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Reviews

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.

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