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.”
New Sussex Opera proves exemplary in their grasp of staging operetta with charm, energy and style
The performance was admirably uncut, and the company performed operetta to the manner born… Paul Featherstone’s new English translation had its fair share of knowing winks to modern contemporary manners and I was unclear which of the running gags were his and which were in the original. Also, David Foster’s production did, at times, rather over-egg things as if he wanted to up the comic quotient in a work that uses it fairly sparingly. Some of this worked wonderfully, Kiera Smitheram’s Toinette, a chain-smoking laundress with a series of one-liners, was a complete delight.
It helped that the singers had such a stylishly engaging manner with Offenbach, that these limitations were largely overcome. Monica McGhee made a delightfully feisty Lurette. Her entrance in Act One is very delayed, but once on stage she barely left it, singing with great charm and moving between the sparkling and the sentimental with great ease. She even gave us cartwheels and hand-stands in the last act. Performing this sort of music requires the right combination of personality, musicality and style and McGhee had this in spades.
Robin Bailey was a charming, if woefully underused hero. His Duke was personable, and Bailey displayed a fine lyric tenor with a lovely sense of line and good words, he even gave the final sentimental duet with McGhee’s Lurette just the right feeling.
Kristin Finnigan was Marceline, the older proprietor of the laundry who when younger had an encounter with a nobleman or upper servant whose name she does not know. Finnigan brought great comic charm to the role (which was alarmingly like some of Gilbert’s elderly women), including gamely joining Paul Featherstone’s Malicorne for a danced duet that sent up Strauss’ Blue Danube something rotten.
As her ultimate love interest, Paul Featherstone’s Malicorne was the prime comic part, complete with a patter song about statistics! Featherstone was a complete exemplar, making the text really count and always musical. Surrounding Lurette was a trio of male admirers, a singer, a poet and a painter, Michael Ferguson, Cameron Mitchell and Tristan Stocks. The running gag being that the singer, Michael Ferguson, almost never gets to sing. The three had great fun, stretching their rather limited roles into something engaging. Unlike Gilbert’s operettas, there was no tidying up at the end, no pairing off with a trio of laundresses, which is perhaps a pity. Giles Davies did his best with Belhomme, the captain of the soldiers, one of those annoyingly preening roles that seem to be lifted straight out of Donizetti.
The individual laundresses were nicely done, and there were some strong individual performances so that we had a sense of differentiated characters. Overall, the chorus worked well and managed to fill the stage with colour and movement, even within the relatively limited space. New Sussex Opera took the admirable decision to perform it uncut and play it straight, thus giving us the best possible experience of the operetta as premiered. But you cannot help feeling that if the work is to be revived, it will need more of a creative hand.
That said, hearing and seeing New Sussex Opera in Offenbach is always a complete delight. They seem to be one of the few companies that can manage to bring this tricky style off. Here we were engaged and dazzled, seduced and amused, with Toby Purser pacing the music superbly and Foster’s direction keeping the dialogue zipping along at the right pace. In the pit, the small orchestra (string quintet, single woodwind, horn, trumpet and percussion) played as if to the manner born.
There was one great revelation: Belle Lurette done in London by New Sussex Opera. This was Offenbach’s final operetta, written (amazingly) at the same time as Tales of Hoffmann, and both were unfinished. Lurette was completed by Leo Delibes, Offenbach’s young friend now best known for the ballet Coppelia (also from a Hoffmann tale) and the opera Lakme.
The New Sussex Opera company is very much a labour of love. They’ve been performing little-known gems since 1978, with orchestra and chorus. They’ve done three Offenbachs in a row: Belle Hélène, and the great but too-little-known Princesse de Trébizonde.
All of the ninety minute Act 1 of this is plainly by Offenbach, and it is magnificent. The thing is, that being unfinished, no one is sure about how Acts 2 and 3 should sound and look. Musically, it did slow down, and some of it sounded more like Delibes than Offenbach, but that’s probably only to be expected.
There was a review of this show at this website. It was quite good, but John Groves implied that the story was something of a mess. To me, however, everything came together at the end, where all plot lines were resolved.
There is one area where I couldn’t agree more with that reviewer. It was, strange to say, one performer who caught my eye every time she was on stage. She was a minor character, Toinette. She doesn’t have any solos, and yet so vibrant is her stage presence that it was impossible for me to look elsewhere. Her name is Kiera Smitheram, and she embodied the entire spirit of Offenbach. As the prior reviewer put it, “whenever she appeared, she was always ‘in role’ whilst never taking the focus away from others”. And that is a very hard thing to pull off.
A few nights before in Nice there was a violinist in the orchestra who was lit up by the on-stage action of Orphée. It is weird that I remember both these women so vividly, but both contributed mightily to the enjoyment of both performances.
Back to Lurette: how much I’d love to hear Act One from that Sussex Opera performance. To see it as well would be the very heaven. That the dying Offenbach could write two such wonderful shows as Lurette and Hoffmann is astounding.
One final comment: the company’s Paul Featherstone made the English translation. I wish it could have been heard in full, since the too-few parts I clearly heard sounded very witty. Could it not be published?
Malicorn is played with complete operetta expertise by Paul Featherstone who also provided a new book and lyrics which were very much in the spirit of the Offenbachian genre. He was partnered by the-not-to-be-trifled-with chief washerwoman Marceline, whom Kristin Finnigan personified with admirable strength and purpose. Then there was a trio of artists played by the kind of excellent young singers the company always seems to be able to locate; Cameron Mitchell’s poet Merluchet, Tristan Stocks’ painter Cigogne and, most notably, Michael Ferguson’s singer Campistrel – the show’s running joke is that no one wants to hear him sing, a prejudice quickly set aside once his fine lyric baritone is heard.
The title role was taken by the young soprano Monica McGhee, whose immaculate vocalism and bright and breezy personality were constant joys. Matching her nicely was the tenor Robin Bailey as the Duc, again vocally ideal and with his de haut en bas manner perfectly captured. The bass-baritone Giles Davies made his mark in a couple of smaller assignments – the stereotypical military man Belhomme (accompanied by the inevitable posse of comic-opera soldiers) and the decrepit courtier La Boisene.
Always important in operetta, and delivered with elan by the entire company, the inventive choreography was the work of Kitty Needham. Victoria Gillians’s designs entirely hit the operetta spot. So did David Foster’s production as a whole: an example of knowing exactly what to do with such lightweight but often sophisticated material.
The score itself is a winner, with an endless profusion of good numbers: one particularly notable example is a parody of a Viennese waltz forming a duet for Malicorne and Marceline in Act 2, which blatantly quotes The Blue Danube.
The conductor Toby Purser showed a striking affinity with Offenbach’s style, the entire score bouncing merrily over the footlights. The 12-strong St Paul’s Sinfonia played with unerring skill.
Opéra-Comique in three acts
Libretto by Ernest Blum, Édouard Blau
and Raoul Toché
New English version by Paul Featherstone
New orchestration by James Widden
November / December 2022
Lewes Town Hall
The Old Market, Hove
Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
Bloomsbury Theatre, London
St Paul’s Sinfonia
Conductor Toby Purser
Director David Foster
Designer Victoria Gillians
Lighting Jason Ahn
Costumes Monica Quinn
Choreographer Kitty Needham
Lurette – Monica McGhee
Malicorne – Paul Featherstone
Duc de Marly – Robin Bailey
Marceline – Kristin Finnigan
Belhomme – Giles Davies
Campistrel a singer – Michael Ferguson
Merluchet a poet – Cameron Mitchell
Cigogne a painter – Tristan Stocks
La Boisene – Giles Davies
Friquette – Rebecca Hughes
Rose – Patricija Jurgaityte
Toinette – Kiera Smitheram
Nicole – Carole Britten
Manon – Rebekah Edwards
Colette Mima Byrne
Lenoncourt – Richard Pulham
Photographs – Robert Knights & Colin Chapman
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