food in the arts


The Three Cousins Tavern in Offenbach's La Péricole/ OPERA/ MUSIC MAIN

The Tavern and the Opera

Offenbach's La Péricole takes place in Lima Peru. The curtain rises on a main square. The tavern is on one side, in front of which are tables and chairs. A crowd of patrons is drinking boisterously, served by the three cousins themselves: Guadalena, Berginella, and Mastrilla.

Our modern conceptions of substance abuse makes this opera totally incorrect politically. The first act contains a series of incidents in which alcoholic beverages are poured into characters to get them to do things they would not do sober. The crowd is given free drinks so as to applaud the Viceroy on his name-day, Piquillo is got drunk so that he agrees to marry an unknown woman who needs a husband (his girl friend La Péricole, of course) , La Péricole herself is given food and drink to buy her acquiescence to the role of - ahem - court favourite, and the notaries are given much liquor to procure their cooperation in the enterprise.

The Tavern Review

The ladies who run the Three Cousins Tavern are very upfront about their business plan. They are to sell the highest possible amount of low cost booze to men in the mood for lots of liquor served by good looking women. We have those sorts of places today. As Mastrilla says, 'When they are young and pretty, you never can tell what three women are capable of, with a bit of energy'.

The clientele seems to consist mostly of wine drinkers of indiscriminate taste. There is not much of a food menu. When La Péricole sings her Ah! Quel Diner song, she is referring to a dinner at the Viceroy's house, not the tavern (although I suppose a stage director may choose otherwise). On the other hand, the notaries can usually be assumed to have got their drinks at the tavern. They tell us what they had: 'That sherry was very old . . . The Malaga was better . . . What did you think of the Madeira? . . . A rough wine, my friend . . . The alicante was very dry . . . I had biscuits with it . . . And the port was first rate! . . . Yes, but it didn't agree with me.'

How Does the Tavern fit into the Opera

Anyone who takes Offenbach seriously is missing the point. The Three Cousins Tavern is merely here to provide a place where the characters can get tipsy enough to get into trouble, and from which they will eventually disentangle themselves back at the tavern in the final scene.

It is great fun, however. La Péricole is a fun opera about people having fun with life. The Three Cousins Tavern is the physical place that sets the upbeat mood permeating the entire work.

Political Incorrectness

The Spanish viceroy of Peru has decided upon a street singer to be his court favourite (wink, nudge!). Being impoverished and starving, La Péricole agrees to everything. After a good meal, however, with much fine wine, she feels much better. As she veers unsteadily from the dining room, she sings of the experience.

'What a wonderful meal' she tells us, 'and what excellent wines. I drank so much that I think I'm a bit muzzy. If you see me zigzagging about or notice that my speech is slurred, pretend not to notice.'

It would be a brave theatre manager who would create this one today. Think about it! Sexual exploitation, degradation of women, and trivialization of substance abuse are treated as central parts of an entertainment. On the other hand, exactly parallel considerations faced Offenbach in the Paris of the 1860's. In fact, Offenbach made his fortune by being a bit 'racy' and by 'pushing the envelope' of his times. The spectacle of a woman with a snootful being portrayed on stage in public must have upset much of the 'correct' establishment.

It is, in fact, just this ability to tiptoe the line between good taste and vulgarity that has assured the success of Offenbach operas over the decades. An expressive singer with a good comic touch will send home the audience chuckling and happy. Tomorrow they can return to the overriding social concerns of the day.

James Hill

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