The Princess of Trébizonde

“Absolutely brilliant – it deserves a revival soon” – Professor Gavin Henderson

Offenbach revival hits the operetta spot
Two years ago, NSO scored a hit with La Belle Hélène. Then, like everyone else, the company fell silent. For its comeback show it has selected another Offenbach opéra bouffe, though a far less well known one: The Princess of Trébizonde, first staged in Baden-Baden in 1869. Historically, it was not only a success in France and Central Europe but also in the UK and the United States, though it doesn’t seem to have received a local staging in more than 100 years.

This touring production by director, designer and translator Anthony Baker with NSO’s expert music director Toby Purser in charge, builds steadily increasing momentum. With St Paul’s Sinfonia invariably on the ball, James Widden’s new orchestration for 12 players works well, while Purser gives Offenbach’s sinuous melodies grace and his rhythms vivacity.

Plotwise, we’re in operetta land, where impossible things happen with the intention of inducing a kind of collective comic hysteria: something certainly achieved in the zany third act, in which both the piece and its performers are at their best. En route to the tying-up-the-knots finale, there are some vastly entertaining vocal and comic performances that hit the target nicely. In particular, there’s a big all-singing, all-dancing ensemble number in Act III in which the principals and the six male-to-female pages caper about in separate groups to Eleanor Strutt’s perplexingly intricate choreography. It’s a total knockout.

Standouts include Mark Saberton’s Cabriolo with his Cockney circus family – Chiara Vinci’s Zanetta, Meriel Cunningham’s Regina and Miriam Sharrad’s Paolo – plus Pierrot turned butler Tremolini, a role Anthony Flaum delivers with extraordinary savoir faire: he seems born to do this material. Paul Featherstone’s crazed Casimir and Giles Davies as Raphael’s tutor/minder Dr Elastoplast also provide many moments of sheer lunacy.

A revival of an Offenbach rarity proves to be delightful yet madcap evening.
NSO has returned to live performance with another of its explorations of unaccountably neglected opera. Whilst the work’s recent history has been somewhat limited, a fascinating article in the programme made it clear that La princesse de Trébizonde was something of a success at the time, not only being performed in Paris, but having extensive performances in the UK and America.

Offenbach’s music is certainly on a high level. This was the period when his operettas moved closer to opera comique (Vert Vert), as well as experimenting with mixed, romantic forms (Fantasio) which could lead eventually to Les contes d’Hoffmann. Indeed the lovely duet for Prince Raphael and Zanetta in Act Two of La princesse de Trébizonde seemed very much to point towards Hoffmann. But, Offenbach also could not resist using the contrived situations in the plot to poke fun at operatic conventions (the Act One finale includes the circus performers bidding farewell to their old home with a parody of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell).

Any doubts that you might have had were, however, blown away by the zest and enthusiasm of the cast and the sense of engaging energy that they brought to the piece. Conductor Toby Purser and director Anthony Baker ensured that the dramatic flow and pacing were constant, so that despite three acts and around two hours of music, the work never flagged and one crazy moment followed another. This was definitely an all singing, all dancing cast, as principals and chorus were fully involved in Eleanor Strutt’s choreography, and many of the ensembles were dance numbers, whilst the principals also contributed such circus skills as plate spinning and acrobatics! 

Peter Martin made an attractively naive, but not stupid, Prince Raphael who is in love with Zanetta (Chiara Vinci), often disguised as the waxwork doll. Martin has a fine lyric tenor voice; though his role felt a little under-written, Martin impressed with each of his solo moments. Vinci had a lovely lyric coloratura voice and it was her role to throw delightful firework into the ensembles, but Vinci and Martin blended beautifully in their lovely neo-Hoffmann duet. The second couple were just as important, Zanetta’s sister Regina (Meriel Cunningham) and her lover, Tremolini (Anthony Flaum), also a circus performer. Their long-running gag was his desire for marriage and her refusals, but Flaum and Cunningham brought a great sense of style and engagement with their characters, making their presence on stage always a delight. Whilst the circus performers had stage working-class English accents, for some reason Flaum sported a cod French accent.

There was a large cast, and each had a significant role both musically and dramatically. Mark Saberton brought a delightful element of the sad clown to Cabrioli, the circus proprietor, his lively public face masking a more comic hang-dog expression. Paul Featherstone had great fun as Prince Casimir, Prince Raphael’s fire-breathing father. The opera makes a little too much of Casimir’s terrible reputation and temper, but Featherstone made a delightful pantomime villain. As Paola, Miriam Sharrad was that standard trope, the comic lady of a certain age, but Sharrad made Paola engagingly human as well as funny. Paola has delusions that she is secretly descended from royalty and of course the opera’s punchline was that Paola was right, as Prince Casimir had married Paola’s sister. Giles Davies made Dr Elastoplast (Sparadrap in the original) charmingly potty, yet still personable enough to be pairing up with Sharrad’s Paola at the end.

There was plenty for the chorus to do, and they entered in with a will, including doing dance routines, whilst the chorus of Pages in Act Three had a couple of engaging numbers all to themselves. James Widden’s orchestration, for string quintet, single woodwind, horn trumpet and percussion, probably took us closer to the Offenbach of the 1850s but St Paul’s Sinfonia brought out the full character of the music, making the litheness of sound count in rhythmic articulation and more.

The production was an impressive achievement for a company founded upon an amateur chorus and voluntary administration, and quite what the current production involved in terms of additional administration is revealed by the credits in the programme, such as thanking Lewes FC for the use of a stand at the Dripping Pan for outdoor chorus rehearsals during the Summer, when indoor was not possible, and various organisations being thanked for providing storage space for such items as costumes.

This was an engagingly fun evening in the theatre, with a production that brought out the zest and vigour of Offenbach’s music, small scale yet full of energy and with a terrific sense of engagement from all the performers.

A prime virtue of New Sussex Opera’s production—directed and designed by Anthony Baker and using his new but well-oiled English adaptation of the libretto—was that the comedy, set pretty much in period, was played on its own nonsensical terms; it never became strenuously zany or (with the possible exception of one wickedly dodgy pun) winked too knowingly at the audience. The dialogue, like the music, was handled with pace and style—crucial in a generously filled show that ran to nearly three hours (including interval). Led with laid-back flair by Mark Saberton’s amiably gruff Cabriolo, the circus artistes conversed in Estuary English or, in the case of Anthony Flaum’s elegant and emollient Tremolini, immaculate cod-French. It was old-school RP for the aristocrats and the Prince’s tutor—here Dr Elastoplast rather than Dr Sparadrap, a study in nervous exasperation by Giles Davies. Along with a perky line-up of female pages, the principals made a smart showing in Eleanor Strutt’s lively choreography. As a Ballet Rambert graduate, the airy-voiced Chiara Vinci was at an advantage as the jeune première Zanetta, but, not to be outdone, Meriel Cunningham as her mezzo sister Regina matched tangy tone with skill in doing the splits. While not offered any solo opportunities in the role of Paola, the sisters’ formidable aunt, Miriam Sharrad pitched her ladylike shtick with blissful precision. Peter Martin’s puppyish energy and forthright tenor lyricism ensured that Raphael was no milksop, even if his father, in the form of Paul Featherstone, growled fearsomely—though always intelligibly—in his entrance aria. The size, shape and acoustic of the Britten Theatre is ideal for this kind of operetta and, with the 12-strong St Paul’s Sinfonia playing a new orchestration by James Widden, Toby Purser’s conducting evoked big tops and boulevards, if not the Black Sea.

While Britain’s heroic national companies, under their flaming banner of “Never again the old normal”, have given us, er, hours of humdrum Verdi and the rest of the usual old stuff, our neglected and delightful fringe provided an autumn of kaleidoscopic delight, rounded off in December with two of the best.

La princesse de Trébizonde [has] a marvellous title and a fun premise… I have rarely spent three such happy hours in an opera house (the cute Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music). New Sussex Opera has brightened our lives for many years with offbeat material, and this was one of the best – accomplished under hair-raising circumstances, too, what with three main roles having to be re-cast at very late notice, the heroic Mark Saberton saving the day by learning the principal part, the circus paterfamilias Cabriolo, in three weeks.

Director/designer Anthony Baker, with his choreographer Eleanor Strutt and with atmospheric lighting by Joe Underwood, rightly decided the thing to do was give us no time to think, and thanks to the verve and timing of the ensemble – including a few neat circus tricks – it swung jovially along upon Offenbach’s deft range of styles, from Fantasio-type dreaminess to furious galops and finales of mad impetus. Even the farce was rigorously controlled, which was quite a feat from Paul Featherstone‘s crazed red-faced hunting-mad toff Casimir, frenziedly detailing his mania for ‘thrashingeveryone in the vicinity. For the rest, it was a nice lesson in how riotous comedy can be full of nuance and detail – and how to do the transition from speech to song: everyone here was right at home in both, and you can’t say that too often.

A real ensemble job: Mark Saberton‘s Cabriolo, Miriam Sharrad as his sister Paola, Meriel Cunningham and Chiara Vinci as the daughters Regina and Zanetta, and Anthony Flaum as Tremolini, a multi-tasking butler and lover, did the lion’s share of the work. They were well supported by Peter Martin as the young Prince Raphael and Giles Davies as his idiotic tutor Elastoplast. Toby Purser conducted beautifully, milking all Offenbach’s sly delight out of his 12 players.      Robert Thicknesse

Jacques Offenbach

Opéra-bouffe in three acts

Libretto by Étienne Tréfeu and
Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter
New English version by Anthony Baker
New orchestration by James Widden

November / December 2021
Cumnor House School Theatre, Danehill
Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks
Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
The Old Market, Hove
Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

NSO Chorus
St Paul’s Sinfonia
Conductor Toby Purser
Director / Designer Anthony Baker
Lighting Designer Joe Underwood
Eleanor Strutt

Cabriolo Mark Saberton

Zanetta Chiara Vinci

Regina Meriel Cunningham

Tremolini Anthony Flaum

Paola Miriam Sharrad

Prince Raphael Peter Martin

Dr Elastoplast Giles Davies

Prince Casimir / Director of the Lottery
Paul Featherstone

Pages Eleanor Strutt, Seerché Deveraux,
Rebekah Edwards, Laurna Ewart-Gray,
Rebecca Hughes, Kiera Smitheram

Jeunes Filles Carole Britten, Helen Mitchell

Photographs – Robert Knights & Colin Chapman


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