Singer-Comedians Enliven Chabrier’s L’étoile

Chabrier, L’étoile: Soloists, Kevin Murphy (conductor) Robin Guarino (director), University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, Studio Theatre, Cincinnati, Ohio. 15.2.2014 (RDA)   

Emmanuel Chabrier: L’étoile


Ouf the First,  King of the Thirty-Six Realms (sung by Spencer Viator) is looking for an unsuspecting subject to execute, and just when he thinks he’s found his candidate, Siroco, the royal astrologer (Stefan Egerstrom) warns him that the stars have revealed that, once the sacrifice takes place, the monarch himself will die within 24 hours. It’s all very complicated in Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’étoile, a chaotic comedy of confusions, staged at the University of Cincinnati.

 There’s also one of those impossible love affairs between the high and the lowly, as Princess Laoula (Erin Keesy) falls in love crowned-head-over-heels with poor Lazuli, an itinerant peddler of beauty products (Sofia Selowsky). Instead of getting impaled or put to death in some horrid fashion, Lazuli gets wined and dined into a stupor until, satiated with the high life, he begs to be returned to the real world. The King, eager to father an heir to the throne tries to woo Princess Laoula to no avail. A last-moment development occurs when Ouf, coming to his senses cries “ouf!” and all young lovers, wherever they are in his silly kingdom, are united in marriage.

 Other than an occasional production of this opéra bouffe—a hybrid of spoken theatre and French comic opera—L’étoile has lingered on for more than a century in neglectful near-oblivion after its 1877 premiere in Offenbach’s intimate and still-operating Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. The opera is sung here in French with English subtitles. My only quibble is that a humorous work such as this would be better served if sung entirely in English. Here, instead, the spoken dialogue is delivered in the vernacular, with the music sung in French. That said, the young singers negotiate the Gallic hurdles of the text reasonably well, and a few flawlessly, in what was to be the second of three performances. (The umpteenth snow emergency of a dreary Cincinnati winter shut down CCM on Friday, effectively making Saturday the opening night.)

 The cast features several gifted comics who sing well as well as several singers who are nimble comedians. Among the standouts, the silvery-voiced soprano Erin Keesy sang a lovely performance as Laoula, the princess who would love to marry the poor but handsome Lazuli. The fast-rising mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky, a regional finalist now on her way to the Metropolitan Opera’s national auditions, is the ideal singer for the dugazon part of Lazuli, her supple voice with just the right balance of mezzo richness at the low end of the compass and a glistening upper-range. Boyishly beautiful, Selowsky was never better than in the lovely “O ma petite étoile,” a bedtime serenade to her beneficent star sung so as to melt the hardest of royal hearts.

 Guest conductor Kevin Murphy led his chamber orchestra of fifteen players with French panache, and his musical forces responded in kind, delivering a charming performance of this operetta-cum-opera. Leave it to C-CM’s Robin Guarino to dig out this little gem, assemble a gifted cast of a dozen graduate opera students, and give it a simple and zany production.

 Rafael de Acha