Trying too hard: L’Étoile at the Royal Opera House

Chabrier – L’Étoile

Ouf 1er – Christophe Mortagne

Siroco – Simon Bailey

Prince Hérisson de Porc-Épic – François Piolino

Tapioca – Aimery Lefèvre

Lazuli – Kate Lindsey

La Princesse Laoula – Hélène Guilmette

Aloès – Julie Boulianne

Patacha – Samuel Sakker

Zalzal – Samuel Dale Johnson

Dupont – Jean-Luc Vincent

Smith – Chris Addison

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Mark Elder.

Stage director – Mariame Clément

 Royal Opera House, London, England.  February 1st, 2016 

Tonight marked the first time that Chabrier’s l’Étoile had been performed at the Royal Opera House and for it they assembled a fine cast of mostly francophone singers and one of the most promising French stage directors.  L’Étoile has some of those addictively catchy melodies that tend to stay in the mind for days afterwards but combined with a plot that’s paper-thin and a narrative that remains highly predictable.  In a way it felt that Mariame Clément had to compensate for this by adding some superfluous layers to the story.  Not only was there the constant presence of extras but she also rewrote the dialogue in collaboration with Chris Addison who performed a character called Smith.  Smith engaged with Jean-Luc Vincent’s Dupont in English and Dupont served as a link between the singers and Smith delivering his lines in a Gallic-accented English.  We were subjected to entirely predictable gags about Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and the bedroom tax that I could see coming twenty minutes before they actually arrived; and the interactions between these characters and the rest of the cast felt laboured holding up an already creaking narrative.  It’s a shame because the singers gave us some well-pointed and vividly characterized renditions of their roles, both musically and in the spoken dialogue, and if Clément had only let them drive the show fully, it might just have been more successful.  As it is, I left with the overwhelming impression of a show that tried too hard, relied far too much on visual gags and unnecessary extraneous detail as if either overcompensating for a perceived weakness of the work or trying too hard to be funny.

Production photo of L’Étoile © ROH / Bill Cooper 2016.
Production photo of L’Étoile © ROH / Bill Cooper 2016.

The leaden humour wasn’t helped either by Mark Elder’s pedestrian conducting.  While the Royal Opera strings sounded much better than they have for a while, apart from a few passages of scrappy ensemble, I felt Elder failed to point the rhythms or give the music the ‘swing’ it really needed to fully come alive.  His approach felt far too heavy on its feet and lacked the ultimate degree of élan to deliver the wit it needed.  The chorus was marched on and off and occasionally requested to perform some stylized movements.  At one point, the ladies looked as if they were having a marvellous time performing the cancan.  The gentlemen were good on the whole though there was one passage where ensemble threatened to fall apart and there were a few penetratingly wide vibratos among the ladies that really compromised the blend of the sound.  Interestingly the small semi-chorus of maids of honour was nicely done with decent blend.

Kate Lindsey as Lazuli and the Chorus of the Royal Opera House in L’Étoile © ROH / Bill Cooper 2016.
Kate Lindsey as Lazuli and the Chorus of the Royal Opera House in L’Étoile © ROH / Bill Cooper 2016.

Fortunately, we were given some splendid solo singing from a very fine cast.  In the past I must admit that I’ve found Kate Lindsey somewhat bland as an interpreter despite being extremely technically proficient.  Tonight was different.  She sang with impeccable attention to the text and really used the dialogue to create as rounded a character as possible.  She demonstrated some wonderful shading of the tone in her ‘ô petite étoile’ and also brought the vivaciousness of ‘je suis Lazuli’ to life.  The voice has an attractive sheen to the sound, she has a good legato and made a decent stab at a trill but I left with a slight feeling that the registers aren’t always completely integrated.  Still tonight was one of those occasions where I left the theatre pleased to see an artist gaining more authority as an interpreter.

Christoph Mortagne brought his impeccable comic timing to the role of Roi Ouf 1er.  He delivered the dialogue with a genuine sense of wit.  His singing is perhaps a little rough and ready – he’s a character tenor after all – the sound somewhat chalky and ends of phrases not always completely sustained.  Yet this was a performance that lived and I hope to hear him again under different circumstances.  He was joined by two fine Quebec singers.  Hélène Guilmette brought her delectable soprano to the role of la Princesse Laoula.  Her glamorous voice has a wonderful silvery fizz at the top with a distinctive fast vibrato.  She is an imperious actress and like her cast mates made much of the text.  Julie Boulianne has gained an additional roundness to the sound and even more colours than when I last heard her.  My feeling is that this is a voice that will grow even further and gain even more richness over the next few years.  At any rate Guilmette and Boulianne are singers to watch.

Kate Lindsey as Lazuli in L’Étoile © ROH / Bill Cooper 2016.
Kate Lindsey as Lazuli in L’Étoile © ROH / Bill Cooper 2016.

The remainder of the cast was more than decent.  François Piolino got off to a little hesitant start, the voice not quite responding fully, surely this was due to first night nerves but he rallied nicely enough.  Aimery Lefèvre gave us a very handsome baritone with an easy line and I would certainly like to hear him again in a more substantial role.  Simon Bailey sang and spoke in excellent French, his grainy baritone holding its own.

Kate Lindsey as Lazuli and Chris Addison as Smith in L’Étoile © ROH / Bill Cooper 2016.
Kate Lindsey as Lazuli and Chris Addison as Smith in L’Étoile © ROH / Bill Cooper 2016.

Chabrier’s score has so many memorable numbers that stay in the mind long after listening.  Yet tonight didn’t quite work.  It certainly wasn’t due to the principals who delivered their music and lines with good timing and strong musicality.  Rather, it felt laboured due to a production that tried to do too much; the addition of a superfluous English-speaking actor who seemed to have been placed there due to a fear that the Royal Opera audience couldn’t understand an entirely predictable plot without having it signposted with predictable gags, and the extraneous stage business that cluttered and drew attention away from the main narrative.  Combined with conducting that felt as heavy handed as the staging, I’m afraid that despite the excellent singing tonight I left the theatre with decidedly mixed feelings.

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