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Royal Treatment

Mark Lamos captures the goofiness and the heart of L'Étoile, Chabrier's comic opera about a king in search of a victim; Mozart's the victim in a new Figaro.

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Timely and provocative as always, Glimmerglass Opera is taking a hard look at capital punishment this summer. No, not Dead Man Walking, the opera that made such an impression recently in San Francisco, but a more lighthearted view of the subject: Emmanuel Chabrier's rarely seen 1877 operetta, L'Étoile. In this buffoonery, King Ouf the First prowls his kingdom incognito to find a culprit to execute, an eagerly awaited annual entertainment at Ouf's birthday celebrations. Unluckily, he chooses the wandering peddler Lazuli, whose star, the king's astrologer, Siroco, reveals, is linked to Ouf's. If the young man dies, says the seer, the king will follow him a day later -- and Siroco himself fifteen minutes after that. Worse, Lazuli has just fallen in love with Ouf's fiancée, Laoula, and . . . well, let's just say the plot thickens.

Actually, the libretto is more bizarre than truly witty, certainly not in the same class as the inspired satirical operetta texts that Offenbach and Sullivan set around the same time. But that hardly hampered Chabrier, whose exquisite score has been adored by generations of French composers, from Debussy and Ravel to Satie and Poulenc -- even Stravinsky proclaimed L'Étoile a masterpiece. It would be a pity if those encomiums have put off general audiences, since the very qualities that professionals dote on can go over the heads of more casual listeners. Chabrier's tunes are abundant and catchy, but they never quite go in the direction one expects, while his harmonic twists continually surprise, and his accompaniments are full of sly thematic inventions. It definitely takes a cultured and alert ear to savor all the sparkling compositional wit and generous musical spirit of L'Étoile.

Despite all that, whenever this connoisseur item is presented with zest, affection, taste, and care, it seems to triumph. And so it does at Glimmerglass in a staging by Mark Lamos that appreciates both the work's goofiness as well as its warm heart. The stage is never still, but all the business is light, amusing, true to the piece, and full of good fun -- even the elaborate Act I finale, which contains a vivid description of punishment by impalement from behind, a naughty touch apparently suggested to the composer by the poet Paul Verlaine. The production is also gorgeous to behold. Andrew Lieberman's color-coordinated Art Deco sets are full of fantasy, and Constance Hoffman's richly imagined costumes suggest a collection of zanies who might have danced right off a Toulouse-Lautrec poster.

Many past singers of Lazuli who have looked for their lucky star in this enchanting work eventually become stars themselves -- a young Frederica von Stade was first noticed when she sang the part at the Mannes School in 1969 -- and Christine Abraham might be next. She has just the right boyish figure for this ardent teenager, the stage is hers the moment she appears, and her light mezzo-soprano can caress a melody as effectively as it can sparkle with laughter. The entire cast, in fact, sings and acts with unusual grace and precision. Especially good are Kevin Burdette (Siroco), as antic and elastic as Jerry Lewis yet never missing a note, and Karina Gauvin (Laoula), whose unblemished soprano and winning manner make her the perfect operetta heroine. Torrance Blaisdell does a delicious comic turn as King Ouf, and all the loonies in his court are consistently inspired. Stewart Robertson's deft musical direction sets the seal on a marvelous show, which will soon travel south from Cooperstown to the City Opera.

Productions of repertory staples at Glimmerglass seldom go in for far-out experimentation, but familiar operas are, for better or worse, often given a tweaking to provide a bit of spice. For this summer's The Marriage of Figaro, director Stephen Lawless keeps the action strictly in period, and Benoît Dugardyn's sets -- basically a series of artfully arranged fluted columns, trompe-l'oeil draperies, and practical doorways -- at least give a suggestion of pre-French Revolution classical style. But by the time this "mad day" reaches its conclusion, the action has become positively surreal. Instead of the specified garden by night, the stage is dominated by toppled columns and a huge bed -- a threatening and, by now, overused symbol -- which virtually the entire cast takes turns jumping in and out of as they sort through their relationships. There are no smiles of a summer night here as Mozart's warm human comedy degenerates into an ugly, coarse sex farce.

Lawless does the singers no favors either -- I've never seen a Figaro cast directed in ways to make the characters look quite so repulsive. Count Almaviva is encouraged to act like some sort of oversexed reptile, appearing half-naked in a grotesque corset for his first assault on Susanna. The hot-as-a-hornet page boy Cherubino must have perpetually sticky hands, so often do they stray to his crotch. Much of the time Susanna behaves like an irritable scold, Figaro seems mostly bemused and ineffectual, while Countess Almaviva comes off as aloof, chilly, and utterly unsympathetic. It was wise to blank out the supertitles in the fourth-act finale, during that sublime moment when this contrite and humiliated but still hateful count asks his countess for forgiveness -- the audience would surely have roared with laughter.

Needless to say, the singers don't stand a chance. Dean Ely sings the title role with an evenly modulated, attractively textured bass-baritone, but he is a cipher onstage when he should be deftly manipulating everyone in sight, especially Christopher Schaldenbrand's offensively swishy, spottily sung count. Joyce Guyer succeeds in giving her big aria, "Dove Sono," a shapely and expressive interpretation, but by then it is too late to save the character. Whatever vocal points Nicole Heaston (Susanna) and Valerie Komar (Cherubino) may score are largely negated by their irritating stage presence. Even the orchestra sounds sour and bad-tempered under George Manahan's direction. Luckily this is one misconceived Glimmerglass production that will bypass New York.

L'Etoile
The opera by Chabrier, staged by Mark Lamos, conducted by Stewart Robinson, starring Christine Abraham.
The Marriage of Figaro
The opera by Mozart, staged by Stephen Lawless, conducted by George Manahan, starring Joyce Guyer and Christopher Schaldenbrand.
Both works presented by Glimmerglass Opera.


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