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The Stars of L’Etoile, Day 41

March 17, 2010

When I posted on Facebook that I enjoyed the dress rehearsal for L’Etoile at New York City Opera today, my friend replied, “Glad to hear it. I really want NYCO to survive.” So say we all. Despite their recent and extreme financial difficulties, City Opera remains a valid and necessary alternative to the grandeur of their famous and incredible next-door neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera (my favorite place to work).

Last Friday, my frustration with the production, direction, and acting in the Met’s Attila had me blogging at 6am. Today’s dress rehearsal of Emmanuel Chabrier’s comic opera L’Etoile left me feeling much happier about my artform and profession, not just because of the obviously more light-hearted themes. Like Attila, Mark Lamos‘s production of L’Etoile (which had its NYCO premiere in 2002) uses one set for most of the performance, this time a series of wavy structures with mirrored panels. Unlike Attila’s bizarre Avatar-like rainforest, this set allows so many different settings and moods, and the lighting effects can truly shine (Not to mention, it served the opera well, rather than distracting or destroying the action).

As a comic opera, the team explored some ridiculous but clever ideas. Kind of campy but charming I thought, when the mezzo soprano Julie Boulianne sang a moving aria as Lazuli, first under one then several giant “lucky” stars. Little did I know I had yet to see scooters with kickstands and umbrellas and a giant inflatable fluorescent yellow throne reminiscent of something from Blues Clues. In my opinion, bass François Loup as the court astronomer Siroco and tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as King Ouf I enjoyed the most brilliantly entertaining use of the set while singing a duet praising Chartreuse in front of a background of floor-length green tinsel that began slowly waving as they drank.

With a cheeky plot typical of most comic plays or operas in such a whimsical production, one could easily distract himself from any sub par acting or singing.  Thankfully, the performers deliver both consistently across the board.  From the smaller roles of Doug Purcell as Patacha to King Ouf I himself, the opera singers rang out clearly in the newly renovated house, maintaining character and intention throughout.  I couldn’t have been happier to see François Loup, a friend and teacher from the Maryland Opera Studio, in amazing voice and superb humor as I have always seen him in his performances.  As the court astrologer, he and the incredibly funny Fouchécourt as King Ouf I delivered some hilariously convincing scenes and spoken French dialogue.

The comic quartet of Laoula (Jennifer Zetlan), Hérisson de porc Épic (William Ferguson), Aloès (Liza Forrester), and Tapioca (Andrew Drost) played brilliantly off of one another and maintained the perfect timing and energy level demanded in such a performance.  Having already seen tenors Will Ferguson and Andrew Drost in the past, I feel grateful to know such consistently good musicians and actors.  Jennifer Zetlan as Laoula and Julie Boulianne as Lazuli carried out an authentic first love romance and although the tickling scene between them and Aloès seemed the weakest to me in the entire opera, the pair easily drew the audience into their plight.

Of all the entertaining acting moments, I enjoyed Adam Alexander‘s final entrance as Chief of Police the most.  Despite an incorrect cue given from backstage that placed him in the scene early, Adam actually managed to improvise some solid humor, in French.  Sorely unusual in my experience with operatic acting.  Also turning my head, Jennifer Zetlan’s voice has a stunningly unique, clear, and compelling quality that had me constantly waiting for her next entrance.  In the pants role of the opera, Julie Boulianne played a convincing boy (a quality I find exceedingly impressive) while singing some flawlessly floaty high notes and warm but pleasantly unforced low notes.

The chorus and orchestra sang and played reliably well, and I confess the chorus has me looking forward to my summer with the Bard Festival chorus in Der Ferne Klang.  Although I can imagine no better place to sing and work than my home at the Met, the extra chorus productions there tend to have less action and acting for such a large group of singers.  I look forward to the times when I can also sing in choruses like the one at NYCO and Bard, where the singers dance or move and really act in just about every show.  Admittedly, not every opera chorister does all of these things convincingly but as someone who likes to think she does, I envy them at times.  Of course the full time chorus at the Metropolitan Opera has a much more varied role; perhaps I “just” need to land one of those positions!

All in all, I only regret with NYCO’s L’Etoile that the house lights came up while the orchestra continued to play after the performers had bowed and the curtain had descended.  Perhaps one might brand me a purist, but to me that blurs the lines between music and muzak far too much for such a solid but underestimated company.  Regardless, I loved L’Etoile and sincerely thank Suzanne Schwing for bringing me along to the open rehearsal.  In the final moments of L’Etoile (not to ruin the suspense) the singers turn to sing a final address to the audience.  The subtitles read, “Please patronize this place where we give you smiles, till Cio Cio San arrives, at least.”  Indeed.  Go see L’Etoile from March 18-April 1 and do “patronize this place” where so many amazing singers and actors add a little extra life to our amazing operatic community.

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