L’Étoile, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, February 2016Posted on 2 February 2016
Is this little-known French farce the sort of thing Covent Garden should be doing? Whatever the answer — and audience reception on its first night was very positive — the ROH certainly did it with great verve.
The production by Mariame Clément with designs by Julia Hansen is a blaze of colour and clever ideas, lit by Jon Clark in a way that allows a single scene to change emphasis from one set of performers to another. Excellent chorus movement, as one would expect in an operetta.
The story is that King Ouf (French wordplay already in the name) always celebrates his birthday with an execution, the victim this year being a pedlar named Lazuli who struck the king without knowing who he was. Complications arise when Lazuli and the visiting Princess Laoula fall in love at first sight. She is being brought incognito to marry Ouf, but the Court Astrologer finds that Ouf’s star (hence the title) is inextricably linked with Lazuli, and the two will die within 24 hours of one another. In one of many added complications Laoula’s guardian, Ambassador Hérisson de Porc-Épic (Hedgehog of Porcupine) commands Lazuli be killed, and a gun-shot is heard. Ouf wants to enjoy his final hours, and throws himself on Laoula, but Lazuli eventually reappears and all ends happily.
The composer Chabrier, a brilliant Wagner-loving pianist, wrote music that members of the orchestra at Offenbach’s Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, rehearsing this piece for its 1877 premiere, claimed was impossible to perform. It certainly has more wit and sensuality than the Offenbach they were used to, and Chabrier plays with rhythms in setting the French language, producing elegance, tenderness and delicacy with music that has been called ‘as light as thistledown’. This operetta went out of fashion in the late nineteenth century yet, rather oddly, was revived in 1941 when Paris was under Nazi occupation. It finally came back into fashion in the 1980s, and this was its first performance at the ROH.
They have certainly gone to a great deal of trouble in producing it, recruiting the witty and well-known singer-actor Christophe Mortagne as Ouf, and Hélène Guilmette as Laoula. It is all very French, but with English comedy by Chris Addison thrown in to the revised dialogue. Addison plays numerous roles, including Sherlock Holmes, and at one point gets into a staged contretemps with Mark Elder, who conducted with huge joy and sensitivity.
Witty main performances and lovely singing by Kate Lindsey, who was superb in the trouser role of Lazuli. But for me the question of whether this production fully brings out the charm of Chabrier’s music rather than submerging it, and indeed whether this operetta suits the large auditorium of the Royal Opera House, remains open. Mariame Clément’s recent productions of Poliuto and Don Pasquale were both for Glyndebourne, which would probably be a better venue for this light-hearted, frothy — oh so French — comedy.
Performances continue on various dates until February 24 — for details click here.