Loeb Music Library is fortunate enough to possess two excellent versions of La Vie Parisienne, which would be Offenbach’s masterpiece if it weren’t for Les Contes D’Hoffmann. Both are taped performances from the Opera-National de Lyon, yet they could not be more different. The first (DVD 1058), a 1991 production, presents the 1866 five-act version in a full period setting, complete with a miniature steam train and an antiquated loudspeaker, which crackles out the opening chorus of railway employees. The sets are elegantly minimal, all the better to focus on the music, the performers (standouts include Hélène Delavault’s luscious Métella and Claire Wauthion as an enchantingly goofy Baronne de Gondremarck) and Patrice Cauchetier’s sumptuous costumes (the array of outfits on the “Italiens, Brèsiliens, Japonais, Hollandais, Espagnols, Romagnols, Egyptiens et Prussiens” visiting Paris is a particular highlight.) This staging never quite lets you forget the sadness that lies just under the decadence and frivolity, the need to keep the bubble of joy in the air with just a little more dancing and champagne. If you really want someone to go into this thoroughly, Sacheverell Sitwell’s impressions of the piece in his La Vie Parisienne: a Tribute to Offenbach (Mus 4320.15.81) will give you a good deal of background, both on the operetta and on Mr. Sitwell.
The effervescent 2007 production (DVD 1457), by contrast, is updated to modern times and free from all care. From the ingenious credit sequence (an animated Metro map) to the curtain calls, something is always happening. The story fits smoothly into a present-day setting: Bobinet and Gardefeu must now contend not only with infidelity, impecuniosity and invading tourists but also with flashing signs, a gym, a catwalk and working automobiles. While one elaborate set changes for another, you’re treated to witty mini-ballets in front of the curtain. The performers are splendidly energetic. At one point Marie Devellereau, as Gabrielle the amorous glover, scales a series of bar stools until she’s four feet above the ground, garbed in a miniskirt and stilettos and trilling away all the while. (I don’t want to give away what happens in the tipsy finale of Act III.) Jesus Garcia, as the Brazilian tourist, proves himself a fine match for her. Be warned: the modern interpolations to the dialogue include some strong language, and you are left in no doubt about any double-entendre, particularly when Laurent Naouri, as the Baron, is the one delivering it.
Both of these are excellent candidates for the first opera DVD to show a friend you wish to corrupt initiate into the world of opera buffs: make up a party and use one of the Loeb’s two listening rooms to share the DVD experience. You may also wish to follow along in Jean-Christophe Keck’s critical editions of the unabridged full or vocal scores (Mus 759.1.688 and Mus 759.1.687), which encompass not only the 1866 five-act version and the 1873 four-act version, but also material Offenbach wrote for the 1867 Brussels and Vienna versions and a trio for Prosper, Bobinet and Urbain that never made it into the performance. Though as Keck himself points out in the introduction, “for this composer, a score is far from… a fixed document, laid down once and for all.” In either of these fine productions, the score lives.