L’Etoile or the mezzo gets the soprano (ROH, 20 February 2016)
If your reaction is L’Etoile who? fear not, for nobody1 knows too much about it. To my limited knowledge of French opera this is something very French, with a rather similar ethos to Offenbach. The good news is I enjoy French humour (aka, silly) very much. The other good news is this production does justice to the opera. Right now I couldn’t imagine a better production. On the other hand I could see it sung better.
King Ouf I: Christophe Mortagne
Lazuli: Kate Lindsey
Laoula: Helene Guillmette
Siroco: Simon Bailey
Herisson de Porc-Epic: Francois Piolino
Aloes: Julie Boulianne
Tapioca: Aimery Lefevre
Patacha: Samuel Sakker
Zalzal: Samuel Dale Johnson
Conductor: Mark Elder | Orchestra and Chorus of the ROH
This is an Arabian Night tale told through a stereotipically French filter: cuckolds, lusty women, cheeky git, “benevolent” ruler + Astrologer (ever notice how much the Astrologer features in French stories?), curious yet cynical crowds, lots of tongue-in-cheek twists and turns until the happy denouement.
King Ouf I wants to execute a dissenter on his birthday, as per custom. Though he weasels his way through the crowds (in very obvious “disguise”), this year nobody has any complaints about the government or the king.
Meanwhile, Herisson de Porc-Epic (an epic name if ever there was one! though he’s the cuckold rather than an Epic Swine) has been entrusted by his lord with the very hush-hush mission of bringing King Ouf his bride. Or he’s making it more secret than it should be. Princess Laoula, himself, his wife (Aloes) and his secretary (his wife’s lover) are traveling disguised as shop assistants. To make matters more
French confusing, he’s decided to pose as the Princess’s husband with his secretary (Tapioca) as his wife’s husband (these two are very compliant with his idea).
At the same time (yes, I know, another plot twist?), a cheeky git = door-to-door cosmetics seller (Lazuli) has noticed them and has suddenly fallen in love with Princess Laoula, who, by virtue of being a Princess must be very beautiful. The women have noticed him too and have rather liked what they’ve seen (because cheeky gits in opera = very successful with the ladies. As Susanna so eloquently puts it in Le nozze di Figaro: Che turba giardatura! che mezzo, che figura’: Se l’amano le femmine han certo il lor perche). Che mezzo indeed:
So you see I had very good reasons not to miss this silly fluff. There was music, too, and though it never got overly interesting or striking, it didn’t fall below my boredom threshhold either. Or is that rise above? Whichever it is, it didn’t 😉 I was most impressed by this fine balance.
But back to the mezzo(s), which is the most important bit. This opera boasts a trouser role which requires quite a bit of range from its mezzo. It’s mostly high but there are a few monents where a solid chest register is badly needed. By now I think it’s common knowledge that Kate Lindsey does not possess that particular quality, or if she does she’s gone to great lengths to hide it from us (which could be a Porc-Epic style trick, come to think of it). We shall never know. But that’s not why we make time in our busy schedule to see Ms Lindsey, innit? We (Royal We) do it for her other skills, such as sporting facial hair:
… as well as some nice ppps in the upper register. There is no doubt that KL is a disciplined, hard working singer who puts on consistent performances. Certainly easy on the eye, if I still need to mention that. This was another production that suited her nervous personality by being very (very) busy and giving her things to do all the time (crouching and tiptoing, crawling, climbing scenery). In fact it was so suited, her tendency for overdoing it dramatically did not come through.
Singingwise, though, there is plenty of room left to a Lazuli for the ages. Especially considering this opera has two mezzos (the other being Aloes, Herisson de Porc-Epic’s inconstant wife). Once Julie Boulianne opened her mouth it was clear that she put the mezzo in mezzosoprano, whilst KL did the honours to the soprano bit. Out of this bunch, Boulianne’s voice was the most memorable and I’m not just saying that because she’s a mezzo or because she took it very well when I critised her lacklustre Sta nell’ircana on zetube (yes, singers sometimes check these things, so watch how you run your mouth). Anyway, she has a proper mezzo voice, you won’t have to wonder whether she might be a soprano in disguise.
Mezzo-detour out of the way, let’s get back to the plot: Lazuli is sad the woman’s “husband” (Porc-Epic) has taken her away. Ouf happens by and rejoices that he has finally found someone less than cheerful. He annoys Lazuli further, Lazuli slaps him about, Ouf orders his execution. Much is made of the method: impalement! Before Lazuli is offed, the Royal Astrologer harks Ouf with the news that he has completed his horoscope. Apparently Ouf and Lazuli’s stars are linked (same sign, eh?), which means if one dies the other will as well. Ouf halts the execution, promising the crowd two for the following year. Next comes lots of pampering from Ouf and the Astrologer (Ouf’s will says that the Astrologer is to die 15min after him) towards Lazuli, which means a life of leisure = drinking and women.
Finally the incognito four show up and Lazuli sees the woman he loves. Porc-Epic continues his charade about which woman is who’s wife, so Ouf thinks he has to marry Aloes. He tells Lazuli and Laoula to be merry and sail off into the sunset. Eventually the confusion is cleared and Lazuli is shot at. For about 15min everybody thinks he’s dead after which he comes back and at long last the mezzo gets the soprano, but not before we have a quartet in which Lazuli makes out with the both the soprano and the mezzo (and, in grand French tradition, also with Tapioca). What opera needs is more mezzo-mezzo makeout scenes. There is also a trio (Aloes, Laoula and Lazuli) about tickling a sleeping Lazuli where this producution (sadly) skips the actual tickling, though it provides other hilariously ribald antics.
Maestro did a pretty decent job. I say this not having heard recordings, just based on how he managed to keep it very light, which I think was the correct approach (what else can you do with the musical equivalent of a souffle?). Perhaps bringing out certain (any) details would’ve benefitted the performance. The choir was also pretty good, with quite a bit to do (also dramatically), some of which was done with a snappy vivacity that suited the work but mostly I thought they coasted.
Despite all this criticism, visually I enjoyed myself very much (not just when KL was wooing the soprano), to the point where 1) I hope there is a DVD, 2) I’d watch it again in the house (alas, the cheap seats are sold out). Despite the less than stellar reviews the house was full and people laughed a lot. The applause wasn’t quite as frenetic as usual but KL still got the biggest chunk. I had an excellent seat in the Upper Slips (so steep, there is no danger of heads blocking the view) and good seatmates all around (I count the chaps behind me, since it’s tighter than a gnat’s chuff up there), some congenial coughing, no rustling, lots of good humour, though I must’ve upset about 20 old ladies by having them do the Mexican Wave when I came in from the wrong direction. Say what you will about ROH, the Upper Slips is a lovely neighbourhood.
- Critics not included. And the answer to who? is Emmanuel Chabrier, civil servant by trade, composer by night (between two shags) and friend of some of the most notable artists of his time. ↩