‘It's like French Gilbert & Sullivan, isn't it?' said my neighbour at the opening night of Offenbach's rarely heard operetta Vert-Vert (staged by Garsington Opera in their exquisite pop-up home on the Wormsley Estate in Buckinghamshire), and as hordes of dragoon-guards stormed a convent to sweep nightgown-clad rapturous maidens off their feet in the madcap finale it was hard not to agree.
Vert-Vert played in London in 1874, and it seems eminently possible that it left its imprint on the creators of The Pirates of Penzance, Patience and Princess Ida. That it's sung here in conductor David Parry's's witty English translation makes the parallels more apparent than ever, though a distinctly Gallic perfume pervades the score and is pointed up by stylish baton work from Parry in the operetta's first-ever uncut performance.
It's hard not to warm to an operetta which opens with funeral-rites for an ex-parrot, and the picaresque exploits of the young man who's appointed its successor as official pet for a gaggle of saucy schoolgirls make for an evening bursting with joie de vivre and flashes of unexpected tenderness in Martin Duncan's funny, sexy and gloriously extravagant production.
Robert Murray is a delight as gauche eponymous hero, as adept at slapstick physical comedy as he is at floating exquisite high notes: his love-duet with Fflur Wyn's adorable Mimi was heart-stoppingly beautiful, and the gleeful profanity-laden patter-song in which he regales his shocked audience with tales of his drunken fall from grace had more than a dash of Albert Herring.
"a joy from start to finish"
Mark Wilde almost steals the show as his side-kick Binet, and Yvonne Howard is splendid as the starchy-but-passionate deputy headmistress Mademoiselle Paturelle, using the formidable chest-voice that's brought her such success in Wagner to great comic effect and provoking gales of laughter in the innuendo-filled patter-duet with her secret husband, the dancing-master Baladin. The latter receives a deliciously flamboyant performance from Geoffrey Dolton, not least in the uproarious scene in which he treats his students to an illustrated history of European dance (trust me, it's far funnier than it sounds).
Another scene-stealing performance comes from Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang, exuding swashbuckling charisma as the dashing Comte d'Arlange and making an ideal sparring partner for Andrew Glover's foppish Chevalier de Bergerac. Their wives are sung with great charm by Raphaela Papadakis (who gets ample opportunity to shine in a delightfully salacious love-scene with her husband and their reluctant chaperone Binet) and Katie Bray. What a pity that the latter didn't have more to sing, as her fresh firm mezzo was a joy.
If the men of the Garsington chorus had covered themselves in glory in the previous night's Fidelio, the ladies certainly redressed the balance this evening as the bevy of rapacious convent-school girls, not least when throwing themselves into Ewan Jones's dazzling choreography in the ballet-class sequence which opened the second half (all executed the splits with aplomb in a big finish which paid homage to Offenbach's famous can-can). The men were once again on fine form as rollicking red-coats, particularly in their scenes with Naomi O'Connell's flamboyant diva La Corilla (a little brittle of tone but oozing vocal and visual glamour).
Now and again it was fleetingly apparent that this was a first night, with a couple of minor memory-lapses and moments where the break-neck ensembles threatened to derail, but Vert-Vert is a joy from start to finish.