Derek Parker describes Offenbach’s Parisian Life triumph

By 1866, when he was 47, Jacques Offenbach, although born in the Rhineland, had achieved his ambition to become a celebrated French composer. He began his campaign, not with a bang but a whimper, by persuading the Paris Opéra-Comique to produce his first operetta, Pascal et Chambord. He managed to outlive the disaster, and took himself off to a smaller theatre, the Folies-Nouvelles, where his pieces began to attract audiences. It was not until 1858 that he had his first resounding success: his still popular comic opera Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld).

From then on, Paris waited eagerly for the next Offenbach treat, and Paris was not disappointed. With two collaborators, Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, to contrive ridiculous plots and witty lyrics, such attractions as La belle Hélène and Barbe-Bleu (Bluebeard) held the stage until the casts pleaded with management to take them off because they were too exhausted to continue performing.

La vie parisienne (Parisian Life), commissioned for the up-market Théâtre du Palais-Royal, was announced for October 1866. Offenbach knew that the resident troupe there consisted mainly of actors rather than singers, so for the star role, he commissioned the famous soprano Zukma Bouffar, who happened to be his mistress, knowing that her popularity would lay the foundations for a success. The cast was not so confident, and chaotic rehearsals suggested disaster. Offenbach had been carried away and written so much music that the first run-through lasted six hours. One of the sopranos with a part in the third act said there was no point in designing a costume for her, because the dress rehearsal wouldn’t get that far. Gabriel Gil-Pérèe refused to learn his part because he knew from the start it would have to be cut and, indeed, one of the five acts vanished completely.

The score was so demanding that the management at first refused to pay for the large orchestra required. Everyone wanted re-writes, which Offenbach found something of a problem because he was already busy writing La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, to star the incomparable Hortense Schneider, the most celebrated mistress of French operetta, and of King Edward VII, who was expected to visit the coming Grand Exhibition.

Despite all the brou-ha-ha, La vie parisienne reached the stage on 31 October and was an immediate triumph, hailed as Offenbach’s masterpiece. The plot is really neither ‘here nor there’, containing the usual suspects of French operetta: no fewer than 26 speaking and singing roles, plus a chorus who bravely continued to sing even after collapsing at the end of the notorious cancan.

Delightfully, recent excellent performances of La vie parisienne have been recorded on video, and anyone eager to follow the unfollowable plot can retire to the TV room. But how much better to turn on 2MBS Fine Music Sydney, take a glass of good Australian sparkling or a cup of tea, sit in comfort and just listen to Offenbach at his melodious, irresistible and unique best.

La vie parisienne can be heard on Saturday 30 September at 2:30pm.

This article originally appeared in the September Issue of the 2MBS Fine Music Sydney Magazine.