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High Camp With Elegance: Alden’s Fabulously Entertaining L’étoile

Emmanuel Chabrier’s opéra bouffe L'étoile is very light stuff. The music is fluffy enough to make Wodehouse seem somber reading in comparison. But as with Wodehouse, the craftsmanship is audible, the ingredients refined, and the outcome of the kind of pretty sophistication that belies its superficial simplicity.

There’s plenty of dialogue in the opéra bouffe which raises the question of whether to put the thing on in the vernacular or not. David Alden, who does silly better than anyone else, kept the text French which, given excellent supertitles and a diligent, largely non-native French speaking cast, worked well.

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Chabrier, L’étoile,
J.E.Gardiner / Opera de Lyon

Much like Chabrier’s music, Alden’s production is an act of light genius, a high wire act between high camp and cleverness. His adept hand with comedy means that L’étoile, which in conventional garb could have so easily tipped over and failed as crude, low-brow slapstick, remained a genuinely funny, playfully sexualized romp that entertained even the bourgeois ladies in the (sadly sparse) audience. The signature items of an Alden production were all there: loud colors, creative costumes, polished floors, animal prints, clever furniture, clear lines, and elegant curves… all courtesy Alden’s set and costume designer Gideon Davey.

The plot, in summary: Meet King Ouf the First (the endlessly deft Comédie Française & Opéra-Comique Paris Ouf-veteran Christophe Mortagne, modeled on Gene Wilder, with strong overtones of Willy Wonka). He is about to celebrate his name day (Saint Ouf) with the annual celebratory public execution. Unfortunately there is nobody at hand to continue the tradition, so he wanders the streets disguised, hoping to find an executable subject. Finally he meets the frustrated, lovelorn street hawker Lazuli (the stage loving and stage-loved Paula Murrihy) who vents his temper in the face of King Ouf. Bingo! Unfortunately that’s where astrologer Sirocco (the hilarious Simon Bailey in a hoot of a rôle) who seems to do air traffic control for a living, with fortune-telling on the side, informs the king that Lazuli’s life is linked to that of monarch, both meant to die within 24 hours of each other. And since Ouf’s testament designates Siroco’s execution 15 minutes after his boss’ demise (this considerably fosters on-the-job motivation), the two are linked to the young man’s fate. The impalement is scratched and instead they coddle him at the palace.

Consider also Princess Laoula (Anna Ryberg, announced as unwell; though no one would ever have guessed). She is a high-octane wild thing, just arrived from abroad, and pretend-married to Prince Hérisson de Porc-Epic (Michael McCown, also allegedly indisposed and not seriously impeded). The latter’s actual wife Aloès (Sharon Carty) is also in tow: for their duration of this diplomatic trip, the mission of which is to get the Princess married to the King, has to pretend to be married to Tapioca, the bumbling Prince’s secretary (Julian Prégardien). In the confusion of convoluted mistaken identities, Lazuli is given the princess to marry (the presumed husband will just have to understand). When the misunderstanding is discovered, it’s too late to do much about it and Lazuli and Laoula are happily united as the future royal couple. Let the relationship diagram above clarify matters, if this sounded discombobulating. The orchestra under Sebastian Zierer made the music sound easy, a feat in and of itself that deserves more than just one sentence. At least two.

Opera lovers gladly travel far and wide for a Ring production, or a high-profile serious opera (much as I had gone to Frankfurt for the Claus Guth/Christian Gerhaher Pelléas et Mélisande). It turns out that this soufflé of an opera is a production well worth a journey, much more so than many other productions I've seen this year.

Repeat performances this season (2013) on March 02, 08, and 15.

Pictures (after the jump) courtesy Frankfurt Opera, © Wolfgang Runkel