Stage works (large and small) by Jacques Offenbach

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) composed about a hundred stage works, most of which were comic operas or operettas. Several of Offenbach’s earlier pieces had only three singers (later four), because of a French law that prevented him from having more. As soon as the law was changed, he began writing longer works with larger casts.

So far, I have seen ten of Offenbach’s stage works, listed here in the order of composition:

Pépito is a one-act “opéra comique” that was first performed in 1853 in Paris. I saw it in 2004 as one of a series of late-night Offenbachiades in the lower foyer (Holzfoyer) of the Frankfurt Opera. The music for the entire series was arranged by Erik Nielsen, who also conducted Pépito and two others. The three singers in Pépito were Barbara Zechmeister, Florian Plock and Michael McCown.

Les deux aveugles (The two blind men) is a one-act piece from 1855 that was described by the composer as a bouffonnerie musicale.” I saw it in 2004 as an Offenbachiade in Frankfurt. The stage director this time was Bettina Giese, with Carlos Krause and Michael McCown playing the roles of two supposedly blind beggars completing with each other for the best begging position on a Paris bridge.

Le financier et le savetier (The banker and the cobbler, Paris 1856) is a one-act “opérette bouffe” that I saw in 2004 in Frankfurt as part of the series of late night Offenbachiades. The story involves a rich banker, played by Hans-Jürgen Lazar, who refuses to let a poor cobbler marry his daughter — until the cobbler wins all the banker’s money in a card game.

La chatte métamorphosée en femme (The cat transformed into a woman, Paris 1858) is a one-act “opérette” with four singers. I saw it in 2005 as another late-night Offenbachiade in Frankfurt, conducted by Hartmut Keil and directed by James McNamara. The four singers were Michael McCown, Birgit Schmickler, Juanita Lascarro and Zoltan Winkler. The cat was a puppet animated by Thomas Korte, a puppeteer who has performed for decades in numerous productions at the Frankfurt Opera.

Applause after the premiere of Orphée aux enfers in Rostock

Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld, Paris 1858) is an “opéra bouffon” with fourteen singers (more in later versions) including L’Opinion publique (Public Opinion), sung by a mezzo-soprano. This was Offenbach’s first full-length stage work with a large orchestra and chorus. It was a huge success in his lifetime and afterwards.

The story of Orpheus and Euridice is actually a tragedy which has been dealt with in several serious operas, beginning with Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo from the year 1607 — one of the very first operas ever written — and including Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck.

Orpheus was a legendary singer and musician in ancient Greece. On his wedding day, his lovely bride Euridice died of a snakebite, and he was so grief-stricken that he ventured down into the underworld to get her back, using his singing and lyre-playing to charm the guards of the River Styx. He was allowed to take Euridice back with him, under the condition that he did not look back on the way up. For some reason (there are various versions) he did look back, and Euridice was lost forever. But Offenbach and his librettists changed the plot around to make it very funny.

All you loyal readers of my post La Gaîté Lyrique might recall that Offenbach was the director and impresario of the Théâtre de la Gaîté for two years in the 1870s. During this time, his most successful show was an expanded version of Orphée aux enfers, which ran for 290 performances.

So far, I have seen Orphée aux enfers only once. That was in 2009, when I happened to be in Rostock, Germany, on the day of the premiere of a new production at the Volkstheater (People’s Theater).

But I have also seen a musical review called “Orpheus and Eurydice on bicycles” at the Lucernaire in Paris. And David Hermann’s humorous staging of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt.

Un mari à la porte (A husband at the door, Paris 1859) is a one-act opérette” with only four singers. I saw it in 2004 as one of the late-night Offenbachiades at the Frankfurt Opera, conducted by Hartmut Keil and directed by Axel Weidauer. (Like all the other stage directors in this series, Axel Weidauer was then on the staff of the Frankfurt Opera as a staging assistant.) The story involves a night in the life of an unsuccessful operetta composer whose latest operetta was refused by the Bouffes Parisiens.

Applause after La belle Hélène in Lausanne

La Belle Hélène (The beautiful Helen, Paris 1864) is a hilarious full-length “opéra bouffe” which I have seen twice so far, once in 2015 at the Chatelet in Paris, with Gaëlle Arquez in the title role, and once in a very different but also colorful and funny production in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Two of the best-known songs in La belle Hélène are the ones in which Hélène directly addresses Vénus, the goddess of love. In the first act, Hélène and the chorus complain to Vénus about the lack of love in the world (Il nous faut de l’amour) and in the second act she asks Vénus why she seems to take such pleasure in preventing well-meaning women like herself from maintaining their virtue (Dis-moi Vénus, quel plaisir trouves-tu à faire ainsi cascader la vertu?)

Offenbach’s La Périchole in Paris, 2008

La Périchole (Paris 1868) is an “opéra bouffe” based loosely on a short play by Prosper Mérimée. The story is set in Peru in colonial times, and involves a poor street-singer who becomes the mistress of the Viceroy. I saw it several times in Frankfurt in 1998, and again ten years later in a small theatre in Paris.

Les brigands (The Bandits) is a lively and funny opéra-bouffe that had its world premiere in 1869 at the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris. It was a great success at the time, but is not as well-known today as some of Offenbach’s earlier comic operas. I saw it in 2024 in its first-ever Frankfurt staging.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann, Paris 1881).
Near the end of his life, Jacques Offenbach surprised everyone by composing a major serious opera, based on the life and writings of the German author, composer and artist E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822).

The Tales of Hoffmann was the first opera I ever saw in a staged performance. How I happened to attend this performance, and how it later changed my life, is a long story that I might tell in some future post. Suffice it to say for now that the performance was in 1959 at the old Metropolitan Opera on 39th Street and Broadway in New York. I don’t think I understood much of what was going on (I was totally unprepared), but I remember being impressed by the colorful and elaborate stage set.

Later I saw The Tales of Hoffmann several times in Frankfurt in two different productions: the first was in the 1990s with William Cochran as Hoffmann, and the second was in 2010 conducted by Roland Boër and directed by Dale Duesing; the singers included Brenda Rae, Elza van den Heever, Claudia Mahnke, Michael McCown, Jenny Carlstadt, Katharina Magiera, Peter Marsh, Magnus Baldvinsson and Florian Plock, all of whom have come at least once as featured guests to meetings of my opera appreciation courses Opern-Gespräche and Frankfurt OperaTalk.

Leipzig program booklet

I have seen two other productions of The Tales of Hoffmann: one in Regensburg 1998 (in the Velodrome, because the opera house was closed for renovation) and one in Leipzig 2002.

In the opera, as in his writings and in real life, Hoffmann was notably unsuccessful in his love life. In the opera, he tells of four women he has loved and lost: Olympia, who turns out to be just a life-size wind-up automaton; Antonia, who is not allowed to sing because of a mysterious illness; Giulietta, a courtesan in Venice; and Stella, an opera singer. In most productions, these four are sung by four different sopranos, but sometimes (in Regensburg, for example) one soprano sings all four. In the epilogue, Hoffmann explains that all four are different facets of the same person, and he swears never to love again.

My photos in this post are from 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2019. I wrote the text in 2024.

See more posts on the composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).
See more opera lists by composer.
See also: Hugoffenbach.

6 thoughts on “Stage works (large and small) by Jacques Offenbach”

  1. You know so much that I don’t. It’s amazing, and so nice that you share it. When I talk about American history I think my passion is infectious since they’re the best read pieces on my blog. But you’re just a haven of glowing knowledge bursting at the seams at all times. 🙂

  2. There’s also “Barbe-bleue” which, improbably enough, is a comedy about the notorious Hungarian duke. It’s actually very funny. There’s a good production by Laurent Pelly available on video.

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