parisiens, 1860
- André Martinet, Offenbach: Sa vie et son œuvre, Paris: Dentu & Cie, 1887