Mercoledi Musicale

I first heard Jacques Offenbach’s La Périchole back on a Met Saturday afternoon broadcast in 1957. Loosely based on Micaela Villegas, (La Perricholi) a historical character well known in Peru, it concerns La Périchole and Piquillo, two impoverished Peruvian street-singers too poor to afford a marriage license. The lecherous viceroy, Don Andrès de Ribeira wishes to make La Périchole his mistress but inadvertently arranges for the two lovers to get married. The music is amongst Offenbach’s most charming and lacks the satirical bite of many of his works. I was enchanted by both the music and the performances of Cyril Richard (Mary Martin’s Captain Hook) as the Viceroy and the inimitable character tenor Alessio De Paolis as a demented Old Prisoner. I remember when a hightlights recording was issued with the same cast that I most upset to discover that it was only available to members of the Metropolitan Opera Record Club and was well beyond my weekly allowance.

Though I never did get that Met recording I was eventually to get have two recordings of the complete operetta and a few excerpt discs in my library. Amongst those excerpts were two by the Russian operetta star Claudia Novikova recorded back in 1937. I had not realized that there was such a thing as Moscow Operetta State Academic Theatre and that La Périchole was a great favourite during the Stalninist period (!), particularly if Novikova was singing.

In Act 1 Périchole has left Piquillo and she has been wined and dined by the Viceroy who wishes her to join his wife’s house hold as a lady-in-waiting and his own as his mistress. However to do the former and become the later she must be married. So they get anyone they find who just happens to be Piquillo who has been drowning his broken heart in wine. They both arrived at the ceremony tipsy and Périchole tells us all about the great diner she’s just had.

Novikova was known for her laugh and here she uses it (perhaps too) liberally. I find the laugh most infectious and at no point does it interfere with the vocal line.

I have fond memories of listening to that recording at my last dinner with my darling Ryan. He, Uncle Pervy, and myself – though not quite as tipsy as Périchole – end up laughing ourselves silly as we listen to it.

But Novikov wasn’t a one trick pony – she had rock stolid technique and the ability to convey character in just a phrase or two. In Act III Périchole declares her love for Piquillo even if he “isn’t all that good looking or riche” and when Novikov declares it any Piquillo would be a fool not to believe her.

The word for June 15th is:
Laugh /laf/: [1. verb 2. noun]
1. To make the spontaneous sounds and movements of the face and body that are the instinctive expressions of lively amusement and sometimes also of contempt or derision.
2. An act of laughing
Old English hlæhhan, hliehhan, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch and German lachen,

Mercoledi Musicale

It always astounds me what can be found on the Internet – it seems that a search for even the most obscure reference brings up something of, if not intrinsic value, interest.  In researching for a recent post on Nikita Balieff’s Chauve-Souris I came across a small trove of recordings that were made by the company.  They were set down by the Columbia Graphophone Company, one of the earliest record companies, in May of 1927 during the troupe’s appearance at the Vaudeville Theatre in London.

Nikita Balieff (seated centre-left) and his company “at home” in this undated picture.

At the session they recorded ten of their more popular numbers (though sadly not Katinka!!!) on 10 inch 78rpm discs.  Balieff gave brief introductions to each in his own version of English and in the absence of regular composer-conductor Alexi Archangelsky, Sergei Kogan led the Vaudeville Theatre Orchestra.   The Madames Birse and Ershov with the Messrs Dedovitch , Kondratieff , Rondionoff , Zotoff , Shevtchenko recorded duets, quartets and ensemble numbers from the vast repertoire that the revue was created from.

There is much of the sameness to many of the numbers they recorded – ersatz versions of what purported to be authentic Russian gypsy, Cossack and folk music.  No doubt the staging, settings and programming gave them the appearance of a greater variety.  But even when robbed of their colourful tableau vivant settings there is a certain charming innocence to most of these numbers.

While singing A Russian Barcarolle (Русская баркарола) the Madames Birse and Erschova, and the Messrs Dedovitch and Shevtchenko were draped in tender tableau wafting on a rather unstable looking boat through Remisoff’s romantic garden.  I’m not sure who the two figures are framing the action – perhaps they are hiding their eyes from some salacious stage business that we have been spared.

In his book Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions Richard Taruskin looks at the influence of Balieff’s theatrical entertainment on Igor Stravinsky – beyond introducing him to the future Mrs Stravinsky.  He takes a slightly mocking, if not condescending, tone when talking of the faux-gypsy music of the Russian cabaret and The Song of the Russian Black Hussars (Чёрные гусары) in particular:

Les Houzards noir was an arrangement by Baliyev’s musical director, Alexey Arkhangelsky, of an old Hussar ballad, sung by a basso profondo accompanied by male chorus.  “Before leaving for battle,” the program read, “the soldiers pierced with the consciousness that they are going to meet inevitable death, wallow a while in that voluptuous melancholy of Gypsy chanting (méloplés tziganes) which reawakens in them the old Slav fatalism,” etc. etc.

Stravinksy and the Russian Traditions
A Biography of the Works through Marva
Richard Taruskin
University of California Press, 1996


On this recording we have the inimitable Nikita introducing the number himself.  Though his little joke about the Hussars in the Russian army now being red “like lobsters” may have tickled his English audiences it would have rang hallow with many of the exiles in Paris.

Though the numbers in the revolving repertoire of the revue – Saylor’s little publicity puff lists some 50  – were always a strange pot-pourri of folk and classics the next recording could almost qualify as a Lunedi Lunacy.   Mme Birse and Mme Erschova blend their voices in that old favourite folk song О,пой мне эту старую шотландскую песню Дир.


O sing to me the auld Scotch sangs
I’ the braid Scottish tongue.
The sangs my father loved to hear,
The sangs my mither sung,
When she sat beside my cradle,
Or croon’d me on her knee.
And I wadna sleep, she sang sae sweet,
The auld Scotch sangs to me.
I’ll bless the Scottish tongue that sings
The auld Scotch sangs to me.

I find the combination of the Scots dialect words and the Slavic pronunciation particularly delightful and only wish I had been able to find a photo or design for this number.

I found these recordings, along with several others by the Chauve Souris company, on a remarkable YouTube page created by Bronisliva.  Her uploads include Tangos, to Yiddish music of Russia and the Ukraine,  Slavic folk music, opera and lied.  A collection almost as eclectic as Balieff’s little revue.  Many thanks to her for the wonderful collection.

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