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Somebody, of course, complained that there was no donkey in the famous duet in Messager’s opéra comique, but Marie-Thérèse Keller’s undulating contortions as Ermerance de Champ d’Azur, the aunt who lives in hope of her libido setting sail for an ultimate regatta, were much funnier.

Alain Garichot’s production wisely discards all the kitsch clutter this opéra has acquired over the years. Perhaps Denis Fruchard’s sets go too far in the opposite minimalist direction, but Claude Masson’s attractive costumes are shown off nicely and the piece gains overall from the focus thrown on well-paced acting.

The genre’s biggest enemy is French snobbery. Never known for their enthusiasm for home-grown music, the French often squirm with embarrassment when Messager is mentioned. It is ringard: old-fashioned music for grannies with rhymes to make you cringe. No other nation goes so far in musical self-flagellation. Imagine for one moment the British sneering at Gilbert and Sullivan.

Happily, Garichot avoids taking cheap pot shots at the piece and keeps the original dialogues; it is not a political satire so a radical rewrite to make it all relevant is unnecessary. At the risk of being labelled a granny and presented with a pension book, I found the experience irresistible; not least because Nicolas Chalvin’s inspired conducting combines oomph and sophisticated, dovetailed textures.

The chorus could brush up their words (too thick), young Barbara Ducret’s Agathe is, vocally speaking, stormy weather, but the rest is on a roll. Petite Cassandre Berthon is perfect as a prettily sung but gutsy Véronique and Nigel Smith’s handsome baritone and flawless French make for a captivating Florestan. Vincent Pavesi’s Coquenard is the ideal blend of timbre and sharp projection and François Piolino’s Loustot has oodles of personality.

You leave the theatre humming the tunes and cursing the fact that there is not a decent recording. But something tells me the complexes are waning and a real Messager revival is round the corner. The Châtelet in Paris has programmed Véronique next season. Not before time. ★★★★☆

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