United Kingdom Chabrier, L’etoile: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland / Philippe Forget (conductor), New Atheneum Theatre, Glasgow, 3.2.2023. (GT)
Director – PJ Harris
Designer – Anna Yates
Lighting – Emma Jones
Movement director – Jack Webb
Chorus master – Mark Sandon
King Ouf – William Searle
Siroco – Ross Cumming
Lazuli – Hannah Bennett
Le Chef de la Police – William Costello
Le Maitre – Tzu Ping Lo
Un domestique – Reuben Wilmshurst
Princess Laoula – Marie Cayeux
Hérisson de Porc-Epic – Sam Marston
Aloès – Megan Baker
Tapioca – James McIntyre
Patacha – Fanzhuo Wei
Zalzal – William Semple
Oasis – Laura Coppinger
Asphodel – Jessica Harper
Youka – Rachel McLean
Adza – Rachel Barnard
Zinnia – Parker Millspaugh
Koukouli – Heiltje de Bruin
Le Maire – Claire Lumsden
This presentation of Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’etoile is only the second to be performed in Scotland following the Edinburgh International Festival’s survey of Chabrier 39 years ago. The production in Edinburgh was by the Lyon Opera, who also made the debut commercial recording of the opera. The opera was the first to be composed by Chabrier and influenced by his friend Paul Verlaine and was staged in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, with a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo.
Chabrier was a magnificently gifted composer, however much of his works were neglected; there was a revival in 1941 when L’etoile was staged in Paris and on French radio during his birth centenary. Regardless of the admiration by Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky (who called L’etoile a masterpiece), this opera has been rarely staged in even French theatres. Nevertheless, Chabrier’s debut opera has slowly been revived in the US and in Europe and at Covent Garden in 2016 in a well-received staging.
It is easy to see why the opera was neglected for the plot is quite absurd and difficult to follow for those who are not Francophiles. Yet the music is sparkling in its melodic qualities and richness in orchestral and vocal writing.
Several of the character’s names are puns: King Ouf (Fou), Prince Hérisson le Porc-Epic (Prince Hedgehog the Porcupine), the peddler Lazuli (half of Lapis Lazuli, or aquamarine blue) and Hérisson’s secretary Tapioca (as in the pudding). Laoula’s name has a bizarre connotation: in numerology, it has the life path of 8, suggesting the balance of the spiritual and material planes, power, fame and money. The staging throughout has at its centre a great framed pentagonal structure which at times, lights up and at its centre, images of the king or his bride. Throughout the show, the pentagon revolves assisting the momentum of the swiftly moving events on stage. The costumes are modern and colourful with a penchant towards the absurd and the slapstick excesses of the opera.
Act I takes place in a seaside town in Ouf’s kingdom. It is the day of the annual execution festival, and the king is looking for a suitable victim – yet he is paranoid – and added a clause to his will that his astrologer, Siroco, will die fifteen minutes after his own death. Here, a strange group arrive in the resort secretly dressed as tourists, yet they are ambassador Hérisson de Porc-Epic, his wife, Aloès, his secretary, Tapioca, and Princess Laoula. Their mission, of which Laoula is unaware, is to marry her to King Ouf to settle the diplomatic strains between the two nations.
For reasons unbeknown to anybody other than the ambassador, Hérisson pretends that the Princess is his wife. Whereas Lazuli, a pedlar, is hopeful his fortune can change and gives all his money to the astrologist, Siroco, to see what the stars have in store for him. Lazuli instantly falls in love with Princess Laoula, unaware of her royal status. Here Laoula is the French-born mezzo soprano Marie Cayeux who shows every nuance of charm and humour in her air ‘Tous deux assis dans le bateau’. She is interrupted by the ambassador, who declares that he is Laoula’s husband (even though he isn’t!). Left alone, Lazuli is devastated, and in her air, ‘Oh ma petite étoile’ in the ‘trousers role’, Hannah Bennett is magnificent from the high to the low notes, voiced with splendidly expressed colours and characterisation.
Ouf sees the distressed Lazuli as a prime victim of his execution festival. The festival begins, but just as Lazuli is about to be executed, Siroco reveals that the fates of the king and Lazuli are inextricably linked; the stars predict that they will die within 24 hours of each other. Fearful of his death, Ouf quickly puts a stop to the execution, and Lazuli is taken to the palace.
In Act II, we are in the throne room, where Lazuli is bored and longs for Laoula. He attempts to escape by jumping out of the window, but the king promises freedom should he return. Lazuli declares that he is in love, and the king vows to help him in order to keep Lazuli (and himself) alive. The tourists return now dressed as a foreign delegation, and total chaos ensues: Lazuli tells the king that Hérisson is the husband of Laoula (this is false); the king has ambassador Hérrison arrested and now confuses the identity of his bride assuming it is the ambassador’s wife, Aloès.
Ouf has Aloès sent for the official presentation and helps the two lovers elope, unaware he is helping his bride to escape! Hérisson frees himself and discovers the king has helped Laoula and Lazuli escape. He orders their boat to be destroyed. We see a handheld rocket launcher fired. Yet Laoula survives and is brought in. Lazuli is missing, presumed dead. Ouf and Siroco dwell on their impending deaths.
Act III takes place in the royal crypt, where the king’s coffin is on stage. The Chief of Police tells of Lazuli’s death however Lazuli has escaped harm and overhears the Ouf, Siroco and Hérisson unravelling all the confusion! Eventually, Lazuli reveals himself to Laoula, and in a masterly staged sequence, they plan a second elopement. The king and Siroco attempt to numb the fear of their impending deaths by drinking green chartreuse. Ouf, desperate to produce an heir to the throne, attempts to marry Laoula, if only for a moment, but according to the digital clock, he has run out of time. Ouf climbs into his coffin, but as the clock strikes five – nothing happens. The Chief of Police appears with Lazuli, who was on his way out of town, and the king allows Lazuli and Laoula to be together in a happy ending to this absurd yet hilarious operetta.
Anna Yates’s designs allowed everything to move superbly in line with Chabrier’s colourful and comic harmonies and there were swiftly changing scenes from silly slapstick to the masterly enacted chorus scenes, At the centre was the direction of Philippe Forget and his musicians of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with notable solo passages from the violin of Nikodem Rodzeń, the flute of Agne Burbaite, the oboe of Laura Ritchie with the timpani of Andrew Murphy stunning in their musicality.
Of the singers, the King Ouf of tenor William Searle and Ross Cumming’s bass voice as Siroco, both exhibited fine singing and excellent acting worthy of any stage – most notably in the parody ‘Chartreuse’ duet. Sam Marston as Hérisson de Porc-Epic was excellent in handling his multifaceted role, and his wife Aloès, was superbly characterised by Megan Baker’s deft acting and lovely mezzo-soprano. The large choreographed scenes were outstanding; every secondary character was in harmony with this complex stage work, expressly in the abduction trio, the ‘kisses’ quartet, and the ‘tickle’ trio.
The mastermind of the production was beyond question the director PJ Harris who had masterfully conceived this production true to the composer’s creativity yet adapted to today’s modern world. The stage design by Anna Yates was excellent, enhanced by the lighting and the choreography by Jack Webb and Mark Gibson, making this a highlight of the opera season in Scotland.