This afternoon I took myself to the Théâtre de Paris to see Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne. I expected it to be fun, but it was REALLY fun. What was incredibly impressive was how fresh and contemporary it all felt, especially the dialogue; looking at the Wikipédia synopsis, I have a feeling it was slightly abridged, which may have helped.
It’s about this guy, Raoul Gardefeu, who decides that he needs to meet more femmes du monde (women of the world) (Wikipédia reminds me that it was initially because his mistress, Métella–mettez-la! oooh, I’m so proud of myself–has moved on to another man). Anyway, Gardefeu finds out from his friend who works at a large hotel as a Paris guide that there will be a Swedish baron and his wife arriving that day, so he tells the guide to take a vacation; he, Gardefeu, will be the Swede’s “guide” and in the process seduce his wife. He takes the Baron and Baroness to his own house, which he tells them is part of the Grand Hotel (they had to expand because they were so busy), and then when the Baron expresses interest in meeting les femmes du monde himself, specifically Métella, Gardefeu has to organize a party for him. Because he can’t very well invite real luminaries, he persuades his household staff (including his gantière–glover?–Gabrielle and his bottier–the guy who delivers the boots–Frick) to masquerade as nobility for the evening. There’s also a random Brazilian guy whom Gabrielle falls in love with at the end…I don’t remember much about him. Anyway, in the end, the Baron realizes that he’s been tricked and he reconciles with his wife, who has been alerted of his machinations by Métella, who is actually still in love with Gardefeu.
It’s flimsy, I’ll grant you. But they made it so rich visually and aurally that it doesn’t matter. The production I saw was a sort of French relative of the John Doyle productions of Sondheim shows, in which instead of having a separate pit orchestra, the actors themselves play reduced orchestrations on their own instruments. I find this to be a really impressive, if sometimes distracting, conceit. The problem with it for me in a Sondheim show is that it adds a whole other layer of meaning, or lack thereof. What does it really mean that this character plays the cello, or that this other character plays percussion?
But in La Vie Parisienne, there isn’t really any substance to speak of, so the instruments just made the whole thing more vibrant. I spent most of the time going, “Holy cow, that woman can play the harp and the piano and sing and do the splits? I am so behind!” All of the actors had immense charisma, if not the most impressive singing voices. I actually sing “Je suis veuve d’un colonel,” one of Gabrielle’s arias, and I think I sing it better than the woman in the show did, but her characterization was so gloriously quirky that her voice, which was pretty but not particularly noteworthy, didn’t matter. I felt that way about the whole cast.
The operetta reminds me a lot of Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims, which I saw at University of Houston a few years ago. In that opera, a number of distinguished people from different countries are stuck at a hotel waiting for the coaches that will take them to Reims for the coronation of the new French king. I didn’t love that production. I thought that while the singing was excellent, the staging was too fussy, and often had little to do with the gorgeous music that Rossini wrote (for an unprecedented number of principal characters, if I remember correctly). But whoever directed La Vie Parisienne managed to add a lot of extra business without straying from or abandoning the concept (which was in kind of the “let’s put on a show” mold, where the actors started out in almost street clothes, holding their scripts and scores, and eventually became the characters). It was really impressive, and a great way to spend an afternoon.
You know, it occurs to me that I’ve always liked stories that pull together a lot of unrelated or dissimilar characters to participate in a single plot. It’s the reason I liked The Avengers so much, the reason I love Gosford Park and Clue and Murder by Death. It reminds me of something that happened in my Italian class last week. We always take a short break around 11:30 (the class runs from 10 to 1), and that day, some of us happened to stay in the room. I realized with a jolt that there were no French people participating in the conversation–it was me, Sayuri (Japanese), Carolina (Colombian), Johanna (Serbian) and Floriana, our teacher (Italian, obviously). We are all expatriates, and our common language is French (Italian doesn’t count, since most of us can’t speak it). When Pierre came back into the room, I leaned over to him and said, “You realize you’re the only French person in the room right now, don’t you?” It was hilarious.
See what I did there? I tied the plot of La Vie Parisienne to my experience as an expat. I win!
P.S. Tomorrow morning I’m heading to sunny Valencia, Spain for an audition and some much needed R&R. I’ll be blogging and taking lots of pictures, so I will hardly be off the grid, but I intend to spend as much time as possible doing nothing except reading for pleasure, listening to music, eating paella and Valencia oranges, and drinking sangria–preferably all at the same time, while wearing my new Eres bathing suit. I’m not even bringing any of the music I’m working on–just extra copies of my scores for the audition, which is on Monday. Adios, blogosphere!