Chabrier – L’Etoile

Opéra Comique, Paris, Wednesday December 19, 2007

Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Production: Macha Makeïeff and Jérôme Deschamps. Sets and Costumes: Macha Makeïeff.
Lazuli: Stéphanie d’Oustrac. La Princesse Laoula: Anne-Catherine Gillet. Aloès: Blandine Staskiewicz. Le Roi Ouf 1er: Jean-Luc Viala. Hérisson de Porc Epic: Christophe Gay. Siroco: Jean-Philippe Lafont. Tapioca: François Piolino. Comic actors: Jean-Marc Bihour, Philippe Leygnac and Patrice Thibaud. The Monteverdi Choir, L’Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

For many years, Offenbach productions in France were of two equally unsuccessful kinds: grim, humourless, black-leather “Berlin” deconstructions or, more often, a sort of amateur-British-panto style, faux-naïf and filled with clichés and hopelessly unfunny “gags” (often also sung to arrangements for a kind of Broadway ensemble) talked up – this being France, where Jerry Lewis is not only “knighted” for his services to arts and letters but also a Commander of the Legion of Honour - as a perpetuation of or tribute to a great slapstick/vaudeville tradition of the past. These were associated in most minds with director Jérôme Savary, former director of the Opéra Comique. I thought that, with the work done by Laurent Pelly for Marc Minkowski and Savary’s departure, we’d seen the last of them.

Well, for Offenbach we may have (though I doubt it), but the new management at the Opéra Comique have got off to a dire start by applying the formula to Chabrier’s L'Etoile. I went expecting to discover a work of great charm (that’s what I’d always read about it) but charm was one of many things lacking in this stupid staging. Makeïeff and Deschamps are a famous couple admired (apparently) for their theatrical professionalism, but this might as well have been directed by Benny Hill on an off day. Deliberately cheap, provincial, painted sets (perhaps making a virtue of necessity: the Opéra Comique is on a tight budget by French standards), silly, 50s bumpkin costumes, silly, stiff wigs, disco-dancing gestures from the chorus (wagging finger, hand on hip), leaden delivery, boring interventions by mimes… The staging was brightly-coloured and occasionally worked in “grand” ensembles; but the potentially excellent cast, with the obvious ability to charm in a different production – we’ve seen some of them do just that in Les Paladins – were simply not allowed to shine.
Gardiner's stolidly English conducting (not much "chic populaire" there) and a not-especially-impressive orchestra were no help.

Critics from both the
FT and Le Monde found the show interminable. They have to stay to the end. We gladly left at the interval.