L’Opéra Français de New York, our most enterprising and stylish presenter of operas in concert, was at it again in Alice Tully Hall not long ago, romping through Offenbach’s Barbe-bleue. “In concert” is perhaps a misleading description of these lively affairs. Although performed in front of an orchestra, the work was fully acted out; the singers appeared in costume; and Carol Bailey’s production design was more than just a suggestion of a set – a comic-strip graveyard motif with portraits of Bluebeard’s five deceased wives, draped in black crêpe, hanging on the back wall. It all worked wonderfully well, in part because Offenbach’s zany opéra bouffes depend more on inspired singing actors than on elaborate décor, and in part because the piece itself is such an irrepressibly tuneful send-up of the old medieval tale. Barbe-bleue is perhaps less well known than the other masterpieces the composer wrote between 1864 and 1868 – La Belle Hélène, La Vie Parisienne, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, and La Périchole – but its musical invention is no less rich.
Most of the ingredients were familiar from past Opéra Français successes, and once again the soufflé was prepared with flair and a sure feeling for Offenbach’s idiom that the French themselves seem to have lost. Christopher Alden’s direction may have laid on the slapstick too broadly for some, but these ribald pieces always respond better to clever vaudeville turns than to twee humor. Besides, the cast’s timing and unbuttoned physical approach to the fun could not have been more polished, especially that of Hugues Saint-Gelais as the put-upon Bluebeard and Michael Sokol as Popolani, the mad alchemist who has been merely drugging the ex-wives rather than poisoning them. Best of all, there was Angelina Réaux as Boulotte, the promiscuous village wench and prospective sixth wife, who runs the whole show. With an unclassifiable voice and a zaftig persona somewhere between Bette Midler’s and Martha Raye’s, Réaux is never likely to have a conventional operatic career, but Offenbach’s exuberant heroines fit her zestful performing style to the ground. Perhaps what made the entire evening so theatrically coherent and musically enchanting was Yves Abel’s conducting, which skillfully conjured up all the melodic tang and rhythmic fizz of this delectable score.