THE VIEW FROM ROW H
Hilary Reid Evans
First Night of Offenbach's Vert Vert at Garsington, 7th June 2014
Can someone, somewhere, please tell me why they do it? Why, oh why, do perfectly capable opera companies persist in
foisting allegedly humorous amuse gueules such as Offenbach's Vert Vert on an unsuspecting,
or in this case, highly suspicious, public?
If in over 100 years there has not been a UK revival, of this piece, why did someone in the opera company not stop and ask the question: why? (It was not considered a success when premiered in Paris and was not revived. At the 1874 UK premiere, the cast were shouted at by the gallery, voicing their disapproval.)
Yes, there are indeed many worthy pieces that for various reasons have fallen out of the repertoire and merit revival. Vert Vert however is not one of them. Take the plot, for example (if indeed there is one). A gaggle of overgrown married girls incarcerated in a convent school, their soldier husbands determined to rescue them, a boy who replaces a dead pet parrot yet grows to become a man, the stock characters of the drunken gardener and the diva, all untidily not bound together by inconsistencies in both plot line and dialogue. Ah yes, the dialogue. Whose bright idea was it, I wonder, to give us an English version of a libretto that might just have had some humour or subtlety in the original French, but appeared to have lost both - not to mention any connection to the underlying music - in this heavy handed production? The programme notes credit conductor David Parry with the English translation, yet I find it difficult to believe that someone so closely attuned to the music could have allowed the dialogue to become so heavy-handed, both in the spoken and the sung sections of the work.
Visually things were no better. Costumes had definitely been ordered from the pantomime catalogue, with over-gilded and braided toy soldier costumes for the husbands, whilst the eponymous Vert Vert spent the entire production in a ludicrous green jacket and yellow waistcoat, somewhat obviously pointing up his resemblance to the dead parrot. The stage set, which resembled nothing more than an oversized Polly Pocket castle (ask the children) was designed to hinge open for the Act II tavern scene and rotate to back stage, necessitating a spectacular(ly cold) opening of the scenery doors. Perhaps this icy blast had been engineered to reinforce Artistic Director Douglas Boyd's pre-performance funding appeal for improvements to the back-stage facilities. I am sure you won't want it, but may I give you some advice please Mr Boyd? First, don't assume that we all know who you are. It would have been politely humble to at least give us your name before asking for donations. Second, it would have been even nicer if what was about to unfold on stage had been of a sufficiently high standard to evoke enthusiasm.
At the heart of every farce they say lies a tragedy. Garsington's is that the fine and elegant playing of the Garsington Opera Orchestra, supremely well conducted by David Parry, is in danger of being overlooked. Given the constraints of the score, the piece was in places beautifully nuanced, paced and complex.
Since I am in the mood for giving advice, may I suggest to opera companies everywhere that they leave little-known light operettas alone? Operatic voices are in general not suited to the roles whilst audiences who enjoy opera do not usually enjoy musical-hall farces. Yes, I can understand the financial need to encourage support from non-traditional opera-going corporate donors. But really, truly, it just does not work. Next season, I am pleased to say, there is no sign of a novelty act on the Garsington playlist.