La Princesse de Trébizonde review – Offenbach’s comedy of nouveau riche values is on the money | Classical music

The history of Offenbach’s La Princesse de Trébizonde is essentially a tale of bad timing. It was first performed in Baden Baden in the summer of 1869, before a hugely successful transfer to Offenbach’s own theatre, the Bouffes-Parisiens, the following winter. The operetta was taken off, however, during the Franco-Prussian war, and never reestablished itself in the repertory when public opinion swung against its German-born composer after the French defeat. Its outings remain infrequent, though Opera Rara have now revived it in concert, with Paul Daniel conducting the London Philharmonic and an excellent, largely francophone cast.

While it lacks the sharp satirical focus of Orphée aux Enfers and La Belle Hélène, it’s an engaging, if preposterous comedy about nouveau riche values and social mobility. Prince Raphaël, played by a mezzo in drag, falls in love with what he believes to be a waxwork of the fabled Princess of Trebizond, only to discover that the object of his affections is, in fact, the very real Zanetta, who works in a circus run by her family. Raphaël is soon at loggerheads with his dictatorial father Casimir, but things are thrown into real disarray when Zanetta and her relatives win the lottery and acquire both an unexpected fortune and sudden status. The score is delightful, with some brilliant numbers: Raphaël has a big aria about toothache, at once funny and wince-inducing; Casimir, the tenor lead, throws tantrums in waltz time; and there’s a hilarious plate-spinning quintet for the ennobled circus family, now bored out of their skulls by wealth and hankering after the old days.

Opera Rara have by and large done the piece proud, though some, I suspect, might have preferred dialogue in French to the English language narration by Jeremy Sams that was used here, wittily spoken though it was by Harriet Walter. Daniel conducted with great brio and panache. Just occasionally the orchestra seemed over-prominent, but there was some really stylish playing from strings and woodwind. The singing was terrific, too. As Raphaël, Virginie Verrez had great fun with her toothache aria, and she and Anne-Catherine Gillet’s spirited Zanetta sounded lovely together in their duets. Josh Lovell’s Casimir, all easy high notes and wonderfully moulded lines, was simply spectacular. Among Zanetta’s family, Antoinette Dennefeld and Christophe Mortagne stood out as her provocative sister Régina and the latter’s dithering lover Trémolini respectively. A hugely enjoyable evening, and great fun.

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