The Comic Opera Guild has now added its recording of the recent production of Offenbach’s THE GRAND DUCHESS OF GEROLSTEIN to its large archive of operettas in English.
Since its inception in 1973, the Guild’s mission has been to make European operettas and comic operas more accessible to American audiences to counter the lack of popularity and scarceness of production that dogged these works here. Although typically far more sophisticated musically than most musical comedies, they have had a reputation for silly libretti. This reputation derived primarily from operettas of the early part of the century, especially American but also European. The writers for Victor Herbert were no more than hacks, and care overall was not being taken with the books, assuming audiences didn’t care and would like the shows anyway.
Works from the late 19th century are, for the most part, superior in plot and wordsmithing than later works, and are often more edgy. Satire and parody, the hallmarks of Gilbert and Sullivan, disappeared from operetta by the turn of the century, but are rampant in the works of Offenbach. Starting his career in a small theater that appealed to a young crowd in Paris, Offenbach never lost the desire to take a shot at pomposity or hypocrisy, although he was often forced to restrain himself late in his career. The works of his prime are timeless jests that can still prick inflated egos.
The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein is one of those. It is a clever satire of militarism, employing humor and well-drawn characters to skewer the pretensions and foibles of regimentation and the folly of war. Although the Guild seldom updates its shows, the Guild’s writer, Thomas Petiet, reset the show in 1914, at the onset of World War I instead of 1867. The change is seamless, since that war was fought in a 19th Century way with 20th century equipment. It was done to make the satire more relevant to a modern audience, bringing it into sharper focus.
The music is charming, and practically every number was a hit in its time. Some, such as “Dites Lui, ” the duet for the Duchess and Fritz, and Fritz’ Rondo, have become standards of light operatic repertory. As with the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, it makes the “philosophic pill” easier to swallow.
MORE THAN TRANSLATION
The Guild’s English versions differ from standard translations in that they are written by singers for singers, and they are not locked step by step to the original. They are intended to sound as though they were written in English to begin with; the story line is carried forward with dialog and lyrics that vary from the original as the degree of quality in the original varies. The music is not altered, but numbers are occasionally in a different order if it will improve the story. Most translations that have been published were written by non-performers, and can sound clumsy when sung, or even be difficult to understand, which is why many people have an aversion to changing any show into English. The Guild’s creative staff has been equally averse to much that has been translated; its goal is to correct the situation.
Some of the operettas the Guild has produced have required major surgery to rescue the score from a mediocre or even terrible libretto. Offenbach’s “Robinson Crusoe” and Strauss’ “A Night in Venice” are among these. The Grand Duchess is not. Its authors were Meilhac and Halevy, the French team that rivaled W.S. Gilbert in quality libretti. Even the best were not perfect, however, and the 3rd act of he Grand Duchess seems tacked on and needlessly long as a wrap-up. Mr. Petiet combined Acts 2 and 3 and condensed the action for a stronger ending, expected by today’s audiences. The result is a better show for both audiences and prospective production companies.
NATIONAL AUDIENCE INVITED
The Grand Duchess was received with high praise by local attendees, but the Guild’s audience has become national. Both the audio CD and the video DVD have been released, and can be ordered by using the Guild web site: comicoperaguild.org. Clips from the show, as well as many other past productions, can be viewed on youtube.com.