In New York, you can currently hear two very different examples of 19th-century French opera. Last Tuesday I saw Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet at the Met, and on Thursday Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’étoile next door at the New York City Opera. Compared to Thomas’s stern austerity, Chabrier is all bubbles. Got to say I prefer Chabrier. This is a score of considerable musical sophistication and refinement, but also not above a long ensemble about tickling. (Hi, Eric Massa!)
And this production is a fun night out. The plot is pure Offenbachian silliness: a king is looking for a victim for his annual celebratory public execution, but his astrologer warns him that his choice’s horoscope is closely linked to his own, and should he carry out the execution the king himself will die within a day. Meanwhile the would-be victim, Lazuli, falls in love with the King’s fiancée. Hijinks ensue. How can you not love an opera that has a “Song of Impalement”? Such non-stop goofiness would become tiring, though, if there weren’t a fair number of lyrical moments as well, and if the music weren’t so consistently inspired.
The City Opera’s production, by Mark Lamos, goes for the goofy end of things, it’s surreal, brightly colored and with a lot of choreographed musical numbers--think a great deal of bobbing up and down. It’s entertaining and effective, and fits the character of the music very well. Even the many choruses get entertaining choreographic treatment. The empty white stage is subject to much bricolage, in the old movie musical sense. The story is cute enough but often an excuse for flights of musical mischief and parody, which the production treats with suitable fantasy. It’s a revival, and while it’s the first time I’ve seen it, I suspect the first iteration may have been a little bit dramatically tighter, and maybe more attuned to the poignant moments in the score. But it’s still great fun.
So the City Opera isn’t the Met. We know this. But this is a great opera (one I doubt the Met could stage successfully), and the production, despite some sketched-in bits, is cheery and silly and inventive and visually more interesting than a lot of things you see next door. So why the rows and rows of empty seats? This company is in a bad place, or rather hopefully getting out of a bad place, and they need your support. By all means go and admire Simon Keenlyside’s
Their remaining two productions this spring are a revival of Mark Lamos’s lovely minimalist production of Madame Butterfly and a production of Handel’s Partenope by the fantastic Spanish director Francisco Negrin. I’m hoping to go to the latter.
Next: This William Christie fangirl sees her idol in person for the first time. Fairy Queen at BAM!
Photos from the New York Times/Sarah Krulwich. Sorry, Times, but I couldn't find any of the current cast on the City Opera website.
City Opera trailer: