Alarm bells ringing for L’étoile

5 Jan

Happy new year to everyone.  The ROH has managed to wreck mine with the announcement that there are to be two “additional roles” in its new production of Chabrier’s L’étoile – see  http://www.roh.org.uk/news/chris-addison-to-perform-in-the-royal-operas-letoile.

I’ve nothing against Mr Addison and I’m sure he’ll do whatever he’s meant to do brilliantly.  I must also guard against dismissing something before I’ve seen it, but this announcement made my heart sink.  Particularly the bit which said: “The double Perrier Award-nominated stand-up has been cast as Smith in Mariame Clément’s production, an acting part the director has created to provide a stereotypically English commentary on the opera’s absurd events”.  It gets worse.  There’s also going to be a  French actor (Jean-Luc Vincent) who will “comment on the action from a French perspective“.  Again, I’m sure M. Vincent will do this superbly.  I just wish he didn’t have to.

Now, I’ve been lucky enough to see L’étoile twice – the Opera North production was a particular joy.  The Gardiner recording gets to my CD player pretty regularly.  It may not be well known, but it’s a coherent, zany, absurd comic opera.  It’s Offenbach on speed – a sort of French take on The Mikado – supported by some gloriously wistful, frothy, tuneful, very funny music (I think it was Saint-Saens who had to be carried out of the premiere helpless with laughter).  It is very French, but so are Manon, Carmen, and La belle Hélène, none of which, last time I saw them, were in need of a commentary from any perspective – and, for my money, L’étoile is in their league.

Even if you don’t think as highly of the piece as I do, I think that it’s possible to agree that adding characters or texts to operas is a Very Bad Idea.  Cutting can be acceptable (even a very good idea), updating dialogue can often work very well (as in Pelly’s productions of Offenbach and, indeed, La fille du régiment).  But I can’t think of a single occasion where adding things has helped anything.  I remember a particularly vile production of Entfuhrung at Opera North narrated by a slave girl (who subsequently dressed as a panda), an additional dialogue for Rocco in an ENO Fidelio and some pretty dire concert narrations of a plot when doing the dialogue would have worked just fine.  Even where operas have needed a bit of help (Le roi malgré lui, Oberon, Princess Ida), the adaptations haven’t survived.

I would bet quite a lot of money on the new material in this opera being embarrassing, patronising and, undermining of the opera.  It screams that Mariame Clément is scared that the opera either isn’t strong enough to cross the channel or that the ROH audience won’t be able to cope with it.  Which begs questions about why she’s doing it.

As I write this two questions nag me.  One is that I haven’t seen it and it may prove to be brilliant.  I’ll take that risk.

The second is in working out why I feel so much more strongly about this than I do about “radical” productions.  Is there any different, you may say, between inserting a text that Chabrier and his librettist didn’t envisage in the opera and, say, a rape scene that Rossini didn’t envisage in Guillaume Tell?

I suppose it all comes down to my approach to opera.  I wasn’t upset by the rape scene because I bought the argument that Rossini was writing about a tyranny where that sort of thing probably happened and where the action wasn’t a million miles away from the spirit of that scene.  Michielotti there was at least engaging with the dramatic situation.

What appears to be planned for L’étoile seems far more like the sort of production that really enrages me – ones “about” rather than “of” the opera.  Ones like, say, La donna del lago or Idomeneo or Onegin at the ROH where you feel that the director simply isn’t trusting the piece because they’ve super-imposed an additional narrative on the opera.  So why do it?

I was really looking forward to seeing this.  There’s a super cast; Elder conducting and Clément should be a great director for it.  I’m not any more and feel irritated that I’ve bought some good seats for it.

Heigh ho.  I’ve got that off my chest and, you never know, it may be fabulous.

 

 

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