The story of Offenbach’s La Princesse de Trébizonde is essentially a story of bad timing. It was first performed in Baden Baden in the summer of 1869, before a very successful move to the Offenbach theater, the Bouffes-Parisiens, the following winter. However, the operetta was removed during the Franco-Prussian War, and never reasserted itself in the repertoire when public opinion turned against its German-born composer after the French defeat. Her releases remain rare, although Opera Rara has now revived her in concert, with Paul Daniel conducting the London Philharmonic and an excellent cast, largely French-speaking.
While it lacks the strong satirical focus of Orphée aux Enfers and La Belle Hélène, it is a compelling, if absurd, comedy about nouveau riche values and social mobility. Prince Raphaël, played by a half-disguised, falls in love with what he believes to be a wax statue of the mythical princess of Trebizond, only to discover that the object of his affections is, in fact, the real Zanetta, who works in a circus run by his family. Raphaël is soon at loggerheads with dictatorial father Casimir, but things are thrown into real chaos when Zanetta and her relatives win the lottery and acquire both an unexpected fortune and sudden status. The soundtrack is delightful, with some brilliant numbers: Raphaël has a great air about toothache, funny and cringe at the same time; Casimir, the leading tenor, plays whims in waltz time; and there’s a hilarious quintet spinning plates for the noble circus family, now bored to death by old-time wealth and longing.
Opera Rara overall made the piece proud, although some, I suspect, may have preferred the dialogue in French to Jeremy Sams’ English-language narrative that was used here, albeit wittily spoken by Harriet Walter. Daniel led with great panache and panache. Only occasionally did the orchestra seem too prominent, but there was a really elegant way of playing strings and winds. The singing was also great. As Raphaël, Virginie Verrez had a lot of fun with her toothache aria, and she and Anne-Catherine Gillet’s lively Zanetta played great together in their duets. Josh Lovell’s Casimir, all easy high notes and beautifully shaped lines, was simply spectacular. Among Zanetta’s family, Antoinette Dennefeld and Christophe Mortagne distinguished themselves respectively as her provocative sister of her Régina and Trémolini, the trembling lover of the latter. An extremely enjoyable and very enjoyable evening.