Jacques Offenbach’s colourful La Vie parisienne, composed in 1866 to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, has since become one of the composer’s most popular operettas. There are elements that are scatalogical, if tempting, and sometimes just under cover. But the current climate puts an entirely new twist on the new Zurich production, which includes more than its share of the non-consensual.

<i>La Vie parisienne</i> © Thomas Entzeroth
La Vie parisienne
© Thomas Entzeroth

As the audience, you could apply the principle of suspension of disbelief, call the almost constant female bottom-grabbing and sexual slurs “all in fun”, and go home with a couple of sordid giggles, or you could see that this production’s timing stood under an unlucky star. I fell somewhere between the two, inasmuch as the staging was commendably done, the orchestra was first rate, and the interjections of detail unique to Swiss politics, institutions and geography were just terrifically clever.

First off, the ZKO Opera Box concert/theatre venue was nicely fitted to close interaction between players and audience. Granted, the low stage surface was cramped; the twelve musicians of the Zürcher Kammerorchester and their animated conductor, Andres Joho, all took their places on it – and the stage surface was partially stooled, too. But a walkway had been left for action among the audience chairs, and a stairway that lead up to an emergency exit was also used by the singers, meaning that vis-à-vis the audience, they could sometimes sing from just an arm’s length away. What’s more, they could flirt with random audience members, even ask them to move or react in several instances. Once, the incorrigible Brazilian character Pompa di Matadores (Niklaus Rüegg) made an unsuspecting woman in the audience sit on his lap; then, having extracted himself after a minute or two, gave her a promising “I’ll call you” signal as if on a cell phone, and brought down the house.

<i>La Vie parisienne</i> © Thomas Entzeroth
La Vie parisienne
© Thomas Entzeroth

That said, the story of this opera buffa itself revolves around a plot with little real substance or depth. Paris is cited as the city where people, “eat, sing, dance, and afterwards, make love,” and that’s exactly what transpires here, along with an exploration of who gets whom and how. Two rather devious dandies, Gardefeu and Bobinet, both savvy in solicitation, meet in Act 1 at the Gare de Lyon. Gardefeu takes over a job as tour escort from another friend for one reason only: he’s keen to seduce the wife of a visiting Swedish Baron. Fortunately for him, there is mutual attraction on the Baroness’s part, played here by the power-voiced Mardi Byers as the single-minded, somewhat vulgar, and stereotypical American. In the role of the Baron, Erich Bieri often gave interjections in Swedish that were as hysterical as his singing was superb.

Act 2 begins with a major case of bottom-grabbing, and for my part, confusion, since the role of the pursuer, Jean Frick, was taken by the same singer who played the part of the rich Brazilian in Act 1. Given that there are no fewer than 28 roles in this buffa, some overlay could have been expected, but Rüegg was assigned three roles here, perhaps more than the call of duty. Christa Fleischmann, who played the young ingénue he (as Frick) was after, gave a confident and tireless performance, despite having to scamper around to avoid him. Another leading female role was that of the seductive Métella, Grandfeu’s perplexing madam; Violetta Radomirska sang it here it in a silvery voice that carried the whole hall, and was underscored, later in the performance, by the shimmering fabric of a seemingly moonlit costume.

<i>La Vie parisienne</i> © Thomas Entzeroth
La Vie parisienne
© Thomas Entzeroth

Act 3 was just too long: essentially all the characters are drinking heavily at one huge party – particularly the Baron, whom Grandfeu described as “an old and senile geezer” – and increasingly gave us just hackneyed expressions of drunkenness. The better laughs were had over allusions to Zurich connections: to mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who lives nearby, for example, or the elderly valet’s mention of our local “Pfäffikon Lake”. Special accolades go to the two fine dancers, Lynn Clea Ismail and Reinier Powell, whose acrobatics and rhythms all too briefly lit up the stage.

The modest set in Act 4 – two white-covered daybeds brought in by five fully white-clad and serious attendants – gave the stage the look of a sanatorium. Yet when the entire cast appeared in white terry cloth bathrobes and started socializing, I suspected more of a sauna, perhaps as a tribute to the habits of the never-satisfied Baron. Indeed, events finally came around to their conclusion: the sinuous Métella and her Grandefeu were reconciled, the Baroness embraced Paris as a perfect place for indulgence, and three hours of Offenbach’s melodies drew to a noble close.