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Sing for Your Supper: La Périchole at New York City Opera

As the fourth and final presentation of the nomadic New York City Opera, the company produced Jacques Offenbach’s “sort-of-semi-heard” operetta, La Perichole, at New York City Center (It’s original home at its inception in 1944.)

Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2013 New York City Opera

The operetta  is about an impoverished duo of street singers. The girl, Perichole, becomes the mistress of the Viceroy through a series of conundrums. This is much to the chagrin of her clueless partner-turned-husband, Philippe. The piece which incorporates as much singing as it does spoken dialogue, is a romp through funny, charming music and a bucketful of Spanish stereotypes.

Much like the way that Georges Bizet composed Carmen, La Perichole is an opera that functions on nineteenth century stereotypes of the wild and crazy unknown, in this case, Peru. Similarly, that’s why Carmen’s Spain is full of gypsy fervor and toreador brilliance.

In the production by Christopher Alden, brother to director David Alden who recently directed Un Ballo in Maschera at the Metropolitan Opera, is a champion of American “regietheater”. For those who don’t know what that large, scary word I just typed means, it’s German for “director’s theater”. The concept of director’s theater is a complex one, so to explain in a few sentences, it’s going to be hard. “Regie” is the idea that, without much regard to the original music or storyline, a director can put whatever they want onstage. The concepts can be clear cut and heavily pondered, or they can be literal craziness with random objects all over the stage. The idea originated in Germany and is slowly working its way overseas to more conservative and traditional American audiences.

Christopher Alden’s madcap production of a madcap opera was the best production of any opera I have ever seen. I can say that confidently and sincerely.

Now, I’ve always been opposed to regie. I hated(and still do) the way it holds the composer’s texts, music, and intentions in such low regard. Recently, I’ve been “broadening my horizons” and taking a look at all the different types of regietheater, and while yes, there will always be the guy that stages Ballo with a string of naked men in Mickey Mouse masks (Yeah… That’s happened before…), there can be some real meat on the bone in this type of opera direction.

It’s going to take a while for the U.S. to be able to receive regie productions on the German level, but it’s a slow climb. Christopher Alden’s regie production is genuinely fantastic. While I couldn’t find a direct statement from him about the premise, I gathered from the production that it was a very stereotypical modern take on the piece. If the ink was still drying on this opera, the first production would probably look something like what I saw at City Center on Saturday. It’s an update of what the unexposed French aristocracy would have thought of Peru and South and Central America in general. It was a cynical look at the piece’s uneducated premise. In our society of political correctness, this production fits like a thought-provoking puzzle piece.

Now, I’m going to confess something. Most of the time, when I laugh at comic opera, it’s a pity laugh.

I laughed so hard on Saturday, and it was 100% genuine.

Heading the cast were two, remarkable French singers. As Perichole, Marie Lenormand sang the role’s funny passages with a comic jollity and the sensitive pieces with a vocal sympathy that rang throughout the theater. As her partner, then husband, Piqillo, Philippe Talbot matched her every step of the way. He was funny, intense and sympathetic. His high notes resonated throughout the house and this is the type of singer who will make a perfect “Tonio” in La Fille du Regiment if he hasn’t done so already. The man can play drunk pretty well to.

Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2013 New York City Opera.

Also in excellent form was Kevin Burdette as the outrageous Don Andres, the Viceroy, who’s more insecure than a sixth grade girl. The comedy was in his powerful voice, and while the relentless physical comedy antics got to be a little much, it came down to a technically sound and pleasing performance.

Other standouts in the cast were Richard Troxell as Comte Miguel and Philip Littell in the silent role of the “Old Prisoner” (Who’s onstage for the entire performance in this production.). It’s hard to do good, silent comedy, but he had me rolling in my seat and(as a further testament to his talent), didn’t look stupid for one second.

The New York City Opera Orchestra was in good form with Maestro Emmanuel Plasson leading an indulgent performance of the piece. The New York City Opera chorus was also in top form and each member of the 22 singer ensemble was unique and appealing in the theatrical aspect of it.

The sets and costumes by Paul Steinberg and Gabriel Berry, respectively, were appropriately colorful and outlandish. The colorful, vibrant lights were the work of Aaron Black. The rollicking “YMCA” stlye choreography was by Sean Curran.

The New York City Opera that sold me mountains of garbage from their production of Manon is not the New York City Opera I saw two days ago. If this is the new, thoughtful, and entertaining New York City Opera, then I think we call all breathe a sigh of relief. If this is the quality of work they keep producing, this great institution should be here to stay.


One comment on “Sing for Your Supper: La Périchole at New York City Opera

  1. I don’t buy that Regie is about dumping whatever the director wants on stage without regard for music or text, though I’ll admit there are cases of that happening. I think Regie is about exploring what’s in the music and text for a contemporary audience. It’s about challenging the idea that the way we did it 50 years ago must be right because that’s the last time the critic in question had an original idea. It’s about getting beyond the silly idea of the “composer’s original intention” because he/she wasn’t thinking about a 21st century audience when they wrote the piece. It doesn’t always work and it requires more engagement by the audience than an overstuffed piece of fluff but when it does work it’s brilliant and when it only half comes off it ca, at least, stimulate new thinking. Willy Decker’s Traviata, Chris Alden’s Fledermaus and Hans Neuenfel’s Lohengrin are all examples of brilliant theatre that caused me to see familiar works in a new light. I could equally list wioks that didn’t quite come off but were still worth seeing.

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