4 Feb

The pleasurable anticipation I felt when the ROH announced that they were doing Chabrier’s L’Etoile, turned to anxiety when they announced the creation of two additional characters and, sadly, the performance of it that I saw on 3rd February left me pretty cross.  I’m sorry about this.  Lots of people in the audience were enjoying it and I don’t want to spoil that.  I also realise that there is nothing worse than the person who say, “ah yes, but you didn’t see…” to explain disappointment.  If you saw and enjoyed it, probably best not to read any further.

Some reviews felt that this was such a silly, trivial piece that the ROH shouldn’t be doing it. I agree that they shouldn’t have done it but for a different reason: the company simply isn’t up to it. I felt about it rather as I did with Cherevichki a few years back that loads of trouble had been taken to get the best ingredients possible but that the cooks simply weren’t happy cooking a piece which is light, funny and, ideally, intimate: as if you asked cooks specialising in barbecues to have a go at some delicate patisserie. The lightness of touch that they found for Turco in Italia and Fille du regiment seemed to have deserted them.

I well remember my first encounter with the piece: the Opera North production, semi staged at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  I was hooked from the first few bars of the overture.  The love I was nurtured by the Gardiner recording. For me it’s is a joyous, silly, off-the-wall piece with some utterly delightful music that matches the silliness of the plot.

It’s an opera by a novice but it’s hugely assured: Lazuli’s “Etoile” number is one of the most beguiling arias in the whole French repertory while his entrance number, the sneezing number, the anti-husband number provide a fabulous opportunity for a lively mezzo; the Chartreuse Vert duet, with a faux Bellini accompaniment lurching and hiccoughing drunkenly but remaining, just, upright is one of the most hilarious pieces of of music in opera.  There are gorgeous trios and quartets; a finale to the first Act that, to a gloriously beguiling melody, celebrates the joys of impalement; and a second Act finale where some genuinely heartfelt music expressing shock and grief is undercut by the fact that the chorus patently couldn’t care less and, after perfunctory sympathy, move delicately into a joyous can-can (it’s rather like the juxtaposition of Katisha’s aria with “For he’s going to marry Yum-Yum” in The Mikado).  Maybe there are a couple too many fluffy pieces for women’s voices but there is so much else that’s wonderful that, if you like this sort of light silliness, you ought to be sitting there with a permanent smile on your face.

Not here.  Mark Elder’s overture struck me as ponderous: tempi a couple of notches slower than Gardiner and with that slightly careful, almost too loving approach that, for me, hampers his Offenbach.  This proved pretty typical of what follows.  I know that Elder has a sort of National Treasure status and, to most critics, Can Do No Wrong, but I missed the vigour that he brings to his Verdi and Donizetti and the helter-skelter abandonment so much of this piece needs.  It was pretty enough (and the kissing quartet caught the teasing eroticism even better than Gardiner) but too much of it was just too careful.  The fact that the Chartreuse Vert duet got no applause at all must be as much Elder’s fault as anyone else’s.  The orchestra played well enough.

It wasn’t helped by Mariame Clement’s production. A clue to the problem comes in one or two of the programme notes: the suggestion that really this is just a group of sketches rather than a coherent piece and an apologetic essay on the difficulty of enabling humour to cross borders set alarm bells going.  It was as if she didn’t have the confidence that she could make the piece work for English audiences. She and Julia Hansen, her designer, had taken an approach that veered from traditional, sub-D’Oyly Carte costumes (probably among the most old-fashioned and silly that I’ve seen here ever – reminding me of the ENO Kismet) to a significant Monty Python tribute – red elephants, pointed fingers, paintings that do strange things and, for some reason, a cow.  A monk (presumably Carthusian) wandered across the stage now and then; we had the obligatory English bobbies which, apparently, are invariably funny, and we had Sherlock Holmes. Some of these were reasonably witty and raised the occasional smile.  The problem was that they didn’t come often enough.  It all felt leaden.

It would have helped if the singers had been given a bit of help with the characterisation: there’s a ridiculousness about most of them – Lazuli and Laoulla the only sympathetic, sane people in a world of madmen.  Most of them were overshadowed by the sets.  The failure of the Chartreuse Vert duet to raise even a giggle was typical of the failure to make the two characters singing this duet, overshadowed by a vast bottle of Chartreuse, amusing.

Worse was the choreography.  The ROH chorus can move accurately and professionally.  Here they seemed to shuffle on and off as if embarrassed, uncertain or under-rehearsed while the can-can at the end of Act II was embarrassing.  They looked like a group of overweight, three-left-footed, under-rehearsed amateurs.  Since a choreographer was credited, I assume either that this was deliberate or that something had gone very wrong somewhere.

As for the additional characters to the action: an Englishman and a Frenchman who commented on the action and got involved in it. Chris Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent gave professional, well-timed and, on their own terms, witty performances. I have no idea why they needed to be added or what value they provided to the show. On the other hand, I can’t see that it would have been any better without them.

There were pleasures. Chief among them was Kate Lindsey as Lazuli. She looks an astonishingly convincing boy and sang the role captivatingly. She’s on a lot at the beginning of Act II: it was then that I thought the show might be looking up and I actually found myself smiling at sensuous, stylish singing, her gorgeous voice and cheeky, confident personality. This was a winning, starring performance and was responsible for the bulk of what real pleasure I got from this evening.

Helene Guilmette was a lovely Laoulla, her light soprano bang on for the role and she sang with style and conveyed a lot of the bewilderment the role needs. Christophe Mortagne as Ouf bumbled as effectively and stylishly as the production allowed and sang stylishly. There was good singing and alert acting from Francois Piolino as Herisson de Porc-Epic, Aimery Lefevre as Tapioca and Julie Boulianne as Aloes. The chorus sang very well indeed.

But these ultimately couldn’t compensate for the fact that I sat through the show waiting for it to wake up and, for the most part, stony faced, willing an opera that I love to light up the house.

So what went wrong? First, I think that the production team thought that the piece was difficult. If you approach it like that then, probably, you shouldn’t do it. Secondly, it’s an intimate piece and the ROH feels on the large side for it. Finally, it’s a witty piece with a clever libretto and, while the surtitles succeeded in conveying a lot of that, it’s not the same as hearing it. A very, very funny translation by Jeremy Sams exists and it would have been good to hear the audience laughing at the jokes as they heard them rather than respectfully sitting through the elegant French and noting the surtitles. An English cast, a smaller theatre, and a production that didn’t try so hard and this piece could have been the hilarious hit that it was in Paris and in Leeds.

For people who didn’t know the opera, it was probably a pleasant enough evening – probably surprisingly so – and I hope that they feel that they’ve discovered a new and enjoyable opera. For those of us who know what it can be like, it was a serious disappointment.


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