Jacques Offenbach wrote over 90 stage works, from one-act revues to the fantastical opera The Tales of Hoffmann, leaving a wealth of material still to be rediscovered among his opéras-bouffes beyond the barely half-dozen operettas that have survived in the repertoire. The recording and concert company Opera Rara has already resurrected Offenbach’s Fantasio, among much else in the French and Italian repertoire over the half century of its activities, and has now turned its attention to another largely forgotten gem, La Princesse de Trébizonde. This was one of Offenbach’s last successes before his popularity waned in the 1870s in the face of both changing cultural tastes and anti-German feelings exacerbated by the Franco-Prussian War (despite the Cologne-born composer having long since taken French citizenship).

Anne-Catherine Gillet and Virginie Verrez
© Russell Duncan

Composed at typically lightning speed for the 1868 summer season in Baden-Baden, La Princesse proved to be a hit both there and later the same year when mounted in Paris. Lacking the broad politico-satirical edge of his ‘classical’ recreations such as Orphée and La belle Hélene, it nonetheless takes aim at the pretensions of class, with a plot that pits nobility against circus performers. In short, a prince falls in love with a waxwork princess, not realising at first that she is a member of the circus family standing in for the damaged original. Her family wins a castle (and baronetcy) in a lottery and after various intrigues and revelations the two classes discover they are all related, everyone pairs up and they all live happily ever after.

Virginie Verrez, Paul Daniel and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© Russell Duncan

Frothy and inconsequential it may be, but a lot of fun, too, especially given Offenbach’s winning ways with melody and catchy rhythms. The libretto has its moments as well, and gives the composer plenty of opportunity to write diverting numbers on such subjects as the waxwork’s broken nose (the reason for the human substitution), the prince’s excuse of toothache to get out of going hunting with his father, and an aria for a tightrope-walker on the importance for her profession of having attractive legs...

Opera Rara assembled a largely French cast, led by Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet as Zanetta, who with Virginie Verrez’ Prince Raphaël and Antoinette Dennefeld as Zanetta’s sister Régina had the lion’s share of the solo numbers, all performed with style and wit. It’s a bit of a shame that Offenbach confines the other characters, on the whole, to the big ensembles, though it was still possible to pick out the rustic charm of Christophe Gay’s Cabriolo (the circus paterfamilias), Katia Ledoux’s sonorous Paola (his sister) and Christophe Mortagne’s distinguished Trémolini (their butler-cum-circus performer). Tenors Loïc Félix (Sparadrap) and Josh Lovell (Prince Casimir) completed the excellent line-up.

Harriet Walter
© Russell Duncan

Opera Rara’s own scintillating chorus also supplied the six pages guarding the waxworks (once acquired by the young prince’s father, Casimir) and in the finale their skills even extended to dancing a brief can-can. There was fizz and charm aplenty in the playing of the London Philharmonic and conductor Paul Daniel kept everything on a light leash without compromising fluidity and flexibility. Last but no means least, Harriet Walter acted as a kind of MC, reciting Jeremy Sams’ craftily contrived narration and potted dialogue, thus ensuring a supposedly lengthy theatrical work was dispatched in little more than ninety minutes. The associated studio recording should be a must-have when released in a year’s time.