26 Mar 2010
Mark Lamos’ production of Chabrier’s L’Etoile is perfectly ridiculous.
Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.
Small country, small opera house — big ensemble spirit. Internationally acclaimed soprano Natalia Ushakova steps in for indisposed local Violetta with mixed results.
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Mark Lamos’ production of Chabrier’s L’Etoile is perfectly ridiculous.
This would be most unsuitable — if this post-Offenbach operetta of 1877 were anything but a perfection of ridiculousness. The gentlemen in bowler hats, bouncing up and down like pistons! the ladies whose mourning frocks and veils are instantaneously transformed into the can-can frippery of rejoicing! the lead singers on scooters! the backdrop that itself becomes tipsy when the mad King Ouf sings a tribute to Chartreuse (the lighting changes at that point too)! the fun-house mirrors that enclose (and might as well describe) the action — which will strike Americans as “Gilbertian,” though Gilbert got his ideas from Offenbach, too.
In the City Opera’s quest to re-establish and re-present itself to New York as the opera company that does what the Met isn’t going to do, Chabrier (the production has already been seen there in 2002) is an excellent place to start. The melodies are light in a slyer way than Offenbach’s, with more opportunity for harmonious display, as in the “kissing” quartet in Act III. The choruses are not mere background, and in the Lamos production give the City Opera ladies and gents a chance to strut to a Broadway standard, all the while singing at a rather higher one. The wit of the piece is the kind of froth that so often evaporates when the Met attempts operetta, and it wouldn’t work at NYCO either if it were not so elegantly presented and if we were not all used to surtitles by now. Ideally, such a work should be given in the vernacular and in a small house, but that’s true of Rossini’s comic operas too — and of Shostakovich’s The Nose, for that matter, concurrently doing sell-out business across the plaza.
The story of L’Etoile makes one reflect on the deep philosophical import of The Mikado. The tyrant here, King Ouf I (I guess that should be le Roi Ouf Ier), always celebrates his birthday with festivities climaxing in a public execution. Knowing this, his subjects are on their best behavior at that time of year — but Lazuli, a boy from out of town, falls into the trap of resenting the world because he is unhappily in love with a strange girl he met on the road. Before he can be impaled on a booby-trapped armchair, however, the royal astrologer discovers that he — Lazuli — is destined to die precisely one day before the king does. (Date unspecified.) The king thereupon decides to spare the boy — which is good news for Siroco, the astrologer, whom the king has condemned to die fifteen minutes after the king does. But Lazuli does not want to live without his adored Laoula — despite the fond attentions of the ladies of the court — and attempts to drown himself. And Laoula, it turns out, is not a traveling cosmetics saleswoman (her disguise) but the princess next door, betrothed to King Ouf. Ouf, like Gilbert’s Koko, prefers life to love-death and orders the lovers wed. “And we’ll have two executions next year,” he consoles his delighted subjects.
Jennifer Zetlan as Laoula, Julie Boulianne as Lazuli, and Liza Forrester as Aloès
Everyone loves a comic villain, and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s King Ouf is the joy of this occasion — as he was in his NYCO debut as Rameau’s frog-nymph Platée. He is the joy of the costume designer Constance Hoffman as tiny Ouf stomps about “in disguise” in the largest overcoat in captivity, and the joy of the conductor, the joyous Emmanuel Plasson, as he warbles his song of Chartreuse ecstasy, his high tenor mated with François Loup’s low bass, and he is the joy of everyone present as he caricatures tiny men with too much power, in his bloodthirst, his lust, his cowardice, his egotism. I heard Fouchécourt last month singing Satie’s Socrate to accompany Mark Morris’s choreography; he was splendid, but he’s far too much fun on stage to let him languish in any pit. Morris should have let him dance.
I was less thrilled with Julie Boulianne as the boyish Lazuli, on purely vocal grounds. Like so many boyish roles in French opera (and theater), the part is written for a young woman, and when Frederica von Stade sang it, her famous charm and musicality conquered all. But Boulianne, though she has a solid technique and many pretty notes (at least high ones — she faded out on lower lines), suffered intonation problems throughout the first act, often landing just shy of otherwise good, clear tones. Too, her trilled “kisses” lacked body, and the joke is not a good one without genuine trills. Only in the quartet, when obliged to intone the extremely musical name “La-ou-la,” did her vocal appeal make the proper effect.
William Ferguson as Hérisson de Porc-Épic, Jennifer Zetlan as Laoula, Andrew Drost as Tapioca, and Liza Forrester as Aloès
Tiny Jennifer Zetlan was charming as the princess, but tall Liza Forrester, as her confidant and abettor in tickling strange sleeping men, had a mezzo that made me daydream of hearing her in many larger, more rewarding roles. The supporting parts in this opera are numerous and were all cast with City Opera folk who sang elegantly and cavorted stylishly. Style, the essence of Chabrier, was also the essence of the silly evening.