Kevin Burdette and Marie Lenormand in “La Périchole." Photo by Carol Rosegg.
So, there was a scheduling snafu at the outlet for which I wrote this review of “La Périchole,” so I post it here. And, wow, it seems that my webmaster finally got around to fixing WordPress, too! Good times!
The good news about New York City Opera’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s delectable La Périchole, which opened at New York City Center on Sunday, is that the singing and conducting are superb. The bad news is that Christopher Alden’s staging is a twitchy, puerile mess.
Alden has had a long and often brilliant career at City Opera. His most recent City Opera production, last season’s bleakly dystopian Così fan tutte, had its share of baffling touches but seemed to dip Mozart and Da Ponte’s comedy into acid, burning away the sugar and frills and leaving behind only the anguish of self-awareness gained at cruel cost.
Alden’s Périchole, with an agreeably gaudy unit set by Paul Steinberg, effective lighting by Aaron Black, and swell costumes by Gabriel Berry, takes place in an all-purpose, south-of-the-border resort—officially Peru, though the llama piñatas, cacti, Carmen Miranda regalia, and shiny pimp suits bring to mind Miami or Tijuana as much as Lima. A fairway-green flat curtain shows a corporate rendering of an Incan mask that reappears on an enormous dumpster in the final scene. A bar stands stage right, where nearly all the characters drink themselves blind—again and again (and again).
Jacques (Jacob) Offenbach
And there lies the fundamental problem with Alden’s production. We’ve seen and heard it all before: the spastic movements, sullen pusses, and catatonic stares; the dialogue spat out as machine-gun patter (or with long, portentous pauses); the skivvies and sock garters; the oversexed characters ready to hump anyone or anything within reach; and the props (here, flashlights) brandished in place of naughty bits. The set and costumes could be recycled for stagings of most any Handel opera, or Tannhäuser, or even Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, because they are standard-issue postmodern bric-a-brac that tells us almost nothing about La Périchole’s send-up of imperial pieties, sexual and dynastic politics, Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, and much else besides.
There was nothing generic, though, about Marie Lenormand and Philippe Talbot as the street singers Périchole and Piquillo. Last season’s post-apocalyptic Despina in Così, Lenormand is a beautiful musician with a claret-colored voice of moderate size that she wisely refrains from inflating. Her Périchole, sassy and resourceful, somehow managed to hold herself apart from the mayhem erupting around her. Her Griserie was tipsy and zany but still musically coherent, and she brought warmth and allure to the Couplets de l’aveu and world-weary appeal to Ah! que les hommes sont bêtes.
Like Lenormand, Philippe Talbot as Piquillo relies on verbal point and canny projection to make his lyric tones carry. He rose to dizzying and triumphant vocal heights in Act I and with his distinct Ricky Ricardo vibe made a charming, slightly hapless mate to Lenormand’s Périchole. Talbot and Lenormand, native French speakers, delivered their spoken lines with zing, but the same cannot be said of their Anglophone colleagues; fidgeting aplenty went on in the audience as the lumbering and excessively long dialogue in Act I went on (and on, and on).
As the Viceroy, City Opera veteran Kevin Burdette is a fearless physical actor with a handsome bass voice, but not even he was able to make Alden’s perpetual-pratfalls approach watchable. For no apparent reason, he declaimed a lengthy stretch of dialogue in the final scene in a hissing, maniacal whisper interspersed with tongue clucks while standing with his back turned to the audience. Tall and lean with a rubbery face, Burdette has something of John Cleese’s deranged comic grandeur, and he deserves better than this shabby show.
All of the supporting players sang and acted with panache. Lauren Worsham, Naomi O’Connell, and Carin Gilfry exuded boozy, dissipated glamour as the trois cousines; Philip Littell as the sex-starved old prisoner turned in an uproarious performance and also managed to speak elegant French with a pocketknife in his mouth. Joshua Jeremiah and Richard Troxell as Dom Pedro and Comte Miguel, the Viceroy’s strongmen (and, perhaps, funny-farm keepers), sang well and mugged with gusto. Richard R. Foster, Joseph Demarest, Bridget Hogan, and David Kelleher-Flight all performed capably.
As choreographed by Seán Curren, Bruce Stasnya’s chorus of ladies- and gentlemen-in-waiting in bling and tracksuits slouched and lolled to droll effect while congratulating to the royal bride Périchole. Kelley Rourke’s supertitles neatly balanced accuracy and up-to-the-minute snark.
Rossini once gave a circular but otherwise faultless description of French music as “lively, gay, expressive, witty, intelligible, charming—in a word, French.” In the pit, Emmanuel Plasson cultivated all those virtues, infusing the Act II Maris re-cal-ci-trants ensemble with an effervescent lilt and shrewdly rationing madcap energy and Gallic grace throughout the performance. Too bad director Alden didn’t do the same.
New York City Opera’s production of Offenbach’s La Périchole plays on April 23, 25, and 27 at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street in Manhattan. Tickets and information: www.nycopera.com or 212.581.1212.