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Henri CHRISTINÉ (1867-1941)
Phi-Phi operetta (1918)
(complete, with dialogue in French)

Max de Rieux (bar) Phi-Phi; Colette Riedinger (sop) Mme Phidias; Mireille (sop); Aspasie; Bernard Alvi (ten) Ardimédon
Orchestra conducted by Edouard Bervilly
Rec. Universal (France) Studios, Antony, France, 1956
2 CDs for the price of one

This rare recording of Phi-Phi comes as part of an Operette series of re-releases from Universal France. Max de Rieux was the inspiration behind these recordings, put together in the 1950s and 1960s in a bold attempt to provide an archive of forgotten French musical theatre.

Only two songs of Christiné are to be found in the CD catalogue today so this re-release is particularly welcome. Traubner's book on Operetta speaks highly of Christiné and the qualities he suggests are borne out in this recording. Perhaps the term 'operetta' is incorrect for this must surely be regarded as one of the first comic musicals of the century. The music contains those theatrical and orchestral elements often associated with stage musicals of the 1920s.

Henri Christiné spent much of his life in France yet was a native of Switzerland, the son of a Geneva watchmaker. He turned to music after marrying a local singer and started writing songs for her. Christiné first moved first to Brussels where he presented his first operettas and then to Paris where he worked as theatre conductor and writer of this new wave of operetta.

opened directly after the First World War. It took three months to establish itself as a respectable work, but by Spring 1919 bookings were secure and filling the Bouffes-Parisiens theatre. It then went on to become one of Paris's longest-running shows.

The amusing plot set in ancient Greece concerns the domestic entanglements of Phidias, a Greek sculptor (known as Phi-Phi). Traubner describes the work as ‘opera-bouffe’, containing risqué dialogue that revels in puns and anachronisms. Two young Greeks model for the sculptor who falls for the girl while his wife falls for the youth. The plot attempts to explain the loss of Venus de Milo's arms as well as characteristics of other classical sculptures!

Phi-Phi's songs and dance rhythms were so up-to-date the piece might well be regarded as a revue. Certainly, the bubbly joviality was just right to release the tension of the previous four years' war. The score clearly anticipates the musicals of the 1920s just around the corner and shortly to be written. Try CD1 tk.3 with its catchy chorus number and you will ask yourself if this could have been written so early.

The music is succinctly written and the orchestration is light. The extended finales generally associated with operetta have now gone and are often replaced, as here, by an ensemble number instead.

Max de Rieux assembled a good cast and found the right recipe for a good performance: the cast certainly revel in their exploits. As Phi-Phi, Max de Rieux comes across confidently as the pivotal character. Colette Riedinger is well suited to Christiné's music and portrays Phi-Phi's wife with the right amount of verve. Aspasie is an important character, singing the majority of the solo numbers. Mireille provides the necessary chic and perkiness, with a clear melodic voice for this part. She is well suited to play opposite Phi-Phi. Bernard Alvi commands a strong presence with his amorous overtures to Madame Phidias [CD2 tk.3].

The recording is first class, giving optimum clarity to the voices, yet it does not mask the nuances in accompaniment. The music bounces along and one can visualise a sparkling spectacle on stage to match. Bervilly's direction is expressive and he gets the best from the musicians and singers alike. This is specially noticeable in the superb playing to the Act II finale [CD2 tk.4].

Notes in French are provided in an attractive card case that matches the rest of the series rather than the insignificant plastic jewel box.

Raymond Walker

Operette series from Universal Accord reviewed by Ray Walker

Further reading :"Operetta", Traubner (Routledge 2003); "Le Théâtre des Annees folles" (Editions du Milieu, Geneva 1943)
Phi-Phi at the London Pavilion (1922) in an altered version of the Paris
production (1918) Traubner


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