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With an accent on laughs
‘Etoile,” an airy bit of operatic fluff with a decidedly French accent, opened its brief run this past weekend at Wolf Trap’s blessedly air-conditioned Barns. Penned by minor composer Emmanuel Chabrier in the latter half of the 19th century, this infrequently heard work — an operetta really, with spoken dialogue — has experienced something of a revival over the past decade or so.
“L’Etoile” (“The Star“) is decidedly not a masterpiece, although some critics greatly extol its comic virtues. On the other hand, any opera that boasts of a “Tickling Song,” a “Kissing Song” and a “Death Duet” praising the mind-numbing advantage of chartreuse in extremis can’t be all bad.
In short, “L’Etoile” is an enjoyable musical evening though not a memorable one.
“L’Etoile” trots out its cheekiness before the orchestra plays its first bar. Perusing the program, one unearths characters that seem to leap from the pages of Charles Dickens (even though the libretto is French): the frivolous King Ouf (“oof” or “phew” in French, or perhaps a pun on the French word for egg); his astrological adviser, Siroco (a “windbag” of sorts); a foreign ambassador named Herisson de Porc-Epic (Harrison the Porcupine); and a host of others, including the ambassador’s secretary, Tapioca.
As the three-act opera opens, a disguised King Ouf is in hot pursuit of a fall guy he can execute publicly in a fancy torture chair to amuse his jaded subjects. And what better choice for the annual victim than the youthful peddler Lazuli? Having fallen in love with a disguised princess, Laoula, who’s soon whisked off by the ambassador’s entourage, the headstrong youth bad-mouths the entire country, winning the king’s dubious prize. However, Lazuli is spared at the last minute when Siroco learns he’s intimately linked to the king by the stars. The work’s slim plot degenerates from here.
In the juicy trouser role of Lazuli, mezzo Kate Lindsey is a comic delight. Showing off her considerable skill at slapstick comedy, Miss Lindsey also gets to sing some of the opera’s best music. She doesn’t waste the opportunity to unveil a well-supported instrument with considerable range and plummy low notes.
As the much-put-upon ladies, soprano Erin Morley (Laoula) and mezzo Sasha Cooke (the ambassador’s wife) are at once whimsical and charming, while tenor Steven Sanders (the ambassador) and baritone James J. Kee (Tapioca) make the most of their terminally bumbling characters.
The largish orchestra performed professionally under conductor Brian Garman. Erhard Rom’s outlandish set was functionally eccentric. Robin Guarino’s fussy direction helped focus Chabrier’s minimal plotline. Our only complaint: Most of the singers need a bit more work on their French diction, which seemed — helas — not quite ready for prime time.
WHERE: The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1645 Trap Road, Vienna, Va.
WHEN: Friday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.
INFORMATION: Call 877-965-3872 or visit http://www.wolftrap.org.
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