Offenbach’s full-length operas such as Orpheus in the Underworld are regularly performed in British opera houses, but we neglect the dozens of one-act musical farces he wrote for the Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens.
These are short pieces with small casts and plots that often make no pretence at sensible meaning. They also contain much irrepressibly joyful music in typical Offenbach style.
It takes a company of such inspired silliness as Opera della Luna and a translator/director with Jeff Clarke’s wit, ingenuity and familiarity with Offenbach’s idiom to bring these short pieces to life. Tales of Offenbach consists of two of them. Croquefer or The Last of the Paladins is a piece of medieval nonsense with a plot as ramshackle as Croquefer’s castle. The Isle of Tulipatan, officially set long ago on a distant island, has clearer satire on contemporary society and a tighter plot with hints of one of Gilbert’s topsy-turvy pieces.
Carl Sanderson’s piratical, but cowardly, Croquefer, and Caroline Kennedy’s Fireball, a Baldrick-like squire with better grammar, set the tone for the first play which involves his long-standing feud with Rattlebone (Paul Featherstone) whose crusading has lost him one of each, from legs to eyes, plus his tongue. He nevertheless manages to join in the high speed ensembles with inarticulate sounds.
The plot which also sees Croquefer’s nephew (Robin Bailey) fall in love with Rattlebone’s daughter (Lynsey Docherty) is mainly of use to set up a hilarious duel on “horseback” between Croquefer and Rattlebone and an equally hilarious diarrhoea ensemble – wind instruments to the fore!
One of the delights of the evening is seeing the five performers excelling in totally different roles. So Featherstone switches from a limbless tongueless Crusader to the affectedly self-regarding Duke of Tulipatan, given a couple of songs about himself rather like those Gilbert always provided for the comic baritone, the second one, his Barcarolle, leading to possibly the most infectious of an evening of infectious ensembles. The plot concerns the fact that both the Duke’s and his Lord High Steward’s children were brought up as the wrong gender – and now they’ve fallen in love, of course. Bailey’s Hermosa, a large “girl” addicted to guns and loud noises, is a joy to behold.
Michael Waldron’s sprightly nine-piece plays Thibault Perrine’s canny orchestral reduction with unfailing zest, Elroy Ashmore contributes some fanciful sets and throughout we are happy to be in the hands of experts in lunacy.