If you want a rough idea of what Vert-Vert, an Offenbach rarity that has never before been staged in the UK, is like, you need only think of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The plot, the setting, the characters and the general style of music are all not so far removed from those that might have been found at the Savoy Theatre from the 1870s onwards.
The opera does, however, illustrate the differing attitudes towards impropriety in England and France in 1869, the year that Vert-Vert premiered in Paris. Although the shenanigans feel rather frivolous and innocent by today’s standards, it is doubtful whether they would have been tolerated as light entertainment in Britain at the time. Virtually all of the couples, which include schoolgirls and schoolmistresses among their number, have been secretly married before the opera has even started, while one character has an aria in which he seems determined to utter as many expletives as possible. There is nothing in repeated cries of ‘damn’ and ‘blast’ (the Garsington performance is in English) to offend the modern ear, but it still goes a lot further than Captain Corcoran’s utterance of ‘damme’ in HMS Pinafore nearly ten years later.
At the same time, the plot does not always feel as skilful as those to be found in Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. Although their operettas did not always give equal stage time to every couple, each always had something unique about them. Here, one of the two couples comprising a schoolgirl and dragoon officer has its own scene and duet, while the other gets nothing. The Act II finale, before the interval, consists of a simple song about drinking to love which compares unfavourably with all of the twists, turns and tensions written into The Mikado at the same point in the proceedings. Some of the plot’s events seem to arise almost out of nowhere, with insufficient build-up and prior character development to make them feel particularly convincing.
In spite of this, the story is undoubtedly a lot of fun. It concerns the boarding girls at the Convent of Saint-Rémy who at the start mourn the death of their wise and beloved pet parrot, Vert-Vert! The girls decide that the innocent Valentin, who also lives in the convent, should assume the parrot’s role, and he in turn goes on an extraordinary adventure that sees him grow from boy to man as he is tempted by an alluring singer before finding true love with the schoolgirl Mimi. At the same time, Mimi’s contemporaries Bathilde and Emma have married the dragoon officers D’Arlange and Bergerac, and are trying to escape the convent to be with them. In the end they succeed, in part because the assistant headmistress Mademoiselle Paturelle is secretly married herself to the dance master Baladon.
In Martin Duncan’s production Francis O’Connor’s sets are excellent, presenting the convent school as a tower-like structure that meshes Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles as did many a French nineteenth century building. It swings around to reveal the Lion d’Or in Nevers, complete with overhanging beams and faded wall paintings, where the dragoons hang out. Golden, stylised trees grace the stage assuming the pre-Art Nouveau shapes so fashionable in France at the time, while light and colour are used to delineate the daytime settings of Acts I and II, and the night sky of Act III.
The direction and choreography oscillate between the highly slick and slightly pedestrian. As the girls mourn the death of Vert-Vert their co-ordinated rising to full height and crying into hankies are simple yet effective, but a set-piece in which Baladon describes the history of dance proves good rather than brilliant, despite a strong central performance. With such excellent underlying material, it feels as if an opportunity has been missed to blow the audience away with this number.
There is a lot of very fine and enjoyable music in Vert-Vert and David Parry, who is also responsible for the English translation, conducts it well. The Overture in particular is very moving as it combines pizzicato passages with lines of lyrical beauty, moments of haunting tension and instantly appealing melodies.
There is also some excellent singing. Robert Murray as Valentin is possessed of a clean, yet round and assertive, tenor instrument and, after hitting great vocal heights, produces a far softer sound right at the top of his register. Fflur Wyn as Mimi demonstrates great maturity in her voice while still bringing an element of youthful lightness to it. Raphaela Papadakis, Katie Bray, Andrew Glover and Quriijn de Lang are persuasive as the quartet of lovers comprising schoolgirls and dragoon officers, and Glover and de Lang in particular provide a very strong tenor and baritone partnership. Naomi O’Connell as the singer La Corilla takes the stage by storm with a beautifully rich yet silvery voice.
The acting from several cast members during the spoken dialogue is not so convincing, but this is certainly not an issue with Yvonne Howard as Mademoiselle Paturelle and Geoffrey Dolton as Baladon. Alongside her sumptuous voice, Howard assumes an effective love struck demeanour while Dolton, who is required to sing, act and dance, proves an excellent all-rounder.
If you seek a degree of gravitas from a night at the opera, you might do better to try Fidelio or The Cunning Little Vixen at Garsington this year, but for many the fun and froth of Vert-Vert will be the perfect complement to a summer’s day picnicking in a beautiful setting. The opera and performance were of a sufficiently high standard to ensure that it was for me.