Chabrier’s L’etoile of 1877, which enjoyed limited success before being neglected for much of the twentieth century, poses a problem for any major opera house today. How can this light, frothy and, above all, brief opera be made to feel substantial enough to justify its appearance in such a grandiose space? The solution of Director Mariame Clément, responsible for Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne in 2013 and Poliuto in 2015, is to introduce two narrators who not only add some length to the evening, but help to guide the audience around the nonsensical, sometimes verging on incomprehensible, plot. While, however, this pair do bring an extra dimension and a reasonable number of laughs to the proceedings, Clément’s approach, with its emphasis on detail rather than bravado, does impair the emotional and comic impact of the evening.
There are times when a measured approach works well, and during the beautiful Overture it is pleasing to see the narrators introduce a little visual interest with their actions without proving excessively distracting. Julia Hansen’s set has a ‘fourth wall’ built into it so that the narrators sit in an ‘English’ room that frames the main Oriental area, the wallpaper pattern also acting as the border to a book illustration. The main set is rendered effectively utilising the type of perspective to be found in traditional Persian or Indian paintings, which automatically lends itself to theatrical spaces.
The scenario is not updated to one specific time and place but since the original takes place only in a generalised Oriental setting, that seems rather appropriate. The narrators feel like standard ‘Victorian’ gents (at one point assuming the guises of Holmes and Watson), while some of the costumes and motifs allude to 1950s glamour. Many of the props are deliberately two-dimensional and carry a Monty Pythonesque air as giant hands point down from the heavens, huge lipsticks rise from their cases and roses grow out of flowerpots before our eyes. The attention to detail is undoubtedly strong as thought bubbles reveal paintings by Ingres and Alma-Tadema, and Millais’ Ophelia is held sideways resulting in her clothes dropping off! The humour is, in fact, given a slightly cheeky edge throughout, although it is always kept in very good taste.
The narrators (Chris Addison from The Thick of It and French actor Jean-Luc Vincent) certainly have their moments, including when their own utterances of fascination at the surtitles are themselves transformed into surtitles. They also have an exchange with conductor Mark Elder concerning encores referencing Italian tastes on the subject. Their ‘interruptions’, however, can put a brake on the ability of the original characters to develop in their own right, and things do not improve as these additional players become increasingly interwoven with the story. The strength of the opera ultimately rests on its light frothiness, and attempting to introduce a whole new layer of humour and plot impedes the ability of the performers to apply energy and pace to what is already there. To show this opera at its best, a degree of intimacy is required, and Covent Garden is rather too big an area to enable the shenanigans to come across in all their glory. The Royal Opera does produce some pieces in other venues, and this creation might have worked far better in a smaller one.
In the pit Sir Mark Elder, celebrating his fortieth anniversary conducting for the Royal Opera, exerts exceptional control over the orchestra, and in strict musical terms the output is very strong being textured, balanced and highly layered. Like the production as a whole, however, it can be a little too measured when a greater degree of panache would be welcome. As a rule, the principals are slick performers in possession of some highly pleasing voices. The three female leads stand out in particular with Hélène Guilmette’s sweet and measured soprano in the role of Laoula contrasting with the more sumptuous tones of Julie Boulianne as Aloès. The highest accolades, however, go to Kate Lindsey who delivers a show-stopping performance of ‘O ma petite étoile’ in the trouser role of Lazuli.
While, however, they are certainly audible, all of their voices would have benefited from having to fill a smaller area. As a result, although there is much to appreciate in the thought processes that went behind this production, it seems a shame that so much effort went into creating it when something far simpler on a smaller stage might have been more effective. I would certainly love to see Clément let loose on a production of the opera at Glyndebourne.