Bursting out of a fantastical set and laced with bitingly British new dialogue, the endlessly amusing score by unsung genius Emanuel Chabrier sings out at the Royal Opera House in wild Technicolor. Silly, funny and so intelligent, this mad musical treat is a gem of sublimely surreal but warmly familiar pop-art.
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“Let’s stop rediscovering Chabrier every twenty years. Let’s put him once and for all in his true place, right at the top.” Roland-Manuel, Biographer of Maurice Ravel
The top it is, with Royal Opera House’s eclectic production of this rarely-performed work. Chabrier’s music is a revelation. Persistently funny, it retains a degree of elegance and intelligence that draws it into the smartness of wit just as the dazzling tomfoolery threatens to become rather too silly. The opera as a musical work is detailed and engaging throughout. I particularly admire Chabrier’s marvellous and meticulous placing of space, breath and pause, which the knowing performances of the Covent Garden cast put to proper use. Indeed like all good comedy, whilst both the music and the theatrical performances seem random and daft, under the surface of farce is a decisive and intelligent line of thought that gives this work its direction – even if that direction is somewhat squiggly at times.
Chabrier’s sound is both familiar and unique. A contemporary of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré, Chabrier was famously influenced by the music of Wagner and yet on first hearing at least, little of this seems to have obviously impacted his individual style in L’Étoile. Fascinatingly Chabrier avoided formal training, which may or may not be why his music is so packed with character, improvisational and compositional skill.
Image Source: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/feb/02/l-etoile-review-royal-opera-house-london
This current production by Mariame Clément presents the work in a unique and slightly altered form, including new dialogue that frames the human universals packed into this decidedly French 19th Century comedy for a contemporary London audience. Thinking even a little about what makes comedy funny very quickly reveals that comedy is a decidedly culturally and temporally specific thing, especially given that shared political or cultural heritage is most often the basis – or ‘butt’ – of comedy’s joke. Chabrier’s storyline does indeed include a few time-and-place specific nudges that will particularly delight Francophile historians. However, a great deal of the comedy revolves around human universals of love, mistaken identity, and a generalised unwillingness to confront death without a fight. Clément’s restructuring of the work acknowledges and enhances both of these factors by introduction of the brilliantly foppish Victorian ‘English Gentleman’, Smith (played by Chris Addison) and his French Valet, Dupont. Smith and Dupont’s intermittent commentary on aspects of the story, staging, and even the subtitles re-contextualises the work for a contemporary London audience, very often by pointing out the ridiculous in an exasperated and profoundly British way. Although they have been dismissed by some newspaper critics as unnecessary devices, Smith and Dupont were greatly enjoyed by the audience and fitted seamlessly into the existing work.
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The star of the show is undoubtedly Kate Lindsay as the obnoxious Lazuli. With a swagger that inspires envy, Kate delivers both comedic high points (Je suis Lazuli) and the serious emotional goods (O petite étoile) with vocal control that beggars belief. Sublime, soaring piano moments are contrasted with perfectly pitched sneezes and laughs demonstrating the full range of this remarkable mezzo. King Ouf’s characterful voice is also excellent (Christophe Mortagne), partnering wonderfully with the rumblingly resonant bass of Simon Bailey as the bluffing astrologer Siroco. The chorus of the Royal Opera House are particularly excellent in this production, as Chabrier’s music gives them both the opportunity to demonstrate both their technical skill and slickness as a musical unit, and to enjoy some strong character acting. The costumes are wonderful, with luscious silks and beautiful detail, as indeed is all the set.
Image Source: http://www.roh.org.uk/news/opera-essentials-letoile
In this production the set itself is a special triumph. Just as Clément’s direction and libretto tweaks reframe L’Étoile for its intended audience, the imaginative and eclectic set brings out the fantasy of the Orientalist 19th Century fairy-tale setting with a decidedly British irreverence. In the spirit of Chabrier’s everywhere-and-nowhere-in-particular imagined kingdom, the scenery and costume design juxtaposes Arabian Maghrebi architecture, Bohemian Paris, Ottoman silks, positively Alpine countrysides and more than a touch of Bollywood ‘ouf’ in an entirely glorious celebration of what is wonderful and magical in the cultural creations of humanity. Musical and theatrical operatic devices, such as musical epithets for particular characters, are visually emphasised through apparently random imagery. The poutily gasping face of vintage woman face hails Lazuli in his ‘pedlar’ mode, and scattered bowler hats tend to appear not too long before or after the miserably hatless Smith, for example. The visuals in themselves are culturally humorous with more than a nod to the surrealist and Dadaist movements that influenced Chabrier himself. On the topmost layer, the British context of this production is driven home with clear references to Monty Python and the addition of ‘London’ pigeons in front of classic Parisian, Eiffel tower imagery.
Image Source: http://www.roh.org.uk/news/your-reaction-letoile
The criticisms of ROH’s L’Étoile in the press have run along two main veins: firstly that the production somehow lacks focus, and secondly that the work is somehow too ‘silly’ and not serious enough for the ‘grandeur’ of the Royal Opera House as a venue. In my not-so-humble opinion, such criticisms completely miss the point and spirit both of this particular opera production and of opera as a performing art in general. Chabrier and his librettists did not intend for there to be a geographical, fixed political, or indeed narrative focus to this work and to manufacture one would be to damage the intentionally light and fluffy form of the piece as a product. Clément and designer Julia Hansen have run and run with the potential for farce in the opera, and have produced sugar-sweetness of just enough intensity for a piece that is, after all, only 125 minutes long. This production is intentionally over-full. The excess of visual references to global historical and British popular culture create a world at once familiar and strange, whilst the musical and theatrical pushing of comedy and repetition reflects a slapstick humour Chabrier never really wrote beyond. I suggest that those looking for focus and seriousness find it elsewhere, in its proper place, rather than insisting it appear here. For those seeking a scholarly basis for this suggestion, they need only look to the wealth of writing that links Chabrier directly to the anarchic Dadaist movement within art that I mentioned earlier, and the tendency of his friendship circles towards surrealist and impressionist rebellions against the strait-jackets of the so-called ‘serious’ art forms of their time.
Chabrier’s L’Étoile is a wonderful reminder that really good music does not have to be pinned down by seriousness or ‘focus’, and that there’s nothing wrong with a good dose of silliness on a Saturday night at the theatre. Opera has a reputation for the macabre, the melodramatic and the ‘grand’ that is simply not true of the whole of the repertoire – and shouldn’t be. Art forms captivate the human imagination because of their endless potential to express, and opera is special precisely because it draws together music, theatre, and visual art. Therefore, why should Covent Garden’s glorious theatre restrict itself only to productions that are as gilt and pompous as everybody who has never experienced the joy of opera expects it to be? This production is a masterclass in light opera, and succeeded last night in making an enormous and packed auditorium laugh out loud every few minutes for two and a half hours. Disregarding the brilliant musical foundation of the work, that is an admirable achievement in itself.
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In sum, the Royal Opera House’s production of L’Étoile is a brilliant night out, driven by Chabrier’s genuinely intelligent music in a production that embraces the joy of being silly. I encourage everybody with a sense of humour and a taste of fun to grab a ticket and go see it. I’ll buy you a therapist if you don’t laugh at least once.