Offenbach did not write the words "From the halls of Montezuma, / To
the shores of Tripoli..." but he did compose the music that became the
Marines' Hymn. It's in a march of his 1867 comic opera, "Genevieve de
Brabant" (which first saw life, so to speak, as a musical play, in 1859).
It is said that at the end of his life Offenbach regretted all the time
and work he spent on "foolish operettas," and "Genevieve" is not much
to be proud of, so fluffy, silly, and pointless it is. All that and a
three-hour running time!
Donald Pippin, master translator and an avid Offenbach fan, opened the
2006 season of his Pocket Opera tonight, in the Legion of Honor, with
the world premiere of "The New Woman," a Pippinified-English version
of "Genevieve," a definite improvement over the original, but still
The music is marginal: almost all of it bears a startling resemblance
to frantic Gilbert & Sullivanish pattern songs (and not the really good
G&S stuff), with an occasional fleeting glimpse at the "real Offenbach,"
and several instances of early Verdi. A chop suey.
The story is mind-numbing. Imagine Shakespearean themes (persecution
and triumph of an innocent woman), slapstick, operetta fluff, mistaken
identities, cardboard villains (a la "The Drunkard"), party scenes from
"The Merry Widow," mysterious hermits (who cannot carry a tune, but hit
a high D with ease), a wounded but gracefully dancing fawn (Sherrine
Aubert), a character who literally dances up a storm (Julia Louise Hosack
as, yes, The Storm), a Tyrolian trio, extensive discussion of the assets
and liabilities of pate as an aphrodisiac... and more, much more. For
As always, Pippin's opening remarks are to be closely regarded. He
spoke of the "impotent potentate" - and the character, Duke Sifroy of
Ham-on-Rye, soon appeared in Michael Mendelsohn's impressive performance.
With reliably consistent comic timing, and a fine tenor, Mendelsohn gave
"meaning" to the evening. At one point, with a little arioso about the
benefits of tea for an upset stomach, the tenor temporarily halted the
overwhelmingly frantic tempo, settled down to a volume that was perfect
for the small hall... and provided relief from the overheated (and
under-rehearsed) production. Mendelsohn also carried Pippin's text
clearly, something the chorus rarely accomplished.
Another principal, Rachel Michelberg, in the trouser role of pastry cook,
page and then rescuer and lover of Genevieve (Tamra Paselk), has a bright
voice, which she uses well, but it is not a "trouser voice," certainly
Ross Halper's Mayor was impressive, Patricia Barboza, as Genevieve's
maid, sang loud and clear; Christopher Walkey and Justin Taylor Nixon,
as the comic team of Pitou and Garbage (yes), entertained, but as for
the rest of the large cast, this was not one of Pocket Opera's better
nights - although things may pick up in subsequent performances. To
achieve that, the stage director, Debra Lambert - who has plenty of fine
comic shticks - must calm down the production, get away from the consistent
Three Stooges thing. Would that extend the already excessive running
time? Not necessarily. "The New Woman" can be cut capriciously, blindly
even, and no one would know the difference.
Pippin managed to come up with a mention of "delay" when Charles
Martel enters (Charles the Hammer... get it?), and he got the 7th
century Crusader consider taking the Orient Express to Palestine ("Upon
a sanctified crusade, / We pursue a noble mission. /No, no! Not for
plunder, not for trade, / But to save them from perdition").
A puzzle, however, is the Pippin version's title. When, at the end,
Genevieve is revealed as "the new woman," no longer the "submissive wife"
as she is described at the beginning, it comes as a surprise because the
character is a passive figure throughout, and nothing explains the
"transformation." Oh, well, why look for sense in this piece?
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