Proust’s Lover Writes Hit About Cucumber Girl: Paris Arts

Have you ever wondered what became of Rodolfo, the penniless poet in Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” after the death of his beloved Mimi?

Well, he gave up writing poetry and became a bureaucrat, eventually being promoted to superintendent of Les Halles, Paris’s main food market.

Or so we’re told in Reynaldo Hahn’s 1923 operetta “Ciboulette,” one of the big hits of the roaring twenties. After a long period of neglect, it’s making a comeback at the Opera Comique.

Hahn (1875-1947) was born in Venezuela, moved to Paris as a child and studied with Jules Massenet. He became his generation’s answer to the German Jacob Eberst, better known as Jacques Offenbach, half a century earlier -- the epitome of Parisian wit and sophisticated entertainment a la francaise.

He was also the lover and lifelong friend of Marcel Proust, who immortalized him as Henri de Reveillon in his early novel “Jean Santeuil.”

Hahn was an unashamed traditionalist. While other operettas of his time used foxtrot and jazz rhythms, he reverted to the waltzes, romantic duets and grand finales of the 19th century.

The absurd plot of “Ciboulette” could have come straight from an Offenbach opera bouffe.

Ciboulette, French for “chives,” is a sort of operetta Lulu. The little farm girl, who comes to Paris to sell her goods at Les Halles, has no less than eight fiances in the banlieue yet lusts after the handsome, mentally negligible Vicomte Antonin de Mourmelon.

Love Cabbage

A clairvoyant tells her that she’ll find her true love in a pile of cabbage, draw him away from a woman who suddenly turns white, and receive his proposal in a tambourine. Naturally, the conditions are, one after the other, met, and Ciboulette and Antonin are going to live happily ever after.

Rodolphe Duparquet, Mimi’s ex, plays the role of Ciboulette’s Svengali. He transforms her into a singer with a Spanish stage name: “I know Antonin. The day you’re famous, he’ll be at your feet.”

The best things in the production at the Opera Comique are the gorgeous costumes (David Belugou) and the sets of Act I and II (Bernard Fau) evoking the old Halles and the Paris banlieue before it was ruined by developers.

Act III, mostly played in front of the curtain, is a let-down.

Drag Humor

Unfortunately, director Michel Fau broadens the play’s faux-naif humor: He appears in drag and croaks the aria of the Comtesse de Castiglione, one of the Second Empire’s great socialites.

The audience is encouraged to sing along with two of the catchiest tunes -- Ciboulette’s hymn to lilies of the valley and her waltz song in the finale. The first-nighters seemed to like it.

Before the music started, a 94-year-old lady took a curtain call: Geori Boue had been a star of the house and had sung the first Ciboulette at the Opera Comique in 1953. Nobody in the cast can hold a candle to her.

Julie Fuchs, who last year won the title of the “revelation lyrique de l’annee,” charms us with her fresh voice; as for her acting, there is room for improvement. Jean-Francois Lapointe is a suave Duparquet.

The weak links are Julien Behr’s thinnish Antonin and the unsubtle Orchestre symphonique de l’Opera de Toulon, conducted by Laurence Equilbey.

During the intermission, do visit -- or better still, have a coupe de champagne in -- the Grand Foyer with its splendid Belle Epoque murals, marble busts and ormolu chandeliers, each holding 116 bulbs: The Opera Comique was the first European theater fully equipped with electricity.

The foyer has recently been restored with the support of the World Monuments Fund in New York.

Rating: **½.

“Ciboulette” runs at the Opera Comique through Feb. 26. Information:

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Fantastic
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         So-so
*          Poor
(No star)  Avoid

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Jason Harper on cars, Rich Jaroslovsky on tech and Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater.

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