Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Chabrier L'étoile ROH - a French Fledermaus ?

Emmanuel Chabrier's L'étoile at the Royal Opera House: is it a French Die Fledermaus? Johan Strauus's operetta was a sensation in 1874, so perhaps it's not a coincidence that the two works have much in common.  Both predicate on mistaken identities, on people trying to be what they are not. Just as champagne features in Die Fledermaus, Chartreuse figures in L'étoile. Alcohol  releases inhibitions, anything can happen when you're drunk.

But from thereon the operas diverge.  Die Fledermaus has a very dark subtext indeed: the sparkling fizz hides venom.  Read more about what I've written about it here and here, witha link to a brilliant Nazi era film on the theme. Perhaps  L'étoile has a dark side, but its surface shines - like a star - dazzling all before it.  Madcap zaniness is its raison d'être. Rather than read too much into it, sit back and enjoy.  

Lots of people in tonight's audience were guffawing so much they looked like their sides would split. No doubt it could be done as broad-brush slaptick, but I think I prefer director Mariame Clément's approach, which fits much better with Chabrier's music,  and its quintessental charm.  It also fits in with his piano and orchestral music. While Chabrier adored Wagner, the composers' temperaments were radically different. Wagner fulminates, Chabrier exudes good humour. Chabrier's light, brittle style reminds me of Poulenc, of Les mamelles de Tirésias and of the quirkier song cycles.  I hate using national labels, but there's something very French and down to earth in L'étoile, despite the craziness.   One doesn't lose proportion even when one's nuts. .

Ouf's kingdom exists entirely in the imagination.  Ouf, (Christophe Mortagne) decides that Siroco (Simon Bailey) will die right after him, and they are convinced that they'll both die if something happens to Lazuli (Kate Lindsey).  Superstition reigns, not reason or logic.  One moment Lazuli faces death, the next he's treated like royalty. Princess Laoula ( Hélène Guilmette) descends, literally, from above in a balloon. "Believe a man can fly" as they say in Superman comics.  Laoula and her parents Hérisson de Porc-Epic (what a name - François Piolino and Julie Boulianne) disguise themselves as tradesmen but what they're really out to buy is Ouf.  Ouf might be fantasy Persian, but becomes a Saudi Prince, and an Ottoman in a harem with hordes of Turks in white helmets as chorus.  Exotic Orientalism to wow the audience, event clad odalisques and a pool from which hot air rises (like the balloon, like the plot ). Lazuli tries to escape in a boat, seen here as a flat painted like a small cruiser complete with "waves".  He's lost at sea, brilliantly depicted by having the chorus, lit in the colours of the sea, toss a small boat in their arms. Of course it's not realistic! Realism would be contrary to everything L'étoile stands for. Two English-speaking characters add another dimension, and a monk clad in a white habit operates silently in nearly every scene. He's a Carthusian. Carthusians make Chartreuse. And thus the second act glows in eerie Chatreuse-y green, a huge bottle centre stage from which singers emerge and retreat.  Beer goggles, only posher.

Kate Lindsey's performance stole the show. She's the star of L'étoile, though singing all round was good, especially the ROH chorus, who revelled in the robust gusto of their parts,.  Although the ROH PR machine seems to be building something up for Mark Elder, the conducting was disappointingly unidiomatic. Musically, L'étoile is a series of numbers rather than anything coherent, so there really isn't any need to sound too refined.  More punchiness and pugnacious kick, please. The staging, designed by Julia Hansen, replicates stage design in Chabrier's time, with flats painted in cartoon like pastels, pushed in and out on panels.  Audiences then knew that theatre was the art of illusion.  "Realism" is a curse beaten into modern audiences who watch too much TV.  Claire Seymour will be writing a proper review in Opera Today. I had a lovely time - gosh it's fun not to have to think too hard for a change!

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