Brighton Fringe 2015
Venue: Church of the Annunciation 89 Washington St Brighton BN29SR
What does Brighton Fringe make you think of?
Art and culture, certainly – but not stuffy and self-satisfied like the main Festival (Sorry!). No, Fringe is smaller scale, hugely enthusiastic, more experimental, edgier – and usually a lot more fun! In fact, the best word to describe it would be … Bouffe!
Bouffe is a form of operetta developed by Jacques Offenbach in Paris in the 1850s. Small scale, with only three or four singers, and much shorter works than the full-scale operas being produced at the time. Offenbach found a little theatre on the Champs-Élysées and started producing light, comic pieces, usually of just one act, with plots about love affairs or seductions.
‘La Belle Hélène’, ‘La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein’ and ‘La Périchole’ followed each other in quick succession over a few years, pulling in the Parisian punters off the boulevards and making Offenbach a great deal of money. They came to listen to the singing, true, but they certainly also came to gaze at the singers, and often to do more than just gaze …
So ‘Bouffe!’ is a show with all the Ps – Performance, Paris … and Prostitution. Actresses and singers of that era were generally regarded as being sexually available, and many made fortunes as courtesans, offering their favours to wealthy or aristocratic patrons. One of the greatest – both as a soprano and as a courtesan – was Hortense Schneider. Reputedly a mistress of The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, she had so many aristocratic admirers that she became known as ‘La Passage de Princes’ – ‘The Arcade of Princes’ – a pun on a high-class arcade in Paris.
So this is the show that RedBlonde Productions are putting on. A show featuring Hortense Schneider. And they’re doing it in a church? Blimey!
But why not? If a consecrated space is good enough for Mary Magdalene …
Actually, The Church of the Annunciation is a wonderful choice of venue, with its high wooden hammerbeam roof and its spacious interior. When the house lights went down we had warm sunlight illuminating the beautiful stained glass windows, gradually fading as the evening turned to night.
RedBlonde have done ‘Bouffe!’ as a sort of promenade performance. They’d set up a Parisian café at one side of the nave, with blue gingham tablecloths on the tables as we sat with our drinks – there was a bar, too. A waitress moved around the tables, a piano and a violin were providing background music, and then the ‘Patron’ emerged, in black tie and tails, and explained – in song – about the phenomenon of Bouffe.
Marcia Bellamy is a striking woman at any distance, close up she’s unforgettable. A great shock of blonde hair, set high above her head, her hands very mobile and expressive as she sang – she’s a great actress as well. Then the waitress took up the words, too, at the other end of the café, and we had a mezzo-soprano (Bellamy) and a soprano (Red Gray) giving us the full stereo rendition of songs like ‘Mon Dieu! Que les hommes sont bêtes’ (‘God!, men are beasts’)
And they are. We left the Café and took our seats on the pews in the nave of the church. ‘Bouffe!’ opens with an audition – the hopeful Cécile (Gray) is singing, and the theatre’s owner isn’t impressed. "We’ll let you know". Bellamy was in grey trousers and shirtsleeves for this bit, with a cigar chomped between her teeth. She had an amazing number of costume changes in this production – she’ll need to add ‘quick-change artist’ to her portfolio.
Cécile is dismissed, and Hortense comes on next. We’d seen Lila Palmer in the café, sitting quietly at a table with her book, but we hadn’t taken much notice. Now she sang some Donizetti for her audition piece, and the theatre owner was much more interested. Not just in her singing, either. Cécile has been watching, and gives Hortense some advice – she’s still wearing her outdoor coat – "They don’t just come to hear your singing. Show more … wear less"
So the situation is set. Hortense has just arrived in Paris, so she moves in with Cécile to share her apartment. In an unforgettable scene, they celebrate their new friendship by getting very drunk. Two women, one dark haired (Palmer), one redhead (Gray). Two soprano voices, powerful but perfectly controlled, pouring absinthe into themselves and pouring the great music of Donizetti down into the nave of the church, washing over us.
It can’t last, of course. Not in opera. Cécile has a lover, Jean François, and as soon as he arrives at the apartment he’s smitten by Hortense. Jon Grave’s expressive tenor voice can do passion but it can also do innuendo, and the three launch into a song ostensibly about flying a kite – though it’s full of double entendres. This piece was written by Offenbach himself, but one of the many joys of this production is that the director, Stephen Plaice, is also a very accomplished librettist and translator, and he’s given us the words in English, which made the story much easier to follow.
Plaice has done this with a number of the songs, generally at a point where some kind of exposition is required, so we had the double benefit of beautiful singing in the original French or Italian, then reverting to English for storyline – without the usual operatic need for surtitles or scrabbling to look at our programmes. The acted, spoken bits were of course all done in English. The company made imaginative use of the space within the Church, too, with a main acting area in front of the altar, but making exits and entrances through the chapels on either side, and moving down into the nave along the aisle and even commandeering several of the pew seats.
Hortense gets taken up by Offenbach in his Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, becoming renowned as a singer, but also as an alluring beauty. Jean-François is drawn to her ‘like a bee to a jampot’, and poor Cécile has to put on a brave face. Eventually, of course, Hortense is taken up by the elegant, rich Duc de Gramont Caderousse. Bellamy played this in a shimmering grey morning suit and top hat, stick always in hand. Her every expression and gesture effortlessly aristocratic. I was reminded of Proust’s great creation, Monsieur Swann – he was besotted by an actress, too – and he was a friend of the Prince of Wales …
You don’t really need the rest of the plot – suffice to say that Hortense got pregnant, and later very rich, and there were betrayals and reconciliations, all the stuff of authentic operetta. Real Opera Bouffe, in fact. What you do need to know is that the musical accompaniment was provided by Ellie Blackshaw on Violin and Julian Broughton on Piano. They’d provided background in the Café at the start, and later their music filled the nave of the Church, making a perfect frame for the picture being painted by the two sopranos, the mezzo soprano and the tenor. Great performances of Donizetti, Martini, and of course mostly of the great Jacques Offenbach himself.
If you missed this, you should be kicking yourself. Hopefully ‘Bouffe!’ will be given another set of performances. Please!