Sunday, 16 November 2014

Chabrier - L'Etoile (De Nederlandse, 2014 - Webcast)

Emmanuel Chabrier - L'Etoile

De Nationale, Amsterdam, 2014

Patrick Fournillier, Laurent Pelly, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Christophe Mortagne, Hélène Guilmette, Jérôme Varnier, Elliot Madore, Julie Boulianne, François Piolino, François Soons, Harry Teeuwen, Jeroen van Glabbeek, Richard Prada

Culturebox - 16 October 2014

Aside from Offenbach, we don't often get the opportunity to see much French comic operetta outside of France. In Paris, the Opéra Comique do outstanding work in keeping this distinctive lyric tradition alive and presented in its best light. And, it might be a bit of an obvious remark to make but it's true - Chabrier's L'Etoile is one of the brightest stars of the repertoire that is rarely performed nowadays. It's surprising then to see it performed and done so well in this recent production at DNO in Amsterdam, but there's a well-appointed French production team in place here with Patrick Fournillier conducting and Laurent Pelly directing, that does justice to the musical and comic qualities of the opera.

What makes Chabrier's L'Etoile great are the same things that make any opéra-comique or opéra bouffe great. It's funny and it has great tunes. It does however need a good comic actors/singers and direction that plays to these advantages, and that's all perfectly in place here with Stéphanie d’Oustrac leading the cast and Laurent Pelly bringing his colourful and often absurd sense of style and fun to the proceedings. Optionally, a great comic opera can have a satirical leaning, or it can have one worked into it by the director, but I don't detect any particularly subtle social commentary in L'Etoile or much opportunity for including one. The plot, as silly as it is, is however a lot of fun and moves along well, providing plenty of opportunity for comic situations, romance and lovely music.

We're in the kingdom of King Ouf I. He's a ruler who likes to keep his people entertained. A few fireworks on special occasions and the odd impalement - what better way to keep the populace happy and maintain order? Traditionally, it's a troublesome rebel who is executed on these occasions, but such is the terror among the general public that even in his best disguise, setting traps and making provocations, Ouf can't find a single unruly citizen. But the king has another problem. According to the constitution, the ruler must announce his successor by his 40th birthday, and King Ouf is 39. Ouf depends on the court astrologer Siroco to help guide him though this dilemma through observation of the stars.

Princess Laoula has however just arrived incognito from a neighbouring kingdom to sound out the possibility of a marriage alliance, but on their way they meet Lazuli, a travelling salesman who falls in love with the Princess. Rebuffed by her minder, the ambassador Hérisson de Porc-Épic, Lazuli strikes out at the next person he meets, who just happens to be King Ouf. Ouf is livid and delighted that he now has a legitimate victim to execute. Siroco however warns the king that the stars indicate that his and Lazuli's destinies are connected, and that the king's death will follow within 24 hours of Lazuli's. Lazuli is therefore treated like a Prince at the palace, until the Mataquin royal delegation arrives and Lazuli's elopement with the Princess throws everything into turmoil.

As inconsequential as the plot might seem - despite the contrivances, it's not even particularly involved - Chabrier's music for L'Etoile is beautiful, melodic and sophisticated. In contrast to much comic operetta and even Offenbach's straightforward arrangements, Chabrier's music is much more operatic and fitted to the mood as well as the dramatic context. It's also wonderfully paced, the spoken dialogue sections kept to a minimum, moving rapidly from one situation with a beautiful aria to another. Much of the work revolves around solo singing in this respect, but there are also some duets - appropriately in those love scenes, of course - and some wonderful chorus work, all of which enlivens the work with great variety.

It's this colour and variety that is reflected in Laurent Pelly's direction and in the set designs by Chantal Thomas. The setting of the opera is abstract enough that it can work in any time period, but Pelly resists modernising what is an old-fashioned work too much and keeps it playful. The idea that we are in a police-state is indicated in Act I not with spy cameras but with loudspeakers on numerous poles, with fearful citizens scurrying around in trenchcoats. Later we see secret police with hound heads, and Ouf himself is depicted as a pantomime Teutonic dictator in oversize shorts. Stylised old-fashioned vehicles are used for Lazuli's mobile shop and for the Mataquin entourage, and the devices for impalement and astrological observation are clockwork cog, wheel and pulley operated. Even the pink puffball dresses of the maids of honour fit in perfectly with the cartoon look and feel of the work.

Pelly's direction of the cast also contributes greatly to the success of the production. The acting is comically exaggerated, but not overly so, letting the delivery of the libretto carry the humour. Stéphanie d’Oustrac is particularly good here in her inhabiting the trouser-role of Lazuli. I'm more used to seeing the mezzo-soprano in rather more glamorous roles and in Baroque opera, but her opéra bouffe work is just great. It's a tricky role to sing, and the physical acting required doesn't make it any easier, but that lovely rich voice is full of colour and character. Christophe Mortagne is an energetic Ouf, perfectly pitched in the comic acting with a lovely lyrical tenor voice. Hélène Guilmette's Laoula is also well sung. Patrick Fournillier and the Residentie Orkest fairly romp through Chabrier's delightful score, and the De Nederlandse chorus are as impressive as ever.

Links: Culturebox, Dutch National Opera