New York City Opera's L'Etoile

Opera Bouffe Fluffed to Perfection

By: - Mar 23, 2010

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By Emmanuel Chabrier
Conducted by Emmanuel Plasson
Production by Mark Lamos
Associate Stage Director Alain Gauthier
Choreographer Sean Curran
Set Designer Andrew Lieberman
Costume Designer Constance Hoffman
Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel

Cast featuring:
King Ouf I,  Jean-Paul Fouchecourt
Lauala, Jennifer Zetlan
Lazuli, Julie Boulianne
Siroco, Francois Loup

The New York City Opera
David Koch Theater
Lincoln Center, New York
Performances through April Fool's Day
Photographs by Carol Rosegg

The New York City Opera translates the bouffe in opera delightfully as fluff.  For us that means pure pleasure.  One gentleman associated with the production of L'Etoile announces in a video playing in the lobby of the David Koch Theater where the opera is staged, that the company had considered for one second trying to make L'Etoile consequential and in the next second dismissed the idea.  Thank heaven for frivolity.  

Composer Emmanuel Chabrier held a day job as a government official.  Fortunately Chabrier had decided to attend a performance of Wagner's Tristan, which was then only produced in Germany.  It had been recommended by Saint-Saens, Gounod, Rossini, and Berlioz, among others.  

Chabrier wrote to his boss, the chef de bureau, who he knew was a music fan.  "I have been longing to see Wagner's Tristan and IsoldeÂ…next Sunday this great masterpiece will be given in MunichÂ…I can wait no longer.  I will be back in my office Wednesday morning at latest."

Permission was granted.

When Chabrier started weeping during the performance of Tristan, a neighbor asked if he was alright.  "I can't help it.  I have been waiting for ten years to hear that 'A' on the cellos."

Another friend wrote that Chabrier regarded emotion as the raison d'etre of music, and, swept by Tristan, he realized he must devote himself to music entirely.  On his return to Paris, he quit his day job and started to compose full time. His humility is clear, however, in a remark he made leaving the concert hall in Munich: "There's music there for a hundred years.  He hasn't left us chaps anything to do. Who would dare?"

The librettists Eugene Leterrier and Albert Vanloo were looking around for a young composer to write music for their light, farcical comedy.  Who would think Wagner's Tristan would yield up Chabrier?  The writers had heard some of Chabrier's songs and were convinced he was the man for the job.  H accepted their offer on the spot.  

Chabrier finished this delicious score in about three months and it was an instant hit.  For not so mysterious reasons, the show was cancelled after 48 performances.  The royalties to the theater owner would have switched to the librettists and composer after the 50th performance.  The opera then languished for decades.  

In 1966, the opera in Lyon finally revived L'Etoile and it has been an enchanting staple of opera repertoires since.  This co-production of the New York City Opera with Glimmerglass travels everywhere.  It deserves to.

Mark Lamos is credited with the production, but each specialty is a treasure.   Costumes by Constance Hoffman reference the Folie Bergere and the circus, the sets by Andrew Liebermann are filled with fun, including an executioner's chair with a spike to sit on and do the job. (Yikes!)  Lighting by Robert Wierzel and choreography by Sean Curran complete the package.  Associate stage director Alain Gauthier pulls it all together with comic wit and perfect timing.  

If we were to draw the plot line, you'd see no suggestion of an arc.  Trying to recapture something resembling plot might make the work sound complicated.  It is not.  There is no plot.  Just threats -- of being impaled on a seat from which a sharp-edged spike prominently protrudes, of marrying the King when you are in love with the peddler, of drowning trying to escape marriage, of, of, of.    

However, it's clear that Chabrier learned about politics in his government work.  The king immediately takes a popularity poll (for the purpose of finding the right person to execute).

Some say the King is modeled on "The Little King" of comics.  He looked more like Chaplin's "Little Tramp", marching haplessly around the stage.  The cast to-a-one not only sings beautifully, but dances, acts, and resorts to slapstick.

Jean-Paul Fouchecourt has made the role of King Ouf I his own.  He doesn't have to sing a note to leave the audience in stitches.  Yet his voice is perfect, and the conundrum in which he finds himself with an astrologist who cleverly ties the King's fate both to his own and the prospective executees, is genuinely touching.  

Julie Boulianne in the trouser role of Lazuli is outstanding.  Francois Loup, looking a little like the Mikado as the King's astrologer, delights.  His drunken duet with the King over glasses of green chartreuse is uproarious.  A chorus line of men, dressed in black and carrying umbrellas, look more like Broadway than say Wagner.  All the ensembles sparkle.

If preparing taxes leaves you frustrated and angry, take an evening off and go to L'Etoile. It is better than champagne (or green chartreuse), and will leave you lighter and happier and also with a bold idea for taking care of your local IRS nemesis.