L'Étoile (The Star)
You can thank your lucky stars for this opera of big, colorful, bouncy fun
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 5, 2010
L'Étoile (The Star)
Dell Hall at the Long Center, through Feb. 7
Running time: 2 hr, 20 min, 701 W. Riverside, 472-5992, www.austinlyricopera.org
Talk about living under a lucky star. Just when the peddler Lazuli has unwittingly insulted the King of the 36 Realms (see, his majesty was wearing a false nose and glasses at the time)
and the poor lad appears doomed to execution by La-Z-Boy (see, this large, nasty spike springs up when you recline), the royal astrologer barges in to say that Lazuli's fate is entwined with the king's, and if the peddler perishes, the king kicks the monarchical bucket, too. In a flash, Lazuli is being fêted by the king and is heaved into a humongous, yellow inflatable armchair that looks like it came from the den of the Jolly Jaune Giant.
We must be living under our own lucky star to be blessed with a production like this one of L'Étoile from Austin Lyric Opera. It's just like that outsized armchair: larger than life, colorful, not a little ludicrous, and bouncy bouncy bouncy, which, in these days of uncertainty and stress, makes it a lifesaver.
The foundation for the show's buoyancy comes from composer Emmanuel Chabrier and librettists Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, whose 1877 opera suggests how Gilbert and Sullivan might have sounded had they been born on the opposite side of the English Channel. The music capers with the same infectiously merry air as Sir Arthur's – albeit with a continental effervescence – and, as with Sullivan, just when you think Chabrier's nothing but bubbles and fluff, he brings forth a melody so lusciously lush as to make you swoon. (And conductor Richard Buckley works his musicians to make it ravishing.) The story is on par with those G&S gambols full of first-glance romances, constraining customs, convoluted legal hindrances, and the odd family curse. On top of the above nonsense, Lazuli is mad for a princess from a neighboring country who is supposed to marry King Ouf, but neither peddler nor ruler knows that's who she is because she's been masquerading as the wife of the diplomat who squired her there, and ... well, you get the idea. It's a house of cards built from a deck that's all jokers.
ALO's staging builds on that with animated stylishness. Literally. Andrew Lieberman's set and Constance Hoffman's costumes (created for Glimmerglass Opera in 2001) feel made by a Warner Bros. animator on a Dom Pérignon bender: an op art wall studded with googly eyes, can-can girls in candy colors, men in black suits holding open umbrellas as they glide across stage on scooters, the astrologer in a lime-sherbet driving coat and cherry-red fez, the king swallowed in a fur coat so voluminous that his head looks like an egg popping out of a raccoon's mouth. The tall, curvy, mirrored walls flanking the action tell the tale: This is a fun house. And stage director Alain Gauthier and choreographer Jeff Michael Rebudal play up that notion with cartoon schtick, mock ballet moves, melodramatic gestures, and dance steps from the Ministry of Silly Walks, which the performers execute with admirable foolery. Mezzo Deborah Domanski evokes Lazuli's raffishness and boyishness with enthusiasm, while soprano Nili Riemer, as his sweetheart, Laoula, could show Dudley Do-Right's Nell a thing or two about playing the pure-hearted ingenue. Austin mezzo Liz Cass relishes the sauciness of the diplomat's wife, Aloès, and bass Kevin Glavin makes every appearance of the astrologer Siroco an occasion for big fun – especially when he's playing off Jean-Paul Fouchécourt's Ouf. The French tenor inhabits the little king with such crisp comic formality, it's clear why he's been tapped to play the part everywhere from Cincinnati to Geneva. And the ALO chorus – singing, dancing, scootering, and doing more than they seem to have ever done before – is a joy to watch, because they're also having more fun than ever before.
And why wouldn't they be? This is a merry Star, made to sparkle and give delight. And so it does, in abundance. For which we may, as they say, "thank our lucky stars." Merci beaucoup, L'Étoile!