JACQUES OFFENBACH by Alexander Faris


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The 100th anniversary of Offenbach's death has brought a surge of new productions and this neat new biography--an unremarkable yet agreeable study which is thoroughly researched (drawing on previously unavailable letters), crisply written (without excess detail), more sympathetic than shrewd, and enhanced by some modest musical analysis. Faris (a British composer-conductor) follows young musical prodigy Jacques--nÉ Jacob, German-Jewish son of a cantor--from Cologne to Paris, where he became an orchestra cellist and gained celebrity as a soloist-composer of ballads and waltzes. But obtaining composing work in the theater was a far tougher proposition (Faris clearly sketches in the regulation-bound, monopoly-like Paris theater system), so Offenbach soon founded his own little theater--the Bouffes-Parisiens, with a license to present three-character operettas only; and after the great success of these satirical mini-entertainments, the limitations were eased, making way for OrphÉe aux Enfers (""not only a triumph but a cult"") and the other lighthearted Offenbach/HalÉvy/Meilhac hits which brought fortune, fame, pressure. . . but little artistic respect. That would only come with the posthumous Les Contes d'Hoffnann, the ambitious opera which Offenbach kept putting off--until almost too late (the incomplete state of the work led to confusion and bastardization, only recently cleared up). True, the Offenbach life story is hardly dramatic: there was a solid family life, a few presumed liaisons with singers (""Where Offenbach's women are concerned one has to make do with hints and assumptions""), a feud with Berlioz, a trip to America, and lots of theatrical business. But, while Faris is very gentle when examining Offenbach's creative timidity and lack of self-criticism, he does pose intriguing questions: ""was there, in his mockery of [Meyerbeer], a secret envy?"" And, while pooh-poohing the political thrust sometimes ascribed to the operas (""gentle jibes are not revolutionary protests""), he takes the music itself seriously indeed (the early work too)--with evocative descriptions and illustrated comparisons to Bizet, Sullivan, Tchaikovsky, and others. All in all--an unexciting but wholly satisfactory resource for students and sophisticated operagoers, especially welcome considering the scarcity of recent writings on Offenbach.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1981
Publisher: Scribners