The Perfect Star for Frankfurt: Chabrier and Light Opera at its Best

GermanyGermany E. Chabrier, L’Etoile: Soloists, Frankfurter Museumsorchester, Frankfurt Opera Chorus, Karsten Januschke (conductor), Frankfurt Opera, 12.11.2011 (JMI)

New Production Oper Frankfurt

Direction: David Alden‏
Sets and costumes: Gideon Davey
Choreography: Beate Vollack

King Ouf: Christophe Mortagne
Lazuli: Paula Murrihy
Laoula: Juanita Lascarro
Sirocco: Simon Bailey
Prince Herisson: Michael McCown
Aloès: Sharon Carty
Tapioca: Julian Pregardien

Photo courtesy Frankfurt Opera, © Wolfgang Runkel

Emmanuel Chabrier is not a prominent opera composer with only four titles to his name, of which only L’Etoile gets the occasional performance. The other three are absolute rarities; a few years ago the Wexford Festival presented L’Education manqué. Gwendoline could be seen almost 10 years ago at Rennes. And Le Roi malgré lui is been performed in France every blue moon, at best. And flagship L’Etoile, even if it has enjoyed better luck, isn’t exactly a common sighting. In recent years Simon Rattle has performed it in Berlin as a vehicle for Magdalena Kozena as Lazuli, and it will revived there again next month. Other performances have included Geneva and Zurich, apart from occasional offerings in France.

L’Etoile is a comic opera or an operetta; Emmanuel Chabrier called it an “opéra bouffe”. It contains many dialogues and a few numbers would fit right into some Broadway musicals. In fact, in a somewhat amended version it did play on Broadway—in 1890 as “The Merry Monarch”. All the same, there many truly inspired moments in it, especially the arias that Chabrier wrote for the parts of Princess Laoula and Lazuli.

The Frankfurt Opera’s decision to program L’Etoile—not without risk given the lack of a vocal superstar as the popular pull—has paid off handsomely. There are works that seem made for the public to just go to the theater and have a great time. That’s exactly what this production is about and exactly what happened to me.

Sharon Carty (Aloès) and Juanita Lascarro (Laoula) - Photo courtesy Frankfurt Opera, © Wolfgang Runkel

The plot of the opera is original, absurd, and fun. In an imaginary country King Ouf used to celebrate his name day (Saint Ouf) with a public execution. Having nobody at hand to continue the tradition, he wanders the streets disguised, trying to find an executable subject. Finally he meets Lazuli who vents his temper in the face of King Ouf. Bingo! Just as the impalement is going to be executed astrologer Sirocco heightens the suspense by informing the king that the stars say that Lazuli and the monarch are soul twins and one will die within 24 hours of each other. King Ouf changes his mind about impaling Lazuli, who is instead taken to the palace, where his health and enjoyment are the objective of the court. After a few convoluted turns of mistaken identities and presumed demises, Lazuli gets to marry Laoula—formerly promised to the King—and is named heir of the throne of King Ouf.

If anything is needed in this opera, it is a lively and entertaining stage production. That happens to be what David Alden does, expertly, from beginning to end. It is a production full of imagination, color, and fun… not unlike Alden’s La Calisto from Munich (review here). The performers have a great time on stage which is contagious and spreads to the audience. It is one of the best works I have seen by David Alden with sets and costumes at the service of the comedy, both attractive and colorful. The stage performance from the members of the choir is spectacular. All in all a stage work that cannot be better for a work like L’Etoile.

Paula Murrihy (Lazuli) - Photo courtesy Frankfurt Opera, © Wolfgang Runkel

Karsten Januschke offered what the opera and the production needs from the pit, i. e.   joy, vivacity and lightness. I would love to see him conducting a different repertoire to draw valid conclusions, but this time he was exactly right in his reading. The orchestra proved that it is a very versatile group, since it cannot be easy to play Siegfried and L’Etole within 24 hours.

The real protagonist of this opera is King Ouf, with whom the opera stands and falls. French tenor Christophe Mortagne was in every way outstanding. He is full of life, with unique humor, and what’s more: he even sings! His diction is faultless and he was the true star on stage: A King Ouf—among admittedly very few King Oufs—not to be forgotten.

The vocally most important roles were all well cast with fine singers Irish mezzo soprano Paula Murrihy gave life to Lazuli and she sang the few arias that Chabrier wrote for her with gusto. Juanita Lascarro was also very well suited to her character, Princess Laoula. In fact all the soloists, without exception, were excellent on stage… with special mentions to fun Simon Bailey (Sirocco) and young mezzo-actress Sharon Carty (Aloès).

Jose Mª Irurzun

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E.Chabrier, L’Etoile,
J.E.Gardiner / Opera de Lyon / Alliot-Lugaz, Gautier, Bacquier, Le Roux et al.