What makes 'L'Étoile' a light, bubbly Champagne of operas
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Jan. 29, 2010
Oenologically speaking, opera is a red wine world. The works for which the art form is best known and that get revived most often – your Butterfly, your Bohème, your Carmen, Traviata, Tosca, and the like – tend toward the dark, thick, and heavy, like Cabernets aged for years in barrels of oak. These chewy reds so dominate the operatic bill of fare that the public can lose sight of the fact that lighter libations exist, that opera also serves Champagne: bubbly, intoxicating refreshments such as Die Fledermaus, The Barber of Seville, Orpheus in the Underworld, and L'Étoile.
Now, if that last title doesn't ring a bell (and for those of you whose high school French is as rusty as mine, it translates as The Star), don't worry about losing your street cred in the opera house. Though well-received when it premiered in Paris in 1877 and hailed by composers from Debussy to Ravel to Stravinsky, L'Étoile cast a pretty dim light in its first century. There was a production in Berlin the year after its premiere, but it took a dozen more years for the work to get to New York City, and then it was under a different title with the score largely rewritten, as it was when the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company staged it in London in 1899. With just a smattering of notable revivals – Brussels in 1909, Paris in 1925 and 1941 – L'Étoile largely languished in obscurity. It's only been since 1984, when the Opéra-Comique and Opéra National de Lyon teamed for a major revival, that L'Étoile has come to be more than a footnote in the encyclopedia of opera. The production and subsequent recording communicated so effectively the opera's effervescent charms that every season or two since has seen another company take a chance on the piece: Opera North in England; Opera Zuid in the Netherlands; L'Opera Français de New York, Glimmerglass Opera, and New York City Opera in this country; L'Opéra de Montréal in Canada; Zurich Opera in Switzerland. And with each new staging, more and more operagoers (and not a few fans of musical comedy) found themselves giddy over L'Étoile's extravagantly comic characters, the lunacies of its fairy-tale plot, and Emmanuel Chabrier's music, as playful and witty as it is ravishingly melodic.
One such convert was Kevin Glavin, who, though an opera singer by trade with some 30 years' experience in comic operas, had no knowledge of L'Étoile until he was cast in a production at Cincinnati Opera in 2006. "This show is not like, 'Ugh, opera,'" he insists. "It's really a fun show. The people in Cincinnati went nuts for it. They wanted more."
What's not to go nuts for? You have an oddball king who likes to celebrate his birthday every year by executing one of his subjects (which is not nearly as grim as it sounds). You have a peddler and a princess-in-disguise who fall in love at first sight. And when the peddler accidentally insults the king, who is also in disguise, he is condemned to be the royal birthday sacrifice, but then the court astrologer reads in the stars that the fates of the king and the peddler are intertwined, and as soon as the peddler goes the way of all flesh, the king will, too, which leads the king to do everything he can to protect the peddler from harm, which is working out pretty well until the ambassador from the princess' neighboring country, who was imprisoned by the king for getting in the way of the romance between the princess and the peddler, orders the peddler shot. In short, you have more disguises, mistaken identities, and romantic complications than you can shake a stick at. And you have songs that celebrate tickling, sneezing, drinking green chartreuse, impending death, and the ineffectiveness of husbands in the matter of their wives' affairs.
Glavin has been delighted to reprise the role of the astrologer Siroco in the Austin Lyric Opera production that opens this weekend, not least because it gives him the opportunity to reunite with the performer who played the king in that production, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. The opera casts the two characters in a classic comic love-hate relationship. The monarch – whose very name, Ouf, sounds like an exclamation of cartoon exasperation – reveres Siroco's auguries enough to reverse course on his plan to separate the peddler's head from his body, but he also changes his will to stipulate that if he, Ouf, dies, then 15 minutes later, the astrologer is to be killed too. Which leads Siroco to be on his guard where his boss is concerned. (Or, as Glavin puts it, "So I have to keep an eye on him or else I'm dead.") And yet, when it looks like the peddler, Lazuli, has gone to his last reward, the two commiserate together over a bottle of green chartreuse, the potent monks' liqueur that has them sozzled in two sips. Siroco and Ouf are a duo in the tradition of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Tom and Dick Smothers, where affection and friction go hand in hand. And Glavin and Fouchécourt relish playing that tension for laughs, something they can exploit with their Mutt-and-Jeff appearance: the big, beefy bass Glavin towering over the slim, diminutive tenor Fouchécourt.
That said, the two men are quick to dispel the impression that they get their yuks from slapstick. They take their comedic cues from The Star itself. First, there's the libretto, which involves much more dialogue than a standard opera. It's one reason that American audiences may relate to the work as being closer to Cole Porter on Broadway than Giuseppe Verdi at La Scala. The original writers, Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, stuffed L'Étoile with jokes for the Parisian boulevard comedy crowd, but in translating the work into English several years back, Jeremy Sams has added even more, some updated and quite topical.
"The text that we have written for us is very funny," Glavin says.
"But it's subtle," Fouchécourt adds, pointing out how the best bits in the opera arise from the situations and relationships of the characters. When he makes a point about L'Étoile, you'd best écouter. The internationally renowned tenor is intimately familiar with the work, having seen the 1984 Opéra National de Lyon revival and played Ouf three times already, most recently at Geneva Opera this past fall. And before this season is out, he'll have two more runs at the role: in a revival at New York City Opera in March and in a new staging at Berlin State Opera in May. He can tell you not only that the music is "gorgeous" but also how it rises out of a specific opéra comique tradition, how you can hear in Chabrier's score the traces of Jacques Offenbach who preceded him and Debussy and Ravel yet to come.
When it comes to the qualities that make Chabrier's opera so light, so sparkling, so fizzy, Fouchécourt finds it in the music. The composer has an uncanny gift for, as Pierre Marc Bellemare wrote in a 2005 essay, "enticing droll effects from various elements of the musical language, making the score of L'Étoile an uninterrupted succession of musical jokes. He has a range of tricks to tickle the listener's funny-bone: the unexpected turn of a musical phrase, laughable contrasts between the libretto and the music, a childlike joy in transforming sounds and even words into something ridiculous, and so on." The music of L'Étoile is, simply put, fun.
And that's a word that keeps surfacing whenever this opera is discussed. The music is fun to listen to. The productions are fun to watch. And for the performers, it's fun to play. Comedy may be hard with other works, but not this one.
"It's absolute fun," says Glavin. "The rehearsals – it's like working on a sitcom. We laugh. We have a good time. Everyone in the room has a good time."
A good time for all? In these times, that's something to raise a glass to. À votre santé!
L'Étoile (The Star) runs Jan. 30-Feb. 7, Saturday, Wednesday, and Friday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 3pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 472-5992 or visit www.austinlyricopera.org.