Jacques Offenbach, a German transplant to his beloved city of Paris, was responsible for the creation and popularization of the French operetta. After his famous and highly successful Orphee d'Enfers, comic operas and parodies of established composers of grand opera became the vogue. Only later in his career did Offenbach turn to composing works that were independent of parody and satiric wit. With La Perichole, he strikes a sentimental and lighthearted tone, creating a love story with delightful characterizations and comic dilemmas. His librettists were Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, who also collaborated with Offenbach on several other successful operettas. They based their livret on Prosper Merimee's comic play La Carrousse de Saint-Sacrement. The premiere of La Perichole at the Theatre des Varietes on October 16, 1868, was greeted with acclaim.
The opera takes place in eighteenth century Lima, Peru. Offenbach takes advantage of the foreign setting and spices up his score with Spanish dance forms such as fandangos, boleros, and seguidillas. The central character is La Perichole, an impoverished street singer. Throughout the opera, she is given prominence through the beauty and sophistication of her songs. The Letter Song from Act One is the most famous and well known of all the arias given to her. It is a tragic love song in which the heroine bids her dear Piquillo adieu. The poignant lyrical melody to the Letter Song is first introduced in the sprightly overture to the opera, and then restated after La Perichole sings her aria, reinforcing the mood and content of the dramatic moment. The remaining portion of Act I shows off Offenbach's incredible comic talents, as he stages a wedding for the inebriated lovers. La Perichole is again given center stage with a rollicking drinking song whose melody careens about along with the tipsy bride. The delicate orchestrations follow the weaving of the phrases and the spinning of the ceiling exactly. The bridegroom is completely smashed, and the wedding celebration is filled with broad humor and lively music.
La Perichole is one of Offenbach's best scores; it contains an abundance of fine melodies, lively action and wit, inventive harmonies and orchestral writing, and effective theatrics. It has earned a place among comic opera aficionados, and has been revived from time to time throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is always well received by audiences, and will remain an important work in the operetta repertoire.