L'Étoile

Music, Classical and opera
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MAIDS OF HONOUR WITH KATE LINDSEY AS LAZULI

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PIOLINO AS PRINCE HÉRISSON DE PORC-EPIC BOULIANNE AS ALOÈS GUILMETTE AS LAOULA LEFÈVRE AS TAPIOCA

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CHRIS ADDISON AS SMITH KATE LINDSEY AS LAZULI

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KATE LINDSEY AS LAZULI

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CHRIS ADDISON AS SMITH SIMON BAILEY AS SIROCO JEAN-LUC VINCENT AS DUPONT

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HÉLÈNE GUILMETTE AS LAOULA

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CHRIS ADDISON AS SMITH

Comic embellishments including Chris Addison can't conceal this jolly French opera's fundamental thinness

It's probably something of an indictment when the best bits of an opera aren't original but added by its director. Such is the case with Mariame Clément’s production of ‘L’étoile’ (The Star) by late-nineteenth-century French composer Emmanuel Chabrier. And Clément’s contrivances begin immediately with the appearance during the overture of two actors playing a pair of commentating toffs, one French, the other Chris Addison – the comedian and ‘The Thick of It’ star, whom many had come specifically to see.

Ironically, it was their comic interventions that raised most of the laughs, leaving the rest of Chabrier’s opéra bouffe to flounder in its delightful but forgettable music, post-modern satirising of its genre and absurd, inconsequential plot.

While diverting, the fourth-wall violations by Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent to explain this incomprehensible French-language drama for the benefit of the English-speaking audience produced the effect of dragging out the spoken dialogue, while Vincent’s deliberately thick French accent got in the way of elucidating a paper-thin plot concerning a king seeking an execution victim for his birthday. This, of course, immediately creates associations with Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’. However, the British duo never produced a libretto as lame as this nor set it to music as pretentiously in grand-opera style as Chabrier. And while the sumptuous varied orchestration is very listenable, it promises something more substantial on stage: with conductor Mark Elder beating it along at a dirge-like pace, the laboured comedy drags even further. 

Despite the vacuity of the plot, there are fine comic turns from tenor Christophe Mortagne (King Ouf) and bass Simon Bailey (his Astrologer). But it was mezzo Kate Lindsey in the trouser-role of love-sick pedlar Lazuli that truly charmed. Generally, though, the singing is polite and underpowered; the voices fine for operetta in a more intimate venue, but not in the Royal Opera House.

Production values are very high at the ROH and there are other aspects to enjoy: Julia Hansen’s designs are an attractive pop-up theatre behind a large golden picture frame, resembling the illuminated manuscript of some spurious Arabian tale, embellished with Terry Gilliam-esque large cut-out hands, clouds and elephants, etc.

Although first performed in Paris in 1877, this is the first staging of ‘L’étoile’ at Covent Garden. And it is an enjoyable piece of Gallic fluff: light-weight, nineteenth century French kitsch, but strangely ambiguous in structure – too musically sumptuous for operetta and too dramatically frivolous for grand opera.

By: Jonathan Lennie

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