The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein
Original French Libretto by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy
English Translation by Donald Pippin
As the marching beats and sounds of the Overture are suddenly interrupted by the fanfare of a trumpet, a group of soldiers spills onto the stage, looking much like a colorful collection of toy soldiers that a kid might dump on the floor to begin a morning of play. Horsing around in their coats of red and tall hats of shiny blue, they burst into a full-voiced, joyful
“Before we’re off to save the nation,
It’s fun to have a final fling.
A soldier needs little or no persuasion
To kick his heels, carouse, and sing.”
And so begins Pocket Opera’s thoroughly enjoyable production of Jacque Offenbach’s 1867 opéra bouffe (operetta), The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. As a satirical, often silly romp, Offenbach pokes much fun at the puffed-up chests of military and political buffoons and at a spoiled Grand Duchess of the fictional duchy of Gerolstein who learns that royal commands do not always result in getting exactly what she planned. Amidst all the cartoonish shenanigans, powerful voices of the principals and well-sung harmonies of the ensemble remind us that there is much art and talent to be admired underlying all the comic, laugh-out-loud goings-on in this intimate Pocket Opera production at Berkeley’s Hillside Club.
When a bevy of local maidens arrive to the boyish thrills of the soldiers, one soldier, Fritz, takes his betrothed Wanda in his arms and soon begins twirling her around the camp, soon to be joined by coupled soldiers and maidens. Like a children’s puppet show in the park, they circle about with precision and spirited song. But when their commander suddenly appears, the pompous and plumed General Boum breaks up the merriment, focusing his attention on reprimanding a Fritz who cannot help but try to provide excuses in his upbeat tenor voice against the booming protests of the General’s impressive baritone. We immediately cannot help but chuckle at this general who belts forth in rich notes clear and commanding, “Be silent and tremble; when I explode in wrath and rage, I must insist on center stage.”
Whenever he steps into the spotlight, Kirk Eichelberger rules the stage with a blow heart persona that also has a tendency to go into self-aggrandizing, but nonsensical choruses like “pif paf pouf and ta ra pa pa pa pof, [I am} the first rate general, the great Boum Boum” (pronounced “boom-boom”). Offenbach’s spoof against the military becomes even richer as Boum’s troops echo his words – soldiers who are often more inclined to join together in a chorus kick-line than in a military march.
Boum relegates his least-liked recruit, Fritz, to serve as sentinel of a secluded rock, where Wanda soon finds him. What follows is just one of the many scenes where Bethanie Baeyen’s stage direction shows a wonderful flair for tongue-in-cheek fun as Wanda flirts with full flaunt while Fritz does all he can to ignore her and stand at attention to protect the nearby stone. As Fritz, Chad Somers sings with a crystal-clear tenor voice that retains a sense of a boy trying his best to be a man. He also brings a plethora of subtle, facial expressions where a slight movement of eyebrows, mouth, or forehead can punctuate his oft-unspoken responses to what is happening to or around him. This becomes a thrill to watch as the story progresses with his fate continually changing faster than one can sometimes blink an eye.
In fact, Fritz has no idea to what heights his fortune is about to spiral. Sauntering into the scene and plopping herself onto the seat of honor with leg draped over the arm of her field throne, the Grand Duchess arrives decked in spiffy uniform and boots, ready to inspect the troops before sending them into battle. With a mezzo-soprano voice that can shake the rafters and with a proneness to rule forth with grand melodramatics, Nikola Printz as the Grand Duchess is equally hilarious and astounding – the former for her comical antics and the latter for her rich and resounding vocals.
With bombastic fury, the Duchess sings how she is “mad for the military.” With eyes that seem ready to be undress each soldier she sees, she sings, “What if they can or cannot shoot; when they salute, they look so cute.”
As she inspects each one by one using a short whip to check out the goods, she suddenly fills the air with a much-sustained, high-note “Ah-h-h-h” of untold decibels – a habit to be repeated with jocular effects as further events unfold. The eruption of emotion occurs when she lays her eyes on a non-assuming, quite chalant Fritz. To his surprise and General Boum’s horror, in a matter of just a few sung bars Fritz goes from Private to Corporal to Sergeant and finally to General, leaving Boum with a desk job and no prized, black plume on his helmet.
For such promotions, the Duchess of course expects courtly favors (as in her bedroom and even at the bridal alter). Wanda (Chelsea Hollow) is not about to let go (literally) of Fritz that easily, setting up another deliciously directed scene as Fritz is caught in the middle of a Duchess-Wanda tug-of-war with the two battling in physical strength and a snarly duel in song.
General Fritz brings a victory for Gerolstein like one no one expects. His fabulously funny accounting of a war of sorts is accompanied by his soldiers who pantomime the blow-by-blow action. While he rings forth with tenor finesse, his troops enact how 300,000 jugs of muscatel wine lead to not one bullet or casualty needed in order to defeat an entire enemy army.
But not everyone is celebrating, especially the ticked-off and deposed Boum who misses his black plume most terribly. He is joined by a rather goofy Prince Paul (Michael Mendelsohn) who wants badly to marry the Duchess so his father won’t cancel his allowance, and by the duchy’s conniving Prime Minister, Baron Puck (Joseph Meyers), who is set on putting the not-so-smart, totally naivé Paul on the throne so that he as P.M. can rule as he wants. (Puck of course is the totally naïve idiot if he thinks the Duchess will ever be ruled by a man.)
The three plot a plan of Fritz’s demise in order to put a stop to the Duchess’ hyped hopes of wedded bliss. The trio sing with mounting determination to repeat a past murder of a lowly soldier in love with the Duchess’ grandmother, one full of “lust, intrigue, violence, blood.” As they each bring a fine voice fitting to their plotter’s personality, the three are hilariously more like a Vaudeville act with their prancing and strutting around the stage than they are of three forces of much threat to the throne.
Twists and turns are still to come in the love plans of the Grand Duchess. Still to be determined also is who is aligned with whom in what plot against whom as well as who will actually walk the aisle with whom. The English libretto and lyrics translated by Pocket Opera’s Founder, Donald Pippin, are full of puns and littered with hilarity that give much fodder for Bethanie Baeyen to make hay for audience laughter in her directorial choices. The costumes of Taurean Feaster bring smiles aplenty as they often remind one of the richly done illustrations from a child’s treasured book of stories of old.
When in the hands a somewhat wiser yet reluctantly mellowed Duchess, a twisty, curled sword – created by properties and set designer Daniel Yelen – that has seen its better days as it flops about in the air may be the afternoon’s one image we as departing audience carry with us the longest. Satiated with much silliness of the production and satisfied with its many fine voices, we all will also remember the Duchess’ advice to us that is probably the most famous line of Jacques Offenbach’s farcical operetta:
“When you can’t get the one you love, you’d better love the one you’ve got.”
Rating: 4 E
The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein continues June 17, 2022, at the Jarvis Conservatory in Napa; June 19, 2022, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts; and June 26, 2022, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://pocketopera.org .
Photo Credits: Nicolas A. Garcia