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Orpheus in the USA

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of the maestro of the Cancan and much more besides, Jacques Offenbach. Today, a mysterious stranger makes him an offer he cannot refuse.

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of the maestro of the Cancan and much more besides, Jacques Offenbach. Today, a mysterious stranger makes him an offer he cannot refuse.

In 1874, Offenbach’s finances hit the buffers after he mounted a spectacularly inflated, four-act version of Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the underworld), a monumentally overblown staging of Victorien Sardou’s prose tragedy La Haine (Hatred), and then – the icing on the cake – a silicon-enhanced version of his own operetta, Geneviève de Brabant; all coming on top of his recent takeover and lavish, no-expense-spared refurbishment of Paris’s Théâtre de la Gaité. So when a Latin-American impresario called Lino Bacquero turned up at Offenbach’s summer retreat on the terrace at Saint-Germain-en-Laye the following year, offering him $30,000 payable in advance to conduct a series of 30 concerts in the United States to celebrate the centenary of American Independence in 1876, it must have seemed to the beleaguered composer like manna from heaven. After a shaky start, the tour, which took in New York, Philadelphia and a town he referred to only as “X” – perhaps because, in his words, the orchestra there was “execrable” – was a definite hit. On his return to France, Offenbach wrote an entertaining book about his experiences Stateside, documenting such things as the musical highs and lows, the culinary scene, and his observations on American life in general. He was particularly fascinated by American women, who, he said, were “handsome in a proportion wholly unknown in Paris. Out of every hundred that you meet, there are ninety who are ravishing.”

Vert-Vert (overture)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Neeme Järvi, conductor

American Eagle Waltz
Philip Collins, trumpet
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra
Erich Kunzel, conductor

La vie Parisienne (Act 2, beginning)
André Batisse, tenor (Alphonse)
Jean-Christophe Benoit, baritone (Frick)
Mady Mesplé, soprano (Gabrielle)
Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse
Michel Plasson, conductor

Les belles Américaines
Marco Sollini, piano

La Belle Hélène (Act 2, No 11: Invocation à Vénus, ‘On me nomme Hélène le blond’)
Felicity Lott, soprano (Hélène)
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Marc Minkowski, conductor

La jolie parfumeuse (Act 1, ‘Je peins, je crayonne’)
Loïc Félix, tenor (Poirot)
Elizabeth Vidal, soprano (Rose)
Alexandra Sherman, mezzo soprano (Bavolet)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Parry, conductor

La jolie parfumeuse (Act 2, ‘Pardieu!’)
Mark Stone, baritone (Germain)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Parry, conductor

La jolie parfumeuse (Act 2, ‘Air de Polacca’)
Laura Claycomb, soprano (Clorinde)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Parry, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

59 minutes

Music Played

  • Jacques Offenbach

    Vert-Vert: Overture

    Performer: Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Conductor: Neeme Järvi.
    • CHANDOS : CHSA 5160.
    • CHANDOS.
    • 11.
  • Jacques Offenbach

    American Eagle Waltz

    Performer: Philip Collins. Orchestra: Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Conductor: Erich Kunzel.
    • ALTO ALC1073.
    • ALTO ALC1073.
    • 16.
  • Jacques Offenbach

    La Vie Parisienne: Act 2 (opening)

    Performer: Jean-Christophe Benoît. Performer: Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. Singer: André Batisse. Singer: Mady Mesplé. Conductor: Michel Plasson.
    • EMI FRANCE 1141238.
    • EMI FRANCE 1141238.
    • 7.
  • Jacques Offenbach

    Les belles américaines

    Performer: Marco Sollini.
    • CPO 777 161-2.
    • CPO 777 161-2.
    • 13.
  • Jacques Offenbach

    La Belle Hélène: Act 2, No 11

    Singer: Felicity Lott. Ensemble: Les Musiciens du Louvre. Conductor: Marc Minkowski.
    • ERATO 9029561743.
    • ERATO 9029561743.
    • 1.
  • Jacques Offenbach

    La Jolie Parfumeuse (Act 1, 'Je Peins, Je Crayonne')

    Performer: Loïc Félix. Performer: Élizabeth Vidal. Performer: Alexandra Sherman. Choir: Geoffrey Mitchell Choir. Orchestra: London Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: David Parry.
    • OPERA RARA ORR243.
    • OPERA RARA.
    • 3.
  • Jacques Offenbach

    La Jolie Parfumeuse: Act 2, 'Pardieu!'

    Performer: Mark Stone. Orchestra: London Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: David Parry.
    • OPERA RARA ORR243.
    • OPERA RARA.
    • 4.
  • Jacques Offenbach

    La jolie parfumeuse: Act 2, 'Air de Polacca'

    Performer: Laura Claycomb. Orchestra: London Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: David Parry.
    • OPERA RARA ORR243.
    • OPERA RARA.
    • 5.

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