A comic opera by
Fully staged, in a new English version by Paul Featherstone
– Kevin Clarke – Operetta Research Centre
Lewes Town Hall
Thursday November 10
The Old Market, Hove
Sunday November 20
Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
Friday November 25
Bloomsbury Theatre, London
Tuesday December 6 7.30
Running time 2’50” including interval
Malicorne – Paul Featherstone
Duc de Marly – Robin Bailey
Campistrel – Michael Ferguson
Belhomme – Giles Davies
Marceline – Kristin Finnigan
Lurette – Monica McGhee
Merluchet – Cameron Mitchell
Cigogne – Tristan Stocks
La Boisene – Giles Davies
Friquette – Rebecca Hughes
Conductor – Toby Purser
Director – David Foster
Designer – Victoria Gillians
Lighting – Jason Ahn
Costumes – Monica Quinn
Choreographer – Kitty Needham
New Sussex Opera Chorus, St Paul’s Sinfonia
by Robert Knights and Colin Chapman
New Sussex Opera has recently been making a specialism of Offenbach’s operettas: in 2019, the company enjoyed a hit with La Belle Hélène, his satirical parody that ends with the start of the Trojan War. Two years later, they made an entertaining evening out of the forgotten The Princess of Trébizonde. Now, it is the turn of another rarity: Belle Lurette, left incomplete at the composer’s death, finished by his colleague Léo Delibes and premiered in Paris at the end of October 1880.
Following the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, Offenbach dropped satire and moved into sentimental comedy. That is precisely the mode of this lightweight entertainment, in which laundress Lurette is joined in fake wedlock to the Duke of Marly – until the two participants decide they really are in love. Paul Featherstone’s new English version captures the absurdity and mild salaciousness of the Offenbachian genre. An operetta performer to his fingertips, he also takes the chief comic role of the Duke’s servant, Malicorne, proving expert at playing the fool.
The company has an impressive record in promoting young talent. In David Foster’s production, Monica McGhee’s light, bright soprano and matching personality make her an ideal exponent of the title role. Michael Ferguson’s character, a singer called Campistrel, comes with a running joke attached: that no one wants to hear him sing – particularly ironic given that Ferguson’s shiny lyric baritone looks set to take him far. Cameron Mitchell and Tristan Stocks do well as poet Merluchet and painter Cigogne, respectively – the remaining two-thirds of a trio of Bohemian artists. Other memorable performances come from Robin Bailey’s privileged Duke, Kristin Finnigan’s don’t-mess-with-me chief laundress Marceline and Giles Davies’ double-act as military officer Belhomme and grotesque courtier Le Boisene – two characters scarcely recognisable as the same performer.
Operetta is a tricky form to get right, but director Foster knows exactly what to do with this material: his staging maintains pace and a keen sense of style. Designer Victoria Gillians’ costumes offer colour and character, while her three sets suggest 18th-century locales with wit and precision. Choreographed by Kitty Needham, the crucial dance routines are unfailingly clever and delivered with a good deal of spirit.
The return of Belle Lurette to the repertoire will give a lot of pleasure to operetta fans: the score contains plenty of catchy tunes. There is even one duet that steals the main melody of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube in a Viennese waltz parody. Conductor Toby Purser brings ideal rhythmic freedom to proceedings – but his rapport with the piece is apparent from the first bar to the last. Playing a new orchestration by James Widden, the St Paul’s Sinfonia do themselves and Offenbach proud.
I thoroughly enjoyed this hidden gem. Though it was the clever and comical treatment it got with NSO that made it outstanding. Excellence in every department. – Helen Walker
I just had to write and say how much I adored the production of Belle Lurette. I love Offenbach so this was a real treat for myself and my sister who came along with me. The chorus and orchestra were wonderful. What a clear conductor you have in Toby Purser. I loved the whole cast – no weak link, but I have to mention the mezzo Kristin Finnigan. What acting! Great facial expressions and a stunning voice, and just when you think she’s all comedy- her final aria was poised and beautiful. But it’s unfair to only speak of her as Paul Featherstone, Monica McGhee, Michael Ferguson – all incredible!! As was everyone else. – James Hamilton
Musically, Belle Lurette is superb, almost every number showing the composer at the height of his powers. In fact, this is the composer’s last full-length operetta, lasting 150 minutes, plus interval, and it was wonderful to hear it musically complete.
Paul Featherstone is also responsible for the very witty English “version”. This was obviously a labour of love for Featherstone and he has done his job superbly, most of the cast ensuring that every word was crystal clear. In role as Malicorne, he was also very amusing, having some of the wittiest songs and dialogue.
The three suitors who in vain hope for Lurette’s hand in marriage were sung and acted with great aplomb by Michael Ferguson, Cameron Mitchell and Tristan Stocks. Ferguson, especially, was a delight to hear: his ringing baritone proving to be a superb instrument throughout its range and his acting having a real sense of style. Belle Lurette herself was gracefully sung by Monica McGhee – her undoubted acting talents held the show together.
Delibes’ and Offenbach’s orchestration was re-orchestrated by James Widden, the leader, for an orchestra of twelve: this was a more than adequate substitute [for the original orchestration], especially as conducted with great verve by Toby Purser, really sounding like Offenbach!
“True to their mission to revive rare repertoire, New Sussex Opera has done a valuable service in bringing this work to light again.
The singers certainly ensure an alert performance of the music… Monica McGhee captures [Lurette’s] good-natured character with her finely placed and sustained singing, avoiding any histrionics. Kristin Finnigan is more suitably arch as the matronly Marceline, the owner of the laundry in which Lurette works, the character’s frumpish demeanour a defensive front for her own amorous yearnings.
Toby Purser is attentive to the changes of moods and genres in the succession of numbers and ensures equally disciplined and hearty choral singing from the NSO Chorus. With limited resources the company brings off a charmingly humorous – and sometimes bawdy – work which displays Offenbach’s ever-fertile gift for melody.”
Touring in June 2023
Details here soon
“One of the UK’s most enterprising small opera companies, New Sussex Opera constantly surprises with its ambition and the quality of its fully staged productions.” Opera Now September 2018
“From the first bar, this production had it in the bag.” Jacques Offenbach Society Newsletter – review of La belle Hélène
” I have been in awe of the courageous adventurousness of your work over many decades.” Simon Banks, authoor of “Opera: the autobiography of the Western World”.