Norman Stinchcombe reviews an Offenbach box-of-delights with operas and arias on CDs from Opera Rara

Offenbach: ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘Vert-Vert’, ‘Entre Nous’ (7 CD box set Opera Rara) ★★★★★

Jacques Offenbach, who Rossini nicknamed ‘the Mozart of the Champs-Élysées’, wrote more than a hundred comic operas. Only two remain in the repertory; his early hit ‘Orphée aux enfers’ (‘Orpheus in the Underworld’) and his masterpiece ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’, unfinished at his death, while ‘La belle Hélène’ is occasionally revived if a star singer fancies the title role, as Jessye Norman once did. The Opera Rara label, whose mission is, “restoring, recording, performing and promoting the forgotten operatic heritage of the 19th and early 20th centuries”, show that there are gems to be mined in that mountain of neglected Offenbach scores. This bargain-price box restores three earlier Opera Rara sets back into the catalogue: ‘Robinson Crusoe’ a 1980 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Alun Francis; ‘Vert-Vert’ from 1988 with the Philharmonia under David Parry; and ‘Entre Nous’, my own favourite, a two-disc selection of forty-one excerpts from a score of Offenbach operas with David Parry conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in this sparkling 2006 collection. The performances throughout are top notch with the versatile Geoffrey Mitchell Choir featuring as sailors, pirates, cannibals, dragoons, strolling players and convent school girls. The soloists are familiar names specialising in the operetta and bel canto repertoire, including Jennifer Larmore, Yvonne Kenny, Marilyn Hill-Smith, Alan Opie and John Brecknock.

The connection between this ‘Crusoe’ and Daniel Defoe’s novel is pretty tenuous – Offenbach’s source is a pantomime once popular on the English stage – but the desert island is there as is Man Friday, now a trouser-role (or should it be loincloth role?) for Trinidad-born mezzo soprano Sandra Browne. It’s all good fun with a show-stealing performance from Kenny as Crusoe’s betrothed Edwige who is rescued from being burned at the stake as a sacrifice to heathen gods in the nick of time. ‘Vert-Vert’ is set in a convent school with a hero (sweet-toned tenor Toby Spence) named after a dead parrot, which sounds a bit Monty Python-ish. It’s a sort of high-school ‘Così fan Tutte’ with two wrongly-matched couples getting the right partners at the end. Only the terminally glum would fail to raise a smile when they reach into the musical bran tub ‘Entre Nous’. If you enjoy the vocal pyrotechnics of Hoffman’s Olympia try ‘Je suis nerveuse, je suis fiévreuse’ from ‘Le Voyage dans la lune’, based on Jules Verne’s science fiction yarn, with stunning coloratura from soprano Elizabeth Vidal or the equally adept Laura Claycomb in ‘Dansons la chaconne’ from ‘Monsieur et Madame Denis’ where Offenbach wittily parodies the flute-and-soprano duet from Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’. For its modest price the box comes well-equipped with essays, full track details and libretti with English translations.

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