Reynaldo Hahn wrote his first and most successful opérette in 1923, a light-hearted story about Ciboulette, a market girl in Les Halles who tries her hand at showbiz under the assumed name of Conchita Ciboulero and ultimately hooks a toff with a private income. Its subject reflects the craving for escapism in the decade following the first world war and Hahn’s irresistible music – tuneful, witty and capable of turning simple ideas into magic with subtle harmony – is a touching homage to Offenbach.
Michel Fau, who produces this long overdue revival of a former favourite, thankfully avoids going for good taste and serves up elaborate kitsch instead. He appears in drag as the Countess of Castiglione, imprisoned in a space-grabbing green dress that intendant Jérôme Deschamps, also in the cast, tries to sit on. “Oh, I thought you were a pouffe,” he quips in a double-entendre joke that actually works in both French and English, though with different meanings.
A few too many painted flats means it gets quite crowded on this small stage. David Belugou’s gloriously camp costumes add to the crush, but there is just about room for a cameo from Sam, conductor Laurence Equilbey’s teacup Chihuahua. It’s that sort of production, flirting with overkill but killingly funny. The audience stamps its approval and gladly joins in the community singing of two airs, courtesy of the supertitles and, a first in Paris, pre-performance coaching.
If this all sounds too raucous, too boulevard theatre, the quality of the singing significantly raises the stakes. In some ways, this is the house’s best casting achievement since Deschamps took over. Opérette requires diction and good acting but it also thrives on good voices. Even the chorus – Equilbey’s wonderful Accentus choir – is luxury material and the lead trio are simply outstanding. Julie Fuchs’ Ciboulette shows off a bright but peachy soprano, exceptional diction and, after a nervous start, an easy, lovable stage presence. As Antonin, her hopelessly aristocratic beau, Julien Behr’s pristine tenor is perfect and Jean-François Lapointe’s Duparquet brings the house down as the story’s mover and shaker.
The Toulon Opera orchestra is not quite note perfect but Equilbey caresses the score’s simple poetry and milks its emotional nods to Massenet. Géori Boué, the first Ciboulette at the Opéra Comique and now 94, was trotted out before curtain up for a career homage. Fuchs has taken up the baton with panache.