- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

As the dollar continues its swan dive against the euro, Americans are seriously reconsidering those dream vacations to Europe. This week, avid area Francophiles will be delighted to discover that Paris has decamped to the District as the famed Opera Comique plays its first-ever visit to les Etats-Unis, courtesy of the Kennedy Center’s ongoing Festival of France.

With its roots extending to the era of Louis XIV, the Opera Comique began as an entertainment venue offering parodies of the day’s famous operas. These were akin to what the Germans called singspiel — operas that also contained spoken dialogue.

By the mid-19th century, light comic opera, or operetta, was firmly established as the mainstay of the Opera Comique. Composer Jacques Offenbach, a German immigrant with a flair for bawdy drawing-room comedy and a knack for cranking out popular songs, soon became the toast of Paris for his lavish musical entertainment.

What better work could the company choose for its American debut than his fizzy, frothy, all-too-French confection “La Vie Parisienne” (“Parisian Life”)? With its flimsy plot and casual Gallic attitude toward extramarital sex, Offenbach’s operetta lampoons the idle rich with vaudeville-style jokes, catchy tunes and plenty of the naughty can-can dancing that has made the company internationally renowned.

“La Vie Parisienne’s” characters have been pulled from the usual stockpot of comic opera. Two idle young men, Vicomte Raoul de Gardefeu and his friend Bobinet, are miffed that their favorite courtesan, Metella, is occupied with someone else and vow to create their own fun. The opportunity arrives in the persons of Swedish tourists, the doddering Baron of Gondremarck and his foxy young wife, la Baronne.

With the sometime assistance of their cheeky (literally) servants, local tradesmen and a wealthy Brazilian gambler (the Brazilian) who is enamored of six-shooters and fancy clothes, Gardefeu and Bobinet stage a series of drunken parties to distract the old Swede and clear the path for seduction.

This production of “La Vie Parisienne” is light entertainment in the best sense of the term, chock-full of catchy songs and equal-opportunity comedic jabs at all nationalities and social classes. Opening night seemed a little ragged at first as the company tried to establish rapport in an unaccustomed venue. However, as cast and audience connected, the show began to unfold with greater ease.

Concertgoers expecting a “real” opera will soon discover that this production has more of a dance-hall feel to it. The pit orchestra is small and heavily reliant on piano and percussion. Though the songs are mostly ensemble numbers, in Act I, Gardefeu (Martial Defontaine) has a lovely aria. Franck T’Hezan (the Brazilian), Patricia Samuel (Gabrielle) and Michel Trempont (the baron) also get some nifty party tunes to sing.

Though Americans might find the spoken dialogue a bit tedious because of language differences, supertitles help a lot. The company, according to long tradition, also has updated many of the topical jokes to appeal to a contemporary audience.

The high point of the evening was the spectacular dancing. With unbelievably elastic male hoofers cartwheeling about the stage and scantily clad can-can girls kicking suggestively high and displaying more derriere than the Vegas chorus lines they inspired, Offenbach’s toe-tapping production numbers soon got the entire Opera House involved in the festivities. It was about as rowdy, giddy and thoroughly French an evening as classical music lovers are ever likely to experience. Hard-liners among the spectators might even be inspired to consider forgiving President Jacques Chirac.

Note: the show is decidedly PG-13 for suggestive dancing and brief nudity, although it certainly is more tasteful than Janet Jackson’s recent Super Bowl stunt.

***

WHO: France’s Opera Comique

WHAT: Jacques Offenbach’s “La Vie Parisienne”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $40 to $150. Call the box office at 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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