At the shore this summer I and my dear younger daughter Annaliese were reminiscing about our ‘seize the moment’ adventure at the New York City Opera’s new production of Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile in October of 2002. We had listened incessantly to random selections from the EMI CD recording in the car to and from her ballet classes; I promised, as only a good father can promise, to take her to L’Étoile if ever there were a production somewhere nearby. And then there was one! We loved it. She was nine at the time.
Below is a stream of critical and embracing consciousness about L’Étoile, clearly one of our favorites, but also about Offenbach’s Les Brigands, another favorite operetta of ours, linked by a renowned-but-not-so-well-known-over-here French singer.
First, though: Naxos has recently released a stunning Blu ray video of L’Étoile, performed at the Dutch National Opera and filmed by François Roussillon, a fellow with a long play list of opera-on-film accomplishments. The production was conceived and directed by Laurent Pelly, whose signature style is already familiar to Metropolitan Opera audiences (Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, Massenet’s Manon and Cendrillon, to name three). He is already well known by fans of French opera and operetta on stage and on DVDs. His art fits L’Étoile to a T.
A little history: Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), born in the Auvergne area of France, was a child prodigy at the piano. Though trained as a lawyer (after all, one needs a practical profession!), he, by now in Paris, frequently escaped the shackles of the career to dabble in composition and solo performances. Chabrier wrote a few scores destined to be light little operas, most of them unfinished, but he completed two comedies: one, L’Étoile (The Star), the comically darker one, which premiered at the famous Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, 1877) and the other Une éducation manqué (A Deficient Education) (Paris, 1879), a smaller, more intimate piece, each to a libretto by the team of Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo).
L’Étoile delights and entertains at every turn, especially musically and vocally. As operettas go, Chabrier’s orchestrations are relatively complex, but light, always light; delightful, never heavy. They make me smile, as do the intelligent light operas of André Messager.*
Chabrier’s phrasing of the vocal lines sometimes mirrors the likes of Hector Berlioz, as in Benvenuto Cellini, but it’s never quite so muscular, certainly not as loud. Even so, apparently the musicians in the pit of the Bouffes-Parisiens found the score of L’Étoile daunting, a far cry from their usual fare. Lazuli’s entrance solo is a rapid-fire tongue twister, the sort William S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, would have been proud of! Maybe he was…Chabrier writes for the female voices in a manner that is both sensual and embracing, often sublime, though teasingly brief, even if, at the time, he was drifting toward the cliff of Wagner.**
More than that, the tale is ripe with the topsy-turvy stuff of operetta: Le Roi Oof Premier, like Gilbert’s Mikado, enjoys a festive execution. The curtain for Act I opens on the King’s birthday, and, no surprise, Oof’s looking for a candidate to play, in a manner of speaking, a very ‘central’ role in the celebration. As it plays out, Lazuli, a simple peddler, is immediately sentenced to a torturous death after slapping the King (who, to be fair, was in disguise and really asking for royal insult). He’s to be impaled, actually, in public. This is bad.
But Siroco, the King’s astrologer, quickly intercedes and brings the grim affair to a halt: Lazuli’s star, he reports, is linked to King Oof’s star: if Lazuli dies, then Oof will die exactly 24 hours later and, on more of a personal matter, Siroco would then be executed promptly 15 minutes after the Oof’s passing, by a whimsical decree made recently by his Royal Highness.
Hold everything!! Lazuli is instantly put under protective custody in the palace.
Before we meet Lazuli we’ve met Princess Laoula, the beautiful daughter of King Mataquin, who rules the neighboring kingdom. She has been promised to wed King Oof, but, prior to the formal announcement of her arrival and subsequent wedding, she wants to get a preview of what she’s getting herself into. Like, for starters, who is this King with a name like Oof?
So she and Hérisson de Porc-Épic,*** King Mataquin’s ambassador, and his wife Aloès and Tapioca, his secretary, enter Oof’s kingdom disguised as the staff of a department store. Well, why not? To make matters more complicated, Laoula asks Aloès to pretend to be her (the Princess) so that she (Laoula) can observe better le Roi (himself) in action.
The tie-together? The aforementioned Lazuli happened to be on the roadside as they (the faux department store staff) passed in a minivan. He fell instantly head over heels in love with Laoula and follows the minivan into Oof’s kingdom. Laoula reciprocates his affections, in spite if the fact that she’s a promised Princess. Then Lazuli slaps the King, Oops! No, Oof!
Suffice it to say that all works out in the end, despite a few highs and lows along the way. For one thing, Lazuli almost drowns, but, whew! he survives…
Well, just as Nanki-Poo ends up with Yum-Yum in The Mikado, Lazuli is allowed to marry Laoula, and King Oof marries Katisha.
Oops, sorry Oof, that’s not right!
Pelly’s vision of L’Étoile is intricate, zany, and at times bizarre, though not surprising given his previous work. He seems to know the boundaries between sane and insane of any given plot. Familiar: the motions of the cast are often choreographed, a Pelly signature. The chorus at times moves in synchronized patterns like a flock of birds. You could say it’s carefully planned chaos, but then ‘carefully planned’ is not chaos: it places the chaos in us. Hmmmmm.
The set designer is Pelly’s steady sidekick Chantal Thomas. Yes, the production is updated, but not to any time obvious; nor obvious are the locations of Oof’s kingdom in time and space. Well, the minivan is of relatively recent vintage, I guess. The sets are tall, a lot of steps, and mostly on wheels to make swift the scene changes on a wide stage.
Pelly, as is his wont, also does the costumes, here in collaboration with Jean-Jacques Delmotte. At times they’re strikingly odd: some of Oof’s minions are members of the chorus dressed as large beagles in suits, tails (but not coattails) and all. Les Demoiselles d’Honneur, there are six of ‘em, are clothed in large pink puff balls. If you enjoyed Pelly’s costumes in his production of Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Met in spring, 2018, you’ll love this one. I think they are wonderful.
Mezzo Stéphanie d’Oustrac is a tough, spunky Lazuli, quick to counter anyone who gets in his way. But, the starsick lover, he also shows a tender side. Hélène Guilmette is a lovely Laoula. Her traveling buddy, Aloès, also lovely (and hot), is sung by Julie Boulianne. The women’s three voices blend together delightfully, lovingly, frequently, sometimes only briefly.
Aloès’s rather stiff-necked husband, Hérisson is sung by Elliot Madore; Tapioca, his sensitive secretary, is sung by tenor François Piolino. The very odd King Oof is effectively portrayed by Christophe Mortagne, a light tenor; Siroco, the astrologer, is sung by Jérôme Varnier; he is also odd, evident by his hairdo, costume and mannerisms, sort of channeling Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. The large cast includes ten other characters including the six pink Demoiselles. Patrick Fournillier conducts the Residentie Orkest The Hague with precision, exuberance and joy.
In sum, it’s a happy score for sure and a fine performance. L’Étoile is, of course, sung in French with French, English, German, Japanese and Korean subtitles. Running time is 115 minutes, it’s in 5.0 audio surround sound, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Yo, but if I and dear Anna were listening to L’Étoile on CD way back in 2002, there must be another, right? Indeed, our introduction to this wonderful opera was the two CD set released in 1984 by EMI with a first rate cast assembled by Opéra National de Lyon, starring the elusive light mezzo Colette Alliot-Lugaz as Lazuli. I was fortunate enough to purchase it before Tower Records began to tank locally (in NYC) in the late 90/early 00s. A little snooping on the then virgin internet, on pages way below the ‘more like this,’ revealed a video of the Lyon production with almost the same cast (!!!!), released by Image Entertainment (on VHS in 1986, later on DVD). Both were conducted with aplomb by the esteemed John Eliot Gardiner, a past master of the French opera and operetta repertory.
Alliot-Lugaz’s Lazuli is engaging throughout, if less rough and tumble than Stéphanie d’Oustrac on Naxos. She has a voice of silk, plain and simple. The cast is composed of ‘resident’ artists of the Opéra National de Lyon: Ghyslaine Raphanel is Princess Laoula, Magali Damonte is Aloés, both lovely, tenor François Le Roux is Hérrison, and Antoine David is Tapioca. Georges Gautier is Roi Oof, Gabriel Bacquier, perhaps more well-known than these artists in the international circuit, sings Siroco.
In contrast to the new release of the Pelly/Thomas L’Étoile (reviewed above), the Lyon video production is softer, more silky, set believably in a world of red fez caps and harem girls in white flowing gowns (here the six beautiful Demoiselles). Morocco? Algiers? Not important.
The beauty of the Lyons DVD version, once you know the audio, is that you can put a face with a familiar voice. The subtitles don’t hurt either. Closer attention to the production values suggests that the video recording of the Lyon production was an afterthought or a project in a subsequent season. Most of the original audio cast is re-assembled, probably a new complete soundtrack was recorded. The singers on stage are lip-synching to the play-back. Clues for this are differences in the overall stage depth of the singing voices versus the spoken dialogue, also the absence of differences in the sound from stage front compared to that from farther back, and, lastly, there are some cuts to another shot of characters who wouldn’t have had time to move that other part of the stage. The audio track of stage noises was probably recorded during the filming, as these are not in the CD recording. But, even so, if you’re eager to see the Lyon cast in action, this is your only option, sound and all. I don’t really care: it’s better than my imagination!
For those who like to look way back: a famous revival of L’Etoile at Opéra Comique occurred in Paris in April, 1941. Recordings of highlights were made between February and June, 1943, conducted by the renowned French conductor Roger Desormière, the same fellow who led the iconic recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, also in April-May of ‘41. In L’Etoile, Fanély Revoil is Lazuli, Laoula is Lucie Thelin, Aloès is Jeanne Mattio. Revoil also recorded Nicklausse in the Cluytens recording of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Opéra Comique, 1948, and the lusty Boulotte in the Cariven recording of Offenbach’s Barbe-Bleue, 1958, with a young Michel Sénéchal.
But back to my dear Colette, I first fell in love with her voice and her spunk in the 1989 CD recording of Offenbach’s Les Brigands (The Bandits) again conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, again with the forces of Opéra National de Lyon. Once again she sings a trouser role, this time that of Fragoletto, a farmer whose property was raided by the bandits. In this production Fragoletto is a chocolatier from whom the brigands have very recently stolen all of his chocolate. Sans merchandise, Fragoletto is, therefore, a person who is looking for an alternate source of income. He joins the band of bandits, complete with a grand formal induction comprising the finale of Act I.
But band of bandits has a dilemma: like Gilbert’s band of pirates (in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance), they don’t seem to make their profession work for them. Their last job was this raid on Fragoletto’s chocolate factory, large quantities of chocolate not being their idea of a grand heist. Worse, Fragoletto has fallen in love with Falsacappa’s feisty daughter Fiorella, sung here by Ghislaine Raphanel. To prove himself a worthy of professional respect, Fragoletto intercepts a wagon train and confiscates a bag containing the portrait of the Princess of Granada, which was to be used as her introduction to the Prince of Mantua prior to their wedding. The wedding apparently will involve the settlement of a debt of three million, whatever the currency is…The clever Falsacappa hatches the plan to substitute Fiorella’s portrait for the Princess’s, which will allow the bandits, undercover, into enter into the Prince’s court. And so on and so forth. Falsacappa is the chef des brigands, sung by Michel Trempont.
Lyon’s Les Brigands also appeared as a video recording released by Image Entertainment on VHS in the same year (later on DVD). Great fun, this one! Check it out.
Interesting that the relationship between Offenbach’s Les Brigands and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance runs deeper than just ineffective outlaws and incompetent officers of the law. As in Pirates, the brigands have their little quirks and the police are ineffective, always arriving late and literally overlooking the bandits hiding right under their noses. Apparently Gilbert was taken with the plot of Les Brigands enough to translate Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto from French to English…which leaves us with the tantalizing prospect of a comic opera by Gilbert and Offenbach. Les Brigands is a fun operetta.
Looping back to the beginning of this piece: in November, 2001, our dear Anna, eight and a half at the time, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to create a French Night for the entertainment of the whole family: her older sister Alex, her mother, and her grandmother, grandfather, and her uncle, all of whom were fans of opera and operetta, the “grands” particularly partial to the French repertory. Anna designed the program, my wife and Alex were in charge of the dinner, I mixed the cocktails, probably made baguettes, I forget at this point…it was a great night! Less than a year later Anna and I went to L’Étoile at NYCO. What goes around comes around.
Enjoy French operetta. Keeps you young and smiling. Also introduce your children early. Then you’ll all be young together and smiling.
Happy 2019-2020 season! OM.
* André Messager (1853-1929) wrote several masterpieces, each both intelligent and charming, including La Basoche (1890), Véronique (1898), and Fortunio (1907), each of which has at least one complete recording. His vocal and melodic lines are woven into lovely endless melodies, reflecting the moods and concerns of the characters. Not surprising, really: Messager conducted, among others, the Paris premieres of Wagner’s Ring, Parsifal, and Die Meistersinger, as well as the world premieres of Charpentier’s Louise (1900) and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. He also was a central figure in the return of the operas of Gluck and Rameau.
** Already under the influence of his friend Henri Duparc, Chabrier became a French Wagnerian, an identity cemented especially after experiencing a live performance of Tristan und Isolde in Munich on March 14, 1880. Composer Vincent D’Indy, also a French Wagnerian and who also was at the performance, remembers hearing a ‘soft sobbing close to us, all the more spasmodic for wanting to be suppressed,’ even before the prelude. It was Chabrier.
Musically speaking, one consequence of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870) was a move away from the decadent debauchery of Offenbach’s operettas to operas dealing with more serious and heroic themes. “Wagnerian” of course meant a larger orchestra and meaningful motifs, but also tales from the middle ages with heroes and love against all odds. Steven Huebner’s French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style. Oxford University Press, 1999, is an excellent source. The quote is taken from p. 255 of Huebner’s book.
After the Munich experience, Chabrier devoted himself to composition, completing his foray into a faux Wagnerian opera Gwendoline, premiere April 10, 1886 at the Théâtre de la Monnie, Brussels and Le Roi malgré lui, premiere at the Opéra Comique, Paris, May 18, 1887. Le Roi malgré lui was performed at Bard College’s SummerScape in August, 2012. Act I of the incomplete Briséïs (a project from 1888) was recorded live from the Edinburgh Festival in 1994 and has been released on the Hyperion label.
Prior to these, Chabrier’s family trip to Spain in 1882 spawned the orchestral rhapsody España. This would become his most popular composition, though the festive Fête polonaise from Le Roi malgré lui is also aired frequently on classical radio. D’Indy wrote the heroic opera Fervaal, which premiered at the Théâtre de la Monnie, Brussels, in 1897.
*** I told Anna that his name was ‘Porky Pig,’ just for the laugh. Actually the name translates as Prince Hedgehog of Porcupine.
**** An abridged discography of Colette Alliot-Lugaz: Zénobie/La Comtesse de Castiglione in Hahn’s Ciboulette, EMI 1983. Lazuli, the peddler, in Chabrier’s L’Étoile, on EMI CDs, 1984. Oreste, son of Agamemnon in Offenbach’s La belle Hélène with Jessye Norman in title role, on EMI CDs, 1985. Lazuli in Chabrier’s L’Étoile, Opéra National de Lyon production, Image Entertainment, 1986, now on DVD. Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Opéra National de Lyon production, Image Entertainment 1987 (well sung, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, but an on the whole brainless, disappointing stage production directed by Pierre Strosser), now on DVD. Jacqueline in Messager’s Fortunio, Erato CDs, 1988 (an excellent operetta). Fragoletto, a young chocolate chef, in Offenbach’s Les Brigands, EMI CDs, 1989. Fragoletto in Offenbach’s Les Brigands, Opéra National de Lyon production, Image Entertainment 1989, now on DVD. Again Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande, Decca CDs, 1990 (Colette, again, is very mellow).
Alliot-Lugaz is also famous for recordings of Monteverdi, Rameau, Haydn, and Mozart operas, also Berlioz songs.