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FOOTLIGHT NOTES
no. 423

updated
Saturday, 22 October 2005

La Béarnaise,
a comic opera written by Alfred Murray, with music by André Messager,
adapted from the French of Eugène Letterrier and Albert Vanloo,
(Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, 12 December 1885),
first English presentation at the Grand Theatre, Birmingham, 27 September 1886,
followed by the London premier at the Prince of Wales's Theatre, 4 October 1886

programme cover, La Bérnaise, Prince of Wales's, London, 1886

programme cover of La Béarnaise,
Prince of Wales's Theatre, London, 4 October 1886

(printed by W. Aubert, 11 Maiden Lane, Strand, London, 1886)

Captain Perpignac G.H. Snazelle
Pomponio J.J. Dallas
The Duke of Como Sydney Harcourt
Cadet C. Bowland
Grabassou William Cheesman
Girafo E.J. Lonnen
Antonio Miss B. Gordon
Carlo Mr. Leverett
Jacquette Florence St. John
The Countess Bianca Marie Tempest
Bettina Linda Verner
Landlady Leslie Bell

Florence St. John


Florence St. John as Jacquette in the English version of André Messager's
comic opera, La Béarnaise, Prince of Wales's Theatre, London, 4 October 1886

(photo: unknown, probably London, 1886;
reproduced from a machine printed and tinted halftone
by the Automatic Machines Union Ltd, Cadby Hall, West London, 1886)

'If La Béarnaise were dependent for its popularity upon the intrinsic beauty of M. Messager's music it might run for ever, or at least for a period of time far exceeding that throughout which Our Boys [Vaudeville Theatre, London, 16 January 1875, 1,362 performances] held the stage. For nothing so dainty, so tuneful, so surpassingly adroit and delectably fascinating as the score of this opera has come to London from the Continent since Les Cloches de Corneville [Folly Theatre, London, 28 February 1878] took this metropolis by storm. But the lasting success of a hybrid work in which sung and spoken dialogue alternate is not - in this country - wholly attributable to the high merit of its music, which, unless strong flavoured with vulgarity, seldom proves so solid an attraction to the pitties and "gods" as does an extravagantly comic text, adroitly fitted to absurd situations and grotesque "business." The duration of a "run," as every manager knows, is governed by the favour of pit and gallery, rather than of stalls and boxes; wherefore it behoves the impresarii of theatres specially affected to the production of comic opera to provide their humbler clients with bright and humorous "books" as well as pretty and taking music. Now the "book" of La Béarnaise is not funny; nay more, it is dull - so dull, that if anything could mar the exquisite pleasure every music-lover must derive from listening to the lovely melodies and sweet, subtle instrumentation with which that opera abounds, it would be the stretches of tiresome dialogue intervening between musical numbers so replete with delicate fancy and graceful contrivance that each one in succession appears more charming than its immediate predecessor. In order to secure unalloyed enjoyment whilst listening to La Béarnaise, perhaps the best thing to do would be to make up one's mind that the dialogue is an unfortunate accident, and pay no attention to it. Some of the lyrics, on the other hand, are well written and by no means devoid of poetical feeling; e.g., "The Two Birds," "Silent Love," "No or Yes," and "I've only one." The verses of these four songs are of much better quality than that to which contemporary librettists have accustomed us, in relation to compositions of this particular class. The same may be said of the mildly humorous words respectively headed "Tantalisation" and "Cousinly Affection," in both of which Mr. Murray evinces a marked improvement upon his "Gibraltar" lyrics.
'About the story of La Béarnaise I shall say nothing, save that it is no sillier or more improbably than comic-opera plots have a prescriptive right to be. It has, moreover, been exhaustively told in the columns of all the dailies and weeklies, so that in all probability the readers of The Theatre are at least as well acquainted with it as I am. To the value of the music and the excellence of its performance I despair of doing justice within the space-limits of a necessarily brief notice. Until I heard this work M. Messager was unknown to me as a composer; but his talent asserted itself so resolutely in the orchestral preface and introductory chorus that, had I heard nothing more than those two numbers, I should have assigned to their author a very high position amongst musicians of the day. Real organic melodies and masterly harmonies flow with equal freedom from his pen; his instrumentation is full of surprises, frequently quaint but always beautiful; her writes for the voice with perfect taste and discretion. Frankly speaking, every number in La Béarnaise is worthy of special laudatory mention. I only venture to point out by name those that seem to me altogether super-excellent. Amongst these are Bianca's song Act I., "Hast thou in the forest mazes," the refrain of Jacquette's lively solo "Although I am a youth bucolic," to which M. Messager has fitted a most ingenious and telling accompaniment; Pomponio's plaint, "You're often round a pastrycook" (Act II.), the clever melody of which is underlaid by another chef d'oeuvre of harmonisation; the delicious berceuse, "Hush and Sleep," with choral accompaniment, a musical gem of the first water; the trio, "Asleep," written on the lines of grand opera, with a spirit and maestria of which Donizetti or Verdi might have been proud; Jacquette's pastoral ditty, "I am a simple village lass," immediately following an admirable chorus displaying at least one entirely novel effect; the orchestral introduction (tempo di Mazurka to Act III. put together with consummate art, somewhat à la Bizet; and, finally, the so-called "Drilling Duet," a bright example of genuinely humorous music, the innate fun of which requires no text to convey its comic significance to the audience.
'Mr. Bruce has been no less wise than fortunate in securing the services of two such accomplished vocalists as Miss St. John and Miss Tempest for the fine soprani rôles created by M. Messager in La Béarnaise. Miss St. John has certainly never filled a part more suitable to her than that of Jacquette, in which she has once more proved herself to be the first of living comic opera prime donne and one of the cleverest comic actresses on any stage. I can pay her no higher compliment than by saying that she vividly reminds me of the Marie Geistinger of twenty years ago, of whose inimitable natural gifts she is the artistic inheritrix. It is always a treat to listen to Miss Tempest's faultless singing, never yet heard to greater advantage than in the grateful rôle of Bianca. More than one encore denoted the firmness of the hold this admirable vocalist has established upon public favour. Mr. Snazelle sings well, and looks sufficiently debonnair as the "gallant gay Lutherian," Captain Perpignac. The Duke of Como (or Parma; which is it? - the playbill says one and the book of words the other!) is cleverly impersonated by Mr. Harcourt whose carefully study of chronic infirmity deserves cordial recognition; a good deal of conventional buffoonery, welcome to the groundlings, is cheerfully rendered by Messrs. Dallas and Bowland, in the characters of Pomponio and Cadet; whilst Mr. Lonnen provokes repeated bursts of laughter by converting a Chief Commissioner of Comoesque or (Parmesan) Police into a Jack Pudding of the obsolete Richardsonian pattern. The orchestra, led by Mr. [Walter] Slaughter, does its work featly and sympathetically; so do the chorus of singers, whose crescendi and diminuendi leave nothing to be desired in the way of effectiveness. Of the scenery, dresses, appointments, and stage-management I can only speak in terms of unqualified praise. For general picturesqueness and special felicity, with relation to colour combinations, the opening tableau of Act III. may fearlessly challenge past and present competition. Within my remembrance, no prettier scene has been set upon the stage of comic or any other sort of opera. La Béarnaise is a shining and well-deserved success. I prognosticate that its public life will be a long and merry one, and I hope that M. Messager will soon let his English admirers hear from him again.'
(William Beatty-Kingston, The Theatre, Monday, 1 November 1886, pp.274-277)

G.H. Snazelle

G.H. Snazelle in Carina
a comic opera by E.L. Blanchard and Cunningham Bridgman,
based on Guerre Auverte; ou, Ruse contra Ruse, with music by Julia Wolff,
produced at the Opera Comique, London, 27 September 1888.

(photo: Elliott & Fry, London, 1888)

'La Bearnaise. - The [London] Press on the Music, Libretto, Chorus, Dresses, Scenery and Stage Management: -
'Truth says: - "To those who now desire to be amused without being bored, I cordially recommend La Bearnaise. It avoids offending the most squeamish taste, it is essentially laughter-provoking, it delights the eye by a kaleidoscopic series of pretty scenes, in which fair women figure in costly, if sometimes scanty, raiment; and it gratifies the ear with captivating music, adequately performed every by the chorus, who, as a rule, have by their vocal incapacity long been the bugbear of opera-bouffe." The Standard says: - "M. Messager is a sound musician, of excellent taste, with a fluent gift of melody. The piece has been handsomely mounted by Mr. Edgar Bruce, who has evidently expended much time and care in the preparation of the opera. Mr. Slaughter conducts with unfailing discretion." Life says: - "As bright and pretty a piece as has come before the public for years. The book is smart and original, but the music is even more so. Such a sparkling and melodious score has not been heard, indeed, since the best days of Lecocq or even Offenbach." Illustrated London News says: - "Messager's music is light, graceful and pretty. Mr. Walter Slaughter's share in the success is not to be underestimated." The Graphic says: - "The chorus is far above the average." Dramatic Review says: - "The chorus is more than efficient, and the dresses particularly handsome." Lady's Pictorial says: - "The staging and dresses are lavish in the extreme, the latter designed by M. [Lucien] Besche, and executed by Alias, are particularly gorgeous, the idealisation of costume in Italy in the latter part of the sixteenth century, giving these well known costumiers great scope for skill and invention. It would be almost invidious to particularise when all were beautiful, but Miss St. John's first and second dressers were extremely happy, as also Miss Marie Tempest's riding habit of purple velvet and her last dress of blue and gold. Some of the pages' dresses were also exceedingly pretty, one in two shades of brown, the wearer of which was awarded a central position when on the stage, being much admired as a contrast to the many varied and bizarre costumes." Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News says: - "The orchestra and choristers did their work well; the stage management reflected credit on M. Marius; the new scenery by Mr. Prodger and the elegant costumes furnished by M. Alias added to the brilliancy of the mise-en-scene; and so thoroughly favourable was the reception given to La Bearnaise by the large audience, that it seems likely to enjoy a long career of success.'
(from the programme of La Béarnaise, Prince of Wales's Theatre, London, 1886)

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Mily-Meyer


Mily-Meyer, the popular Parisian soubrette,
who created the role of Countess Bianca in André Messager's La Béarnaise,
Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, 12 December 1885

(photo: Emile Tourtain, Paris, late 1870s)

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For further information about La Béarnaise, see Kurt Gänzl, The Encyclopedia of The Musical Theatre, Blackwell, Oxford, 1994, vol.I, p.91.

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