A Song-and-Dance Salute to the King of French Operetta
by Vivien Schweitzer
The New York Times, January 26th, 2008
"Offenbach Cabaret: Jacques in the Big Apple," presented by Opréa Français de New York and the French Institute Alliance Française, promised a satirical and "saucy musical review." But glancing at the glum, perplexed faces of audience members in the French Institute's elegant Skyroom on Thursday, you might have thought they were investors watching their stocks plummet, not Champagne-sipping cabaret patrons.
Jacques Offenbach, who faced bankruptcy in Paris, was invited to the United States to conduct two of his operettas at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. He also gave several concerts in New York. He was feted and fabulously paid, although he reportedly disappointed some Americans, who expected a flamboyant figure spontaneously dancing the cancan. Offenbach, who thought Americans too materialistic, kept a diary of the visit, published as "Orpheus in America."
The directors of "Offenbach Cabaret," Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil, were inspired by Offenbach's impression of New Yorkers to create a baffling (if imaginative) scenario centering on a shady promoter pretending to represent Offenbach. An aspiring soprano hopes to impress the composer, who is purportedly scouting talent in America. The story (written by Philip Littell) also involves her husband and a flamboyantly camp waiter. There was lots of leaping around the room, interspersed with solo and ensemble arias from various Offenbach operettas, including "Orpheus in the Underworld" and "Pomme d'Api." Unfortunately, any intended satire was lost in the confusion.
The evening began with the pianist Bénédicte Jourdois, described in a synopsis as a "brilliant and troubled accompanist whose personal experimentation with quantum physics has pushed her over the edge into madness," playing glissandos and collapsing over the keyboard. The young cast — with the tenor Karim Sulayman, the able baritone Marco Nisticò, Sharleen Joynt, who sang with a bright soprano, and the lively actor Mr. Littell — was energetic, but couldn't quite make it work.
There were plenty of cabaret stunts, and the shady promoter used spray-paint to put graffiti on the glass wall of the Skyroom. But the various goings-on felt stilted and elicited scant laughter. Offenbach's spirit seemed far removed from this clumsy cabaret.