High Camp and Elegance: Alden’s L’étoile

GermanyGermany E. Chabrier, L’Etoile: Soloists, Frankfurter Museum Orchestra, Frankfurt Opera Chorus, Sebastian Zierer (conductor), Frankfurt Opera, 17.11.2011 (JFL)

New Production Oper Frankfurt

Direction: David Alden‏
Sets and costumes: Gideon Davey
Choreography: Beate Vollack
Supervision of revival: Caterina Panti Liberovici

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

Picture courtesy Frankfurt Opera, © Wolfgang Runkel
Picture courtesy Frankfurt Opera, © Wolfgang Runkel

Frankfurt’s production of Chabrier’s L’étoile was reviewed in November by Seen & Heard’s José Mª Irurzun (review here). I was at a performance a week later and really, I could keep this review to three words: “What he said!” Then again it’s such a fabulous production, it’s worth extolling its virtues all over again.

Emmanuel Chabrier’s opéra bouffe 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.

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

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.

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.

Relationships in L'étoile (jfl)
Relationships in L’étoile (jfl)

The plot is well enough summarized in José’s review. A few words about the main characters, instead, and a diagram of the relationships (above). Ouf the First is played by the endlessly deft Comédie Française & Opéra-Comique Paris Ouf-veteran Christophe Mortagne, modeled on Gene Wilder, with strong overtones of Willy Wonka. Street hawker Lazuli is brought to life by the stage loving and stage-loved Paula Murrihy. The hoot of a rôle that is the astrologer Sirocco is done with outlandish Hobbit-sized feet by the hilarious Simon Bailey who seems to do air traffic control for a living, with fortune-telling on the side. Anna Ryberg as Princess Laoula (not Juanita Lascarro, as in the previous performance) was announced as unwell, but no one would ever have guessed it, based on her high-octane wild thing performance. Michael McCown as Prince Hérisson de Porc-Epic was also allegedly indisposed and not seriously impeded. The orchestra under Sebastian Zierer made the music sound easy, a feat in and of itself.

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, and more than many other productions I’ve seen.

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

Jens F. Laurson

Picture courtesy Frankfurt Opera, © Wolfgang Runkel
Picture courtesy Frankfurt Opera, © Wolfgang Runkel