It’s always a thrill to see young performers at the RNCM visibly mature and gain in confidence as the first night of a new show there takes place.
Offenbach’s operetta, La Vie Parisienne, was not an easy ask for them. It needs to have froth and fizz and lightness all the way through, and things like that don’t come instantly when you’re nervous and haven’t done the piece with a full live audience before. Even the orchestra seemed to take time to enter into the spirit of the evening.
But the foundations were there. Director Stuart Barker had the massed forces on stage (with the first of two teams of principals, as the operetta is, as usual, double-cast) well drilled and aware of their positions. Simone Romaniuk had created an incredibly versatile, inventive and adaptable design – magically transformed, as it should be, for each new scene while we heard the entr’actes – with clear, colourful sets and evocative projected backdrops. She also created the lovely costumes, putting the story into the 1930s with a sure hand (we find the lifestyle of drone-like English aristos and the foppish Parisian demi-monde quite believable in the era of Jeeves and Wooster).
So we’re seeing a day in the life of Raoul de Gardefeu, who wants to tempt English Lord Ellington and his wife to sample Parisian delights apart from each other, so he can seduce the noble lady. Lord E fancies a night with the high-class escort Métella (a pun in that name, I guess), but we know he’s never going to get that far, and he just gets drunk. There’s a sub-plot involving a Brazilian millionaire also out on the town and the humble glove-maker Gabrielle, who turns out to have a lot more to her than first meets the eye. Act Two is set at the Moulin Rouge and then a posh restaurant, with attendant can-can dancers and similar delights. In the end Lord and Lady are reconciled, everyone else pairs off happily, and Parisian life goes on.
Using Alistair Beaton’s English translation, and with voice-coaching by Natalie Grady, the show was done, and heard, in plain English (no surtitles). Half of the skills called for were those of acting, not just singing, and in the cast that I heard some performers were really good at that. Some also have personalities and voices that work just beautifully in operetta style, too – I can mention Fiona Finsbury’s Métella, John Ieuan Jones’ Lord Ellington, Matt Mears’ Brazilian and Charlotte Trepess’s Gabrielle in particular (but I haven’t seen the other cast at all) – and everyone threw themselves into the movement and dancing, which was skilfully contrived by the amazing Bethan Rhys Wiliam.
By the time we were in the Moulin Rouge the soufflé had really risen, under the sure hand of conductor Andrew Greenwood, and it was no wonder the sails of that windmill in the backdrop suddenly accelerated.