Opera Warhorses

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Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013

June 30th, 2013

Santa Fe Opera’s 2013 opera festival opened with a rousing new production of Jacques Offenbach’s 1868 comedy “Le Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein”.

The evening was significant in many ways – introducing a new performing edition, and introducing a new English translation of the spoken dialogue  (the opera itself is sung in its original French).

It also provides a star turn for Susan Graham, a member of the world’s inner circle of first rank mezzo-sopranos,  herself a native New Mexican [see Return to New Mexico: An Interview with Susan Graham.]

[Below: Susan Graham as the Grand Duchess of Gerolstein; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

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The production’s premises

The new production was conceived by British stage director Lee Blakeley.

The production  exuded authenticity. The opera was performed in an authoritative new version by Offenbach scholar-musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck) that included the restoration of all the cuts (including some very funny material that was jettisoned after the first night to accommodate Parisian taste for shorter evenings at the theater).

But Blakeley also intended that – in the spirit of Offenbach’s penchant for topically relevant comedy – it would be updated in ways that made this 21st century restoration as accessible to and enjoyable by American audiences.

[Below: Stage director Lee Blakeley; resized image of a promotional photograph.]


Thus, even though the opera is performed in beautifully sung French, the occasional spoken dialogue is translated into English.

And, without stretching the translation of any of the abundant gag-lines in ways that would seem absurdly anachronistic, the audience leaves with the impression that they have watched a very contemporary comedy.

Comic Opera and Revolution

I see an ironic linkage between the two operas presented in Santa Fe Opera’s 2013 opening weekend (the second night being Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”).

The Mozart opera was based on a play that, even though set in Seville, viciously satirized the pretensions of the French nobility. Mozart’s opera, though less incendiary than the Beaumarchais play on which it is based, debuted five years before the French Revolution destroyed the nobility’s political power and wiped out the lives and fortunes of much of the noble classes.

The Offenbach opera “Grand Duchesse” also had a biting edge, satirizing the territorial and military pretensions of the multiplicity of European states – especially those of  the many principalities across the Rhine from France that were coalescing into the nation of Germany.

It is especially ironic that a world famous German-born operetta composer staged a political satire about military adventures in Paris during the French Second Empire. A couple of the operetta’s performances were attended and enjoyed by the Emperor Napoleon III and his family. Three years later, the French army, the agents of Emperor Napoleon’s territorial ambitions, was defeated and Napoleon’s Second Empire was in shambles.

[Below: the Grand Duchess (Susan Graham, center, in top hat) inspects her troops; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Within four decades, after the ensuing wars and calamities, all of the “crowned heads” with real power were gone, and with them (to use historian Sir Lewis Namier’s term), their “vanished supremacies” – monarchies and empires – disappeared also.

Blakeley’s essay on his production suggests his instincts are antiwar, but since the internal military conflicts of Central and Western Europe seem to be behind us, it is not the territorial ambitious of European warrior princes at which Blakeley pokes fun, but the aggressive sexual ambitions of a woman with absolute power over men – here personified by the Grand Duchess of the principality of Gerolstein.

The Grand Duchess: Warmonger or Cougar?

Thus, Blakeley bills the Grand Duchess as “the Ultimate Cougar”.

This is no stretch of the material. In fact, Tsar Alexander of Russia, one of the aforementioned crowned heads in the audience, had shown concern that the character’s predatory sexual interest in young men seemed so consonant with the legends about the 18th century Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great that the Grand Duchess might have been modeled  after his predecessor.

In these days in the Grand Duchess’ actions that occur in any ten minutes of her onstage appearances would have entangled her in high profile lawsuits under contemporary sexual harassment laws and courts martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a fantasy about a woman with absolute power over men is as saucy as the plot would have seemed to the “crowned heads” of state that attended its first run.

In the three and a half hours of the unabridged work, we are introduced to two of the men whom she finds sexually appealing.

The first, Fritz, frustrates her.  By opera’s end, however,  she is paired with Prince Paul, a husband who can provide her what she really wants (no, not nights with the prince himself, but with her husband’s handsome henchman).

Fritz and Wanda

The opera is, in part, a love story about a nice normal couple, Fritz, sung by tenor Paul Appleby, and his sweetheart Wanda, sung by Anya Matanovic. They end up with a state-sponsored wedding, but not without a wild and zany ride beforehand.

[Below: Wanda (Anya Matanovic) snuggles with Fritz (Paul Appleby, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

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A lowly private assigned menial jobs in an on-post military gym, Fritz catches the Grand Duchess’ eye on an inspection trip to review the man flesh (i.e., troops).

Matanovic, whose Micaela I had previously noted favorably [See Costa-Jackson, Diegel, Matanovic and Simpson Excel in Glimmerglass Opera’s “Carmen” – August 13, 2011] was an appealing Wanda. Again playing the adversary to a sexually aggressive woman in an opera’s lead role, Matanovic brought a charming presence that “won one” for wholesomeness.

This was my (and Santa Fe Opera’s) first occasion to hear Appleby, whose cherubic face worked theatrically. His tenor voice blended well with both his sweetheart and his employer, and he proved especially effective in the third act revelries.

A Buff Buffo

Seeing Graham perform in the title role is, as it should be, a big box office draw, but persons unaquainted with the comic (and physical) prowess of basso Kevin Burdette will find a real treat as he returns to Santa Fe in his second major comic assignment here [for his previous performance, see Loving “The Last Savage”: Over the Top Menotti Charms at Santa Fe Opera – August 5, 2011.]

In an era in which the physical appearance, athleticism and acting skills of so many young opera stars has been a boon to stage directors seeking theatrically valid operatic performance, the ability to cast Kevin Burdette as General Boum (pronounced “boom”) is a godsend.

Burdette – tall, lean, good-looking, physically coordinated, strong vocally, adept at the linguistic patter expected of a comic basso  – utterly transformed the character he played. In keeping with Blakeley’s concept that the first act would take place in the military gym, Burdette arrives in gym gear.

Burdette sings Boum’a hilarious opening aria A cheval sur la discpline with its memorable refrain Et pif, paf, pouf, et tara papa poum! Il est, lui, le General Boum Boum! while skipping rope.

One suspects that some famous basso buffos, many of whom one would never describe as “buff”, could not skip rope, much less match this performance.

[Below: General Boum (Kevin Burdette, center, in full length sweat pants) leads the morning’s calisthenics; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Burdette had earlier this year brought believability to a performance of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment”, in which you could imagine a Sergeant Sulpice as the 21st Regiment’s sergeant that the marquise would find an amorous attraction [See Vargicova, Costello, Podles and Burdette Romp in Hilarious, Beautifully Sung “Fille du Regiment” – San Diego Opera, January 26, 2013.]

Now I look forward to seeing Burdette as Osmin (a role he sings) in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” in a production that would make the character Pedrillo’s concern that Blonde might have had an affair with Osmin seem dramatically plausible.

The Making of a Conspiracy

Even a small postage stamp principality can have conspiracies, and the Grand Duchess’ wild actions have brought together the disaffected General Boum with Baron Puck (Aaron Pegram), the duchess’ tutor.

Also in Gerolstein there is a royal suitor who has been ignored by the Grand Duchess and to his embarrassment ridiculed in the Holland Gazette (the occasion for a funny duet between Paul (superbly played by Jonathan Michie) and Graham’s Grand Duchess.

To the horror of Fritz’ commanding officer, General Boum (who seems to have been a past Grand Duchess favorite), she promotes Fritz to sergeant, then lieutenant, captain and ultimately general. To the shock of all the troops, she gives her new love interest an actual assignment, to lead Gerolstein into war against a neighboring state, to begin right away.

This leads to the formation of a Conspiracy against Fritz and his patron.

[Below: General Boum (Kevin Burdette, left), Prince Paul (Jonathan Michie, center) and Baron Puck (Aaron Pegram, right) become co-conspirators; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Fritz’s wartime strategies prove successful to the delight of the Grand Duchess, but her reward – her hand in marriage – does not interest him any more than Radames being awarded Amneris’ hand in Verdi’s “Aida” interests that victorious general.

Like Amneris, the Grand Duchess is infuriated at the general’s obvious disinterest in becoming part of a power couple, and the Grand Duchess signals that she wants to join the troika’s conspiracy.

[Below: the Grand Duchess (Susan Graham, right) is not amused that General Fritz (Paul Appleby, center) persists in the idea of marrying Wanda (Anya Matanovic, left; edite dimage, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

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Two events sour the Grand Duchess on her objective of marrying General Fritz. Most importantly, she discovers that Prince Paul’s emissary, Baron Grog (Jared Bybee) interests her sexually, and that neither he nor probably Prince Paul would have any inhibitions about Grog spending each night of the Grand Duchess’ marriage to Paul in her bed.

And, adding to the sour grapes about General Fritz, in a hilarious-staged battle between enemy forces, the conspirators and General Fritz, the Grand Duchess’ father’s sword that she had presented her general, is destroyed.

[Below: General Fritz (Paul Appleby, center, on cannon) chases General Boum (Kevin Burdette, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courteys of the Santa Fe Opera.]

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Fritz is demoted back to private. But everyone is happy with the results. Fritz and Wanda are married, as are Prince Paul and the Grand Duchess, providing her access to Baron Grog.

[Below: with the appearance of a giant wedding cake, all matters are eventually resolved; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Fans of Offenbach (and I would suspect that most opera goers familiar with his comic works are in his fan club) will enjoy Blakeley’s lively restorations of the cut pieces – especially the wild Le Carillon can-can that ends the second act and the conspirators’ knife-sharpening chorus, that received some of the loudest guffaws of the evening.

Further Thoughts

This is the fifth straight festival season in which a new production of a 19th century French work (Second Empire or Third Republic) has been mounted, including Blakeley’s production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” [see The Stylishly Gallic Santa Fe Opera: Eric Cutler, Nicole Cabell Radiant in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” – July 31, 2012.]

Santa Fe Opera has in a short amount of time become a major world center for performing these French works in intelligent productions. In each of the five productions, recently restored or rarely performed music has been included.

With the restoration of the original material, it would seem to me that there is no need to retain the old term “operetta”.  This is comic opera, just as surely as is Donizetti’s “Le Fille du Regiment” from a generation earlier.

The opera was brilliantly conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, with attractive scenic designs by Adrian Linford and vibrant costumes by Jo van Schuppen. Dancing, choreographed by Peggy Hickey, was a major part of the show, with abundant use of tap dancing soldiers and camp following women performing high octane, skirt-lifting can cans.


I recommend this production of Offenbach’s great comic opera, with its restorations and with this cast, without reservation, both for the veteran opera goer and for those new to opera.

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