September 13, 2015

Two operas that just NAIL "Frenchiness"

The conventional wisdom about Chopin's mazurkas and polonaises for the piano is that if you don't have Polish blood coursing through your veins, your interpretation will lack some indefinable aura of authenticity. The rhythm won't have the right nuance; the phrases won't have the right shape. You just won't "get it" like a native.
Paris  (photo by Myrabella)

That may be, but music history shows that, when it comes to composition, not being the native son of a country or culture is no impediment to adopting its style. Somehow, Gershwin, a Jewish guy from New York, had no trouble writing convincingly about a black community in South Carolina. Georges Bizet seems to have hit it out of the park finding his "Spanish voice" in Carmen, though it's probably fair to say that Bizet's Seville is one that exists only in his imagination - and, ever since, in ours. But it works!  Brahms wasn't Hungarian, but his Hungarian Dances are the real deal. There are lots of other instrumental examples, from Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody to Tchaikovsky's Italian Capriccio.

And just look at the first two operas of Virginia Opera's 2015-2016 season: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld and Puccini's La bohème. Both shows (and this is about all they have in common) are steeped in French atmosphere, yet neither composer was French.

The case of Jacques Offenbach is kind of odd. Thanks to the adoption of the "Galop Infernal" in Orpheus as the universal music of the Can-can, Offenbach is regarded as the most Parisian of musicians. His music reeks, REEKS, I tell you, of Paris - its sophistication, its naughtiness, its worldy wit. Which is pretty remarkable, considering that...


...he was a Jew from Germany...

Offenbach was born in Cologne as Jacob (not Jacques) Offenbach. Actually, his last name should have been "Erbst", but his father adopted the name of his hometown, Offenbach-am-Maim, since people got in the habit of calling him "that Offenbacher". It was just easier to go with it.


He came to Paris as a skinny gangly teen-ager to study the cello at the Paris Conservatoire. He never left, other than to go on tour as cellist or conductor. He married a nice French girl, converted to Catholicism and changed his name to Jacques. Et voila!

Steeped in la vie Parisienne (which later on was the title of one of his operettas), he wrote of his "take" on French music, noting that French comedies had “cleverness, common sense, good taste and wit”, 

The French embraced Offenbach as one of their own. They packed his theaters, lining his pockets with franc notes. Emperor Napoleon III not only granted him citizenship, he also bestowed upon him the  Légion d'Honneur.

Well, what the heck - the people of New York elected Hillary Rodham Clinton as their senator when she'd previously resided in Illinois and Arkansas, right? No biggie.

As for Puccini, it's not so much the music of La bohème that strikes us as French, although his style does adopt a polished international cosmopolitan effect at times; the opening crowd scene of Act 2, for instance. But when the emotions start running hot, the music turns as hot and Italianate as a summer in Naples

It's more his evocation of what it felt like to be a young Bohemian student in the City of Lights back in the day that is convincingly Gallic in tone. But don't take it from me: we have a documented testimonial from Claude Debussy.

It would appear that Debussy was pretty much the anti-Puccini, musically speaking. Where Puccini is obvious, Debussy is subtle. Where Puccini slathers on primary colors, Debussy daubs with pastels. Where Puccini takes hi-res photographs, Debussy does blurry sketches.

Yet, surprisingly, in a conversation with Manuel de Falla, Debussy averred that "I know of no one who has described the Paris of that time as well as Puccini in La bohème." 

Here's what's interesting about that statement: opera lovers know that Puccini often went for exotic foreign locales for operatic settings. He first chose France in Manon Lescaut and later depicted Japan (Madama Butterfly), California (Fanciulla del West), and China (Turandot). However, as with Carmen, Puccini's versions of these lands is not based on his having intimate acquaintance with those cultures. His California is more Tuscan than American; his China is a fairy-tale world that never was. But notice that Debussy is giving Puccini credit for finding something real and authentic in Bohemian Paris. That's remarkable.

So if you come to our productions of Orpheus and Bohème (and why wouldn't you?), you might want to stick a beret on your head and maybe tuck a baguette under your arm. You'll fit right in.

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