“The Princess and the Officer”

A Memorable Performance Launches the Month of Francophonie in Beirut

Nélida Nassar  08.12.2013 

An exceptional and distinctive sparkle ignited when a group of artists and musicians supported by the minister of culture, Mr. Gaby Layoun, Mr. Michel de Chadarévian, consultant to the minister, and the National Museum of Beirut, represented by curator Mrs. Anne Marie Afeiche, collaborated to create and sponsor a lyrical operetta, “The Princess and the Officer” (La Princesse et l’Officier).

This initiative is the brainchild of Ms. Lynn Tahini in celebration of the month of French-language culture, or “Francophonie,” in Lebanon. To promote emerging young talents, the singers Fady Jeanbart, baritone; Corinne Metni, soprano; and Eliane Saadéh, mezzo-soprano were selected. They were accompanied by Ariane Saguet piano, Mario Rahi violin, and Jinan Jaffal flute.

Fady Jeanbart made a judicious selection of enchanting pieces from the international musical repertory that was cleverly woven together by director Bruno Tabbal into a new score. Arias and duos from Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow;” Charles Gounod’s “Roméo and Juliette;” Léo Delibes’s “Lakmé;” André Messager’s “Véronique;” Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann;” Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” and Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabbucco” were interlaced with text excerpts drawn from famous Lebanese authors and poets and others such as Gibran Khalil Gibran, Nadia Tuéni (Au delà du regard), Amin Maalouf (Samarcande and Adriana Matter) as well as Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal, Daphné et Hippolyte, A une passante) and Omar Khayyam.

The operetta, or vaudeville, was a musical genre developed in the 18th century to designate operas conceived on a smaller scale than ordinary ones. The same word was also used in the 19th century, notably in France, to designate a form of comic opera or parody dealing with daily and popular subjects. The dialogues had a more prominent place than the singing, and the latter required less virtuosity.

“The Princess and the Officer” is in the best tradition of this genre. It describes the peregrinations of a poet (Bruno Tabbal), a combination of Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, on a quest for his muse, who appears in the guise of a French diplomat, an officer (Fady Jeanbart) on a mission to the Orient at the end of the 19th century. Recently arrived on the shores of Lebanon, the officer encounters a princess (Corinne Metni) whom he falls madly in love with. Jeanbart sings the lover boy, Lehar’s philandering Prince Danilo, delivering with verve and gusto the show’s glorious opening aria, one of the songs that make “The Merry Widow” one of the classics of Viennese operetta.

The reply to Prince Danilo is Juliette’s “Je Veux Vivre,” sung by the appealing soprano Corinne Metni. Her voice has a lovely quality, dexterity, timbre, and a wide range, but her technical training weakness is evident. For example, its expressive intensity did not extend to the aria’s complex appoggiatura ornementations. However, she gave a spirited, appropriately comic performance.

Enter the princess’s sister Malika, and then the tormented poet Tabbal, to create the chemistry between the officer and the princess, borrowing a stanza from Persian poet Omar el Khayyam: “… Il heurte un visage découvert, des yeux qui croisent le sien. Et un sourire…” (… He glances at her unveiled face, her eyes meet his. She smiles…) while the two sisters intoned Lakmé’s “Duo des Fleurs” (Flower Duet) packed with character, flooding the museum hall with its lilting rhythm.

Jeanbart’s reprisal of “La ballade de la reine Mab” from “Roméo and Juliette” created a convincing character with his colorful tessitura. He and Metni elicited more than a few chuckles from the audience as they elbowed each other in mock competition and flirtation in André Messager’s duo “Deci-Delà.” Both Metni and Saadéh made a graceful descent into their lower registers for a rhapsodic performance of the famous “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s “Les contes d’Hoffmann.”

Elianne Saadéh gave a sparkling account of Carmen’s “Habanera.” She is an attractive woman who brings her untrained lyric mezzo-soprano up to a bright full volume for her finales, especially in Bizet. She is also a competent actress, affecting a passable European accent and avoiding the kind of bright sing-song delivery in spoken dialogue that many opera singers mistakenly think is the right way to express emotion.

The princess does fall for the officer and, as a kind of rite of passage, she teaches him a vernacular song from her country. She selects Khalil Gibran’s romantic poem about music, singing, and nature “Aatina el Nay.” With its monochromatic tonality, it was a suitable piece for both soprano and baritone. Tabbal had a field day with Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour,” a popular song misplaced amidst this operatic repertory. The smitten princess was answered by the other three singers with a luxurious account of Verdi’s “Je chante liberté” from “Nabucco,” joining hands for this big finale and smiling with radiance to spare. They hit the right notes of hope and desire for freedom from colonialism, regionalism, and tribalism in a country yearning for it so intensely.

The flutist, the violinist, and the pianist all displayed a mastery of their individual instruments, as well as achieving a shared artistic approach to the music. They played clearly and concisely. It is worth noting that two out of these three musicians are of Lebanese origins, while the pianist flew in from Paris especially for the occasion. She also worked with the singers as an accompanist coaching their voices, diction and stylistic interpretation.

The majestic National Museum, with its splendid staircase, was the perfect stage setting for the operetta, which required bare creative intervention. Here, Mr. Tabbal turned the situation to his advantage; with six oriental pillows, placed on an carpet, the reclining princess, the soprano Metni, evoked the Orientalist imagery of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s “La Grande Odalisque” and Henri Matisse’s “Reclining Odalisque Harmony in Red.”

The costumes, designed by Wadih De Jreij, were elegant and sober and harmonized well with each other. They enhanced the minimalist staging of the less is more school.

Tabbal as a choreographer was not able to give the singers a crash course in musical comedy acting; however, he has had to contend with small interval space in advancing the action. One expects – and hopes – an operetta will be silly, but to its credit it was dynamic as well as spirited. The best of all is that the production came alive primarily through its music.

Although it is a very dignified setting, the museum was never acoustically equipped to be used as a space for musical events and should remain a temple for the visual arts. The sound system also presented some deficiencies. Hence, these two elements need to be kept in mind when evaluating the projection of the voices of these young singers. Jeanbart received professional voice training in Paris, but the other two have not yet developed a basic vocal technique. They have not learned how to breathe properly and to project the sound, so they sound tense, with no feeling of repose and no feeling of continual line. They are, however, excited about singing and convey their enthusiasm passionately to the public. All of them still require the maturity that comes with experience.

These promising talents undeniably need the support of the Lebanese audience, the Lebanese festivals, and Lebanese private and public institutions in order to not to have to take on other jobs to make a living instead of concentrating fully on their talents. This instance of young musicians working as a group in conjunction with the state ministry of culture is unprecedented. It was very successful, and one hopes that it will be repeated and allowed to prosper. In short, this was a brilliant beginning.

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