Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

Probing Bernstein and MacMillan double bill in Amsterdam

The Opera Forward Festival (OFF) in Amsterdam is about new things: new compositions, rediscovered works and new faces. This year’s program included a double bill produced by Dutch National Opera’s talent development wing. Leonard Bernstein’s portrait of a miserable marriage in affluent suburbia, Trouble in Tahiti, was the contrasting companion piece to James McMillan’s Clemency, a study of the sinister side of religious belief.

Macbeth in Lyon

A revival of the Opéra de Lyon’s 2012 Occupy Wall St. production of Verdi’s 1865 Macbeth, transforming naive commentary into strange irony, some high art included.

Barber of Seville Is Fun in Tucson

On March 4, 2018, Arizona Opera presented Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Tucson. Allen Moyer designed the bright and happy scenery for performances at Minnesota Opera,

Moody, Mysterious Morel

Long Beach Opera often takes willing audiences on an unexpected journey and such is undeniably the case with its fascinating traversal of The Invention of Morel.

Acis and Galatea: 2018 London Handel Festival

Katie Hawks makes quite a claim for Handel’s Acis and Galatea when, in her programme article, she describes it as the composer’s ‘most perfect work’. Surely, one might feel, this is a somewhat hyperbolic evaluation of a 90-minute pastoral masque, or serenade, based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has its origins in a private entertainment?

Oriana, Fairest Queen: Stile Antico celebrate the life and times of Elizabeth I

Stile Antico’s lunchtime play-list, celebrating the Virgin Queen’s long reign, shuffled between sacred and secular works, from penitential to patriotic, from sensual to celebratory.

Daniel Kramer's new La traviata at English National Opera

Verdi's La traviata is one of those opera which every opera company needs to have in its repertoire, and productions need to balance intelligent exploration of the issues raised by the work with the need to reach as wide an audience as possible with an opera which is likely to attract audience members who are not regular opera-goers.

Haydn's Applausus: The Mozartists at Cadogan Hall

Continuing their MOZART 250 series, The Mozartists/ Classical Opera began dipping into the operatic offerings of 1768 at Wigmore Hall in January, when they presented numbers from Mozart’s La finta semplice, Jommelli’s Fetonte, Hasse’s Pirano e Tisbe and Haydn’s Lo speziale.

Schubert Schwanengesang revisited—Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Schwanengesang isn't Schubert's Swan Song any more than it is a cycle like Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. The title was given it by his publishers Haslingers, after his death, combining settings of two very different poets, Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine. Wigmore Hall audiences have heard lots of good Schwanengesangs, including Boesch and Martineau performances in the past, but this was something special.

Rinaldo: The English Concert at the Barbican Hall

“After such cruel events, I don’t know if I am dreaming or awake.” So says Almirena, daughter of the Crusader Goffredo, when she is rescued by her beloved warrior-hero, Rinaldo, from the clutches of the evil sorceress, Armida.

Hamlet abridged and enriched in Amsterdam

French grand opera and small opera companies are an unlikely combination. Yet OPERA2DAY, a company of modest means, is currently touring the Netherlands with Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.

The ROH's first production of From the House of the Dead

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production for the ROH of From the House of the Dead is ‘new’ in several regards. It’s (astonishingly) the first time that Janáček’s last opera has been staged at Covent Garden; it’s Warlikowski’s debut at Covent Garden; and the production uses a new 2017 critical edition prepared by John Tyrrell.

Così fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With artifice, disguise, and questions on fidelity as the basis of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the composer’s mature opera has returned to the stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

WNO's Wheel of Destiny rolls into Birmingham

Welsh National Opera’s wheel of destiny has rolled into Birmingham this week, with Verdi’s sprawling tragedy, La forza del destino, opening the company’s ‘Rabble Rousing’ triptych at the Hippodrome.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal College of Music

The gossamer web of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sufficiently insubstantial and ambiguous to embrace multiple interpretative readings: the play can be a charming comic caper, a jangling journey through human pettiness and cruelty, a moonlit fairy fantasy or a shadowy erotic nightmare, and much more besides.

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV recreated at Versailles

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV, with Ensemble Pygmalion, conducted by Raphaël Pichon now on DVD/Blu -ray from Harmonia Mundi. This captures the historic performance at the Chapelle Royale de Versailles in November 2015, on the 300th anniversary of the King's death.

Robert Carsen's A Midsummer Night's Dream returns to ENO

Having given us Christopher Alden's strangely dystopic production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2011, English National Opera (ENO) has opted for Robert Carsen's bed-inspired vision for the latest revival of the opera at the London Coliseum.

Turandot in San Diego—Prima la voce

The big musical set pieces in Turandot require voice, voice, and more voice, and San Diego Opera has gifted us with a world-class cast of singing actors.

Dialogues de Carmélites at the Guildhall School: spiritual transcendence and transfiguration

Four years have passed since my last Dialogues des Carmélites, and on that occasion - Robert Carsen’s production for the ROH - heightened dramatic intensity, revolutionary insurrection (enhanced by an oppressed populace formed by a 67-strong Community Ensemble) and, under the baton of Simon Rattle, luxuriant musical rapture, were the order of the day.

'B & B’ in a new key

Seattle Opera’s new production of Béatrice et Bénédict is best regarded as a noble experiment, performed expressly to see if Berlioz’ delectable 1862 opéra comique can successfully be brought into the living repertory outside its native France. As such, it is quite a success.



05 Feb 2016

Emmanuel Chabrier L’Étoile — Royal Opera House London

Premièred in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile has a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, which stirs the blackly comic, the farcical and the bizarre into a surreal melange, blending contemporary satire with the frankly outlandish.

Emmanuel Chabrier L’Étoile — Royal Opera House London

A review by Claire Seymour


This staging at Covent Garden, the first production of the work in the house, throws further ingredients into the recipe and the result is less a connoisseur’s G&S than a Dada-esque kaleidoscope which ultimately fails to give the necessary lift to what is ultimately a flimsy narrative, but which entertains nonetheless.

Chabrier was a regular at the Parnassian salon of the Marquise de Ricard where he met and befriended the witty but warped Paul Verlaine. They collaborated on two operettas, Fisch-ton-Kan (1863) and Vaucochard et Fils Ier (1864), and it was Verlaine who provided - by way of the recycling of the ghoulish ‘Couplets de Pal’ (‘Impalement Verses’) from Fischiton-Kan - L’Étoile’s central, and outrageous, idea: a velvet chair equipped with a concealed protractile rod - ‘The stake is of all punishments the main one ... and the one that provides the greatest pleasures’.

To celebrate his birthday, King Ouf (an anagram of fou - the most simple of numerous linguistic games played out in the text) stages an annual impalement ceremony to entertain his people. Fore-warned of his intent to trick them into becoming the next victim by provoking sedition, the common-folk unanimously eulogise their monarch, but the hapless pedlar Lazuli - angry because he has lost his heart to a beautiful married woman - cuffs the King, twice, and seals his own fate. Except that the court astrologer Siroco - whose own destiny has been written into the King’s will (he will be put to death fifteen minutes after the King’s demise, a measure designed to ensure his loyal devotion) - has deduced from the constellations that the monarch and Lazuli have fates that are inextricably entangled: if the hawker dies, Ouf will follow the next day. Lazuli is whisked from death-row to the royal palace in the blinking of an eye.

In the meantime, travelling incognito, a foreign ambassador, Hérisson de Porc-Epic, and his wife, Aloès, arrive in ‘Nowhere-Land’ accompanied by his secretary, Tapioca, and Laoula, a princess who is disguised as Hérisson’s wife and who is unaware of their mission - to marry her to Ouf. Mayhem ensues: Siroco imprisons Laoula’s supposed husband, Hérisson; Lazuli learns Laoula’s real identity and that she returns his affection; the lovers are joined by Aloès and Tapioca, who are also romantically involved. The King sends Lazuli and Laoula off together just as Hérisson returns, enraged. He has discovered the liaison between his wife and his secretary. As Laoula and Lazuli elope by boat, they are shot at by a zealous guard; only Laoula surfaces, to the consternation of the seemingly doomed Ouf and Siroco. The latter comfort themselves in their ‘last hours’ with copious draughts of Chartreuse. But, Lazuli returns unscathed and Ouf, in relief or inebriation, embraces forgiveness and allows the lovers to marry. When the clocks strike five, with no tragic consequences, Ouf realises that his astrologer’s predictions were wrong, and all indulge in a grand chorus of rejoicing.

Not only is the plot wilfully unfathomable and illogical, the libretto also contains a plethora of droll but untranslatable puns. That may explain the decision by Clément to toss into the surreal mix two additional speaking roles - the Englishman, Smith, and French fop Dupont, played by British comedian and actor Chris Addison and French actor Jean-Luc Vincent respectively - who ‘explain’, and become embroiled in, the action as it unfolds. They lounge in their Victorian/Belle Epoque apartment, all Victorian homeliness and avant-garde chinoiserie, during the overture - a frame to frame the worlds-within-worlds. Addison and Vincent add a piquant dash to the prevailing madness: reminded to speak English because ‘we are in London’, they proffer a few ‘in-jokes’ and, to help us fathom out just what is going on, morph into a Sherlock Holmes of distinctly Cumberbatch-like guise and his side-kick Watson. But, after a (short) while, the interlopers are just that; they offer little of substance and it’s almost a relief when, in the final number, they are envelopped inside the outsize Chartreuse bottle.

Designer Julia Hansen matches - no, surpasses - the narrative eclecticism. We are in the world of a child’s puppet theatre, where anything goes: and so Persian miniatures sit alongside postcards alluding to Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, with its ‘shocking’ plein air nudity (appropriate perhaps since Chabrier acquired the painter’s The Bar at the Folies-Bergère), and department stores collide with harems. The set is stalked by a Ku Klux Klan look-a-like, a sort of Grim Reaper who’s actually an in-the-know monk: that is, one of only two Chartreuse monks who know which 130 plants are distilled into this world-famous, green-tinged liqueur. Cardboard cut-outs play a big part in Hansen’s visual designs; but, though materially flimsy, the hot-air balloon in which the ambassadorial party (disguised as shop assistants) descend to Country X (Wonderland, Never-Never-land?) and the Monty Python-esque ‘pointing finger’ have an iconic weight that is more than Chabrier’s elusive whimsy can support.

Reynaldo Hahn - that naturalised Frenchman and esteemed conductor of light opera, many of whose own songs were similarly inspired by Verlaine - called L’Etoile a ‘rare jewel of French operetta where the buffoonery and poetic verve of Offenbach are presented with all the musical charm, elegance and profusion the latter never sought’. Chabrier’s opera may have been composed in the tradition of Offenbachian opéra bouffe, but its score is as delicate as a butterfly wing. Apparently, the orchestra of the Bouffes-Parisiens were unnerved by the subtle of the invention of the score, and the more conservative critics condemned it as ‘Wagnerian’, but its sparkling brilliance is now acknowledged. Sir Mark Elder, who this year celebrates 40 years of appearances at Covent Garden since his house debut in 1976 with Rigoletto, created an air of relaxed urbanity; but, though the ROH orchestra were happy to enjoy its delights - producing sensitive playing in the short orchestral interludes, and engaging in lively banter with Mr ‘Smith’ - Elder didn’t quite release the score’s transparent grace and slenderness.
The nuanced arias readily capture the ‘essence’ of individual characters.

Also, there are several vivacious and charming ensembles: the abduction trio, the parody ‘Chartreuse’ duet for Ouf and Siroco, the ‘kisses’ quartet, the tickle trio. A cast of principally French singers at least ensures an idiomatic delivery, though it was American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey who stole the show in the travesti role of Lazuli. I wasn’t convinced by Clément’s and Hanson’s initial attempt to present Lazuli as a sort of low-key Dulcamara touting cosmetic elixirs for the wrinkles. But, musically and physically Lindsey is a perfect fit for the role, and captures the pedlar’s wide-eyed naivety. Lindsey’s full mezzo tone charmed and Lazulis’s song of grateful praise to his star, ‘Oh ma petite étoile’ (visually adorned with a ‘Caution: sharp right turn’ road sign) was beautifully phrased, a moment of pure poetry amid the gibberish: the stillness at the heart of a wildly spinning world.

Princess Laoula’s lovely air, ‘Tous deux assis dans le bateau’, was charmingly delivered by French-Canadian soprano Hélène Guilmette; Julie Boulianne proved a rich-voiced Aloès. Christophe Mortagne hammed up Ouf’s histrionics, by turns sadistic and sentimental, but as he veered perilously close to slapstick, melodramatics sometimes came at the expense of vocal precision; and Mortagne, exhibiting a relish for cruelty worthy of the Mikado, had a tendency to shout. Simon Bailey, as Siroco, demonstrated a clear dramatic focus and a vocal directness to match. François Piolino’s Hérisson de Porc-épic and Aimery Lefèvre’s Tapioca were competent but outshone by their female counterparts. The ROH Chorus don’t have a huge amount to do, and at times seemed a little disengaged.

L’Étoile has the impeccable refinement of the finest champagne, and if the light-weight bubbles of Clément’s conception don’t make a lasting impression - and the lacklustre Can-Can lacks high kicks - the production still offers much to savour.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

King Ouf - Christophe Mortagne, Siroco - Simon Bailey, Prince Hérisson de Porc-Epic - François Piolino, Tapioca - Aimery Lefèvre, Lazuli - Kate Lindsey, Princesse Laoula - Hélène Guilmette, Aloès - Julie Boulianne, Patacha - Samuel Sakker, Zalzal - Samuel Dale Johnson, Smith - Chris Addison, Dupont - Jean-Luc Vincent; Director - Mariame Clément, Conductor - Mark Elder, Designer - Julia Hansen, Lighting designer - Jon Clark, Choreography - Mathieu Guilhaumon, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):