Review: Jodie Devos’ ‘Offenbach Colorature’
A Perfect Celebration of the Composer’s 200th Birthday By A Fascinating SopranoBy John Carroll
This new recital of florid Offenbach rarities sung by Jodie Devos, a young Belgian soprano, is lightning in a bottle. I can’t recall the last time I felt such an ecstatic sense discovery while a CD unspooled around me: nearly a dozen obscure gems from one of the most prolific and ingenious composers of all time are made to sparkle brightly by the voice of a previously unknown soprano of exceptional talent.
The recording is beautifully produced and engineered, bursting with polished, vivid musicianship from conductor Laurent Campellone and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester.
Be Not Afraid
If the thought of a single-composer recital sung by a light soprano gives you pause, be not afraid. I’ve listened to this disc completely through nearly two dozen times over the past month and still have not tired of it. In fact, I continue to have that quicksilver experience of being so gobsmacked after hearing a track, I’ve gladly succumbed to the impulse to immediately hit the repeat button.
The two dazzling superstars on this bill are Jodie Devos and Jacques Offenbach. Devos’ voice is fresh, sweet, and vibrant. She ignites the vocal fireworks with daring gusto (and they are everywhere on this disc, so many cadenzas and high notes you’ll lose count). But tucked judiciously between these extravagances are several demure lyric arias, beautifully expressed by Devos. Her vocal charisma and technique make it all appear improbably easy; and, needless to say, her French diction and style are superb.
Her co-star Offenbach’s genius is apparent in every moment as his music is so frothy, infectious, and well-crafted. Still, it’s easy to take him for granted. Before researching this disc, I was unaware that he had composed 100 works for the stage between 1847 and 1881; yet only his posthumous masterpiece “Les Contes de Hoffmann” lives in the standard repertory, deservedly so.
According to operabase.com, “Hoffmann” is the second most performed French opera in the world, after “Carmen.” Occasionally operettas such as “La belle Hélène” and “Orphée aux enfers” are programmed by a company who wants to add a little zing to its season, but his other 95+ works are mostly forgotten.
This recital makes the compelling case that this tremendous oversight needs to end right now. I’m encouraged that several of these works are being revisited with new performing editions and new productions. The Palazzetto Bru Zane, which co-produced this recital disc and provided the some of the scores, has been building cultural momentum around re-evaluating Offenbach as part of its mission to promote the appreciation of 19th Century French opera. To them I say: thank you, and more please! (How about a disc Devos doing arias by Auber to commemorate the 150th anniversary in 2021 of his death? Just a suggestion.)
The liner notes by Alexandre Dratwicki provide interesting insights about Offenbach’s prevalent writing for the coloratura soprano (or “chanteuse d’agilité”) and overall context within the world of French opera in this era, but few specifics are provided about the works and selections themselves. Since both the singer and most of the music is so new to our ears, I decided to delve a little deeper into each selection in the program.
Kicking Off the Program
From the instant the program starts, we bolt out of the gate in a most glorious gallop. The first selection is the short, vivacious “Couplets de la dompteuse” from the obscure opera-bouffe “Boule de Neige” (Snowball). Devos sings three solos of Olga the animal tamer and they are all delightful discoveries.
The opening track is a vivacious introduction to Olga’s lifestyle hanging out with gazelles and jaguars. The jaunty tune instantly calls to mind Offenbach’s distinctive can-can style and though it clocks in at under two minutes, it leaves a lasting impression (yes, that means you will be humming it). Devos interpolates a big high D at the end, an early indication of the vocal bravura to come. Later in the recital program, Devos sings Olga’s lovely romance and then a chanson that morphs into a charming lullaby. Based on the quality of Olga’s music alone, someone needs to record (and revive) this complete work soon.
Next up may be the most flamboyant selection in the lineup: the “Couplets de la Garnison,” “J’ai parcouru toute la France” from “Vert-Vert.” This aria is sung by the diva soprano character, La Corilla, mocking the taste of audiences in the garrison towns, where they respond enthusiastically to her roulades and high notes, which she provides aplenty. It’s a great example of the wonderful sub-genre of showpiece arias whereby characters who are themselves virtuoso sopranos simultaneously describe and display their acrobatic virtuosity. Devos dispatches it all with aplomb and a satirical smile, taking the cadenzas even higher than written up to two high Es. That’ll show ‘em.
“Orphée aux enfers,” Offenbach’s sexy, satirical riff on Gluck’s Orpheus opera, was one of his first big hits and remains a viable commodity today, especially since a production and recording by Sadler’s Wells Opera in 1960 landed it back in the cultural consciousness. Devos’s sensual veneer works perfectly for Eurydice’s sly, faux-modest Invocation to Death (“La mort m’apparaît souriante”).
The “Valse Tyrolienne” from the 1859 one-act “Un Mari à la Porte” is unabashed in its frivolity. I remembered it from Sumi Jo’s recording in her first recital 25 years ago of French bon-bons titled “Carnaval.” This is one of those encore-style pieces that doesn’t warrant overthinking. The character Rosita hears a waltz playing in the background from a nearby wedding and she can’t help but join in singing about life’s joys. And in her defense, who could possibly resist this bouncy melody? The elegant middle section is a lovely interlude in Devos’ hands, but before long the frilly waltz theme kicks in again with even more enthusiasm the second time around. Devos takes things up a notch, launching one downward scale from a pin-point high E, a major-third higher than the score calls for, and then crowns it all with an exuberant high D.
The next tune is the first of two included in this program from “Fantasio,” an opera-comique that mostly disappeared after its original run in 1872 didn’t catch on. Apparently, the score was thought to be lost in a fire, but a new edition was assembled in 2000 and it has seen some recent attention thanks to Opera Rara’s concert performance and recording in London in 2014. I don’t own the complete recording but I’m tempted to get it based on the two arias here and some of the buzz about its darker storyline of a debt-bound student who takes over the persona of the recently deceased court jester.
This first selection “Cachons le’nnui de mon ame” is a delight — an eminently hummable melody that is quintessential Offenbach. Elsbeth, a princess, imagines a happy wedding in this clever musical construct with surprise figures and cadenzas that spire above the staff. The second piece that appears later in Devos’ program is actually Elsbeth’s opening romance, a beguiling theme poignantly phrased by Devos.
From “Les Bavards” (often translated as “The Chatterboxes”), Devos chose the first couplets of Ines, a wise Despina-like soubrette. She tells the cynical story of a bickering married couple, which Offenbach skillfully tempers by mixing in an endearing melodic turn that underlines how they can’t really live without each other.
Ciboulette’s rondo “Je suis la petite fruitiere” from “Mesdames de la Halle” is a stock entrance aria, sung as a character first appears on stage to quickly introduce themselves to the audience. It’s no surprise that Offenbach raises this conventional moment to great heights of invention and virtuosity. Ciboulette (the same farm girl in Reynaldo Hahn’s operetta, by the way) is a savvy fruit seller who uses this aria to brag about how her produce is the best at the market. Offenbach conveys her confidence with a scene akin to a plucky patter song interspersed with high-flying decorative plumes. The coda section calls to mind a 19th Century “#metoo” moment as Ciboulette divulges how she outmaneuvers the sexual advances of her wealthy male customers. Devos heartily mimics the male scoundrel’s voice, and sails up to a high E-flat in what I took to be a valiant proclamation of female power.
“Le Roi Carotte” was classified by Offenbach as an “opéra-bouffe-féerie,” signaling it has magical sorcery layered into the composer’s usual mix of comedy, romance, satire, sex, and patriotism. After nearly 150 years of neglect, new productions are being mounted in France, including one in Lyon directed by Laurent Pelly. Instead of the soprano lead Cunégonde, yet another princess about to be wed, Devos has chosen the “Romance de Fleurs” sung by Rosée, a young woman held captive for six years by a witch. Her dreamy romance has the pastoral flavor of tranquil flowers and chirping birds, with the vocal line echoing the nightingale’s song in a ladylike manner.
The Familiar, But Awkward
I don’t begrudge the inclusion of the overture from “Les Bergers” since there is such a bounty of amazing vocal material here. Oddly, it is not the big instrumental showpiece typically chosen to allow the orchestra to shine alone in spotlight. Instead, it’s an almost subdued lull in the program, skillfully orchestrated and played with taste.
Track 11 is when we finally arrive at Olympia’s “Doll Song” from “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” certainly the best-known piece in this collection, and as Dratwicki points out in the liner notes, “among the most famous in the French repertory.” The “Doll Song” is akin to the national anthem for coloratura sopranos and has been sung and recorded by everyone (I have 130 recordings of the aria in my own collection). This ditty is so ubiquitous in fact that it’s easy to overlook that it is the epitome of clever coloratura composition: a totally original use of florid singing in the direct service of a totally original character. Which is also why it’s inevitably a crowd pleaser when programmed by young sopranos to display their technique and, hopefully, have a little fun at the same time.
Devos doesn’t have anything brazenly unique to say about this strange mechanical creature; her Olympia is fairly well-behaved if perhaps a little on the coy side. That said, she ornaments in extremis, very much in line with the current trend where sopranos in this role seem to be preoccupied with only one question: how high can I go? In this case, Devos gives us high F’s amidst some complicated flights of embellishments. In my view, there is no point in being a purist here: since Olympia is a mechanical toy, such outlandish trick vocalism plays up Offenbach’s own musical joke (as long as pitch and tone remain true, as they do for Devos).
The admittedly ingenious melody of the famed “Barcarolle” from “Hoffmann” now borders on the hackneyed, having been appropriated over the years by countless advertisers, filmmakers, and arrangers of light music. It’s inclusion here feels pointless and out of place — a lone chestnut dropped into a program of unfamiliar music. Additionally, it is the only duet, so mezzo Adèle Charvet is brought in for what amounts to a momentary, uneventful cameo and it has not a grain of coloratura in it. Even as a palate cleanser, it just feels unnecessary.
Bringing the Celebration To A Close
“Robinson Crusoe” was a hit for Offenbach at the Opera-Comique, but as we’ve seen with so much of his output it inexplicably fell into obscurity, but for a few short-lived British revivals (which makes sense as it is loosely based on the famous English novel by Daniel Defoe). The satirical libretto focuses as much on Robinson’s bourgeois family as it does on his adventures. His fiancée, Edwige, arrives on his desert island to rescue him, is mistaken by the native cannibals for a goddess, escapes being sacrificed, and promptly demands that she be taken to her shipwrecked lover. Which sounds to me like the perfect opportunity for a splashy, conventional waltz song!
Offenbach supplies her with “Conduisez-moi vers celui que j’adore,” which closes Act two in grand fashion. This aria has seen some nibbles of interest in the recording studio ever since Joan Sutherland included it in her Romantic French Arias set recorded 50 years ago. A re-listen to hers, and renditions by Natalie Dessay, Amelia Farrugia, Elizabeth Futral, and Jo, confirms that none put it over quite like Devos, with her idiomatic self-assurance.
Jules Verne’s novel “From the Earth to the Moon” was the launch pad for Offenbach’s “Le voyage dans la lune,” an opéra-féerie that had a successful premiere in 1875. In Act three, the princess Fantasia sings her ariette “Je suis nerveuse,” where she is madly in love, as in literally bonkers. Offenbach conveys her high-strung state of mind through a choppy vocal line, tense rhythms, and bursts of staccato figures, all set as a tightly wound allegro and interspersed, of course, with a few roller coaster cadenzas. Oddly, this aria, the last on the bill, is one of the few that doesn’t climax with an interpolated top note.
What better way to celebrate Offenbach’s 200th birthday this summer than to fall under his spell anew, as magically woven by Jodie Devos and Laurent Campellone?