Breaking opera ground with once overlooked French jewel
Austin Lyric Opera production revels in effervescent style popular in 19th century.
Perhaps there's a reason Emmanuel Chabrier's comic operatta "The Star" drifted into obscurity after its premiere in Paris 1877.
Category-fixated audiences of later generations didn't quite know what do with opéra bouffe, the mid-19th-century genre that gleefully laced together comedy, witty satire, parody and farce with unabashedly effervescent music.
In a way, the opéra bouffe style (essentially created by composer Jacques Offenbach) was the French equivalent of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals - those shamelessly diverting operettas that traded on wit and slapstick comedy and blended chatty dialogue with memorable tunes.
But is bouffe really opera? Or is it the precursor to musical theater comedies? Or maybe it's just a regular musical after all?
Scholars continue to debate it. But, in the past decade or so, a new appreciation of bouffe-style antics - and in particular Chabrier's "The Star" - has meant the ribald French musical confection has made a comeback in the international opera world.
In a forward-thinking move, and stepping out past the usual repertoire of expected opera chestnuts, Austin Lyric Opera joins the international trend with a critically acclaimed production of "The Star" that opens this weekend at the Long Center for the Performing Arts before it returns to New York City Opera, where it be restaged in March.
Montreal-based director Alain Gauthier suggests that perhaps opéra bouffe is "the original 3-D entertainment." Forget "Avatar," though Gauthier says he loved seeing the groundbreaking film in its IMAX version at the Bullock Museum after he landed in Austin a few weeks ago. "Actually, opera is the original 3-D entertainment," he says. "It has everything there, live, on the stage."
And "The Star," says Gauthier, is about as light and goofy as a 3-D entertainment can get.
"There's nothing serious about ("The Star")," he says. "It's not complex. It's a basic fairy tale, with lots of parody and very charming, very beautiful music."
Gauthier won kudos from tough Montreal critics when he directed "The Star" at Opera de Montréal last season.
For the Austin staging, the spoken dialogue has been translated into English, while the songs and arias will be sung in the original French.
In this production designed by Mark Lamos, Chabrier's shamelessly ridiculous love story is set in a surrealistic Technicolor-hued world that resembles the Montmartre cafés and can-can clubs of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings. (Chabrier counted French Impressionist painters such as Edouard Manet among his closest friends and left an astonishing collection of paintings after his death in 1894.)
A chorus line of can-can girls dances. A giant yellow inflatable chair becomes the platform for comedic bouts. Stars twinkle and fly on and off the stage. And every performer's face is painted with outrageous makeup.
"The show never stops moving," says Gauthier. "It's very surreal, and there's a lot of energy to all the action."
The plot - essentially "boy falls in love with girl" - follows a standard romantic comedy arc. But it has some pretty odd twists.
King Ouf, ruler of an Ozlike kingdom, has a penchant for impaling people: He really likes to do it, especially in celebration of his birthday. But when Ouf's intended bride, Princess Laoula, falls for Lazuli, a poor peddler and the object of Ouf's impaling plans, things get complicated.
Adding to the show's comedic twists and turns, Chabrier wrote the role of young peddler Lazuli to be sung by a woman (in the upcoming production, mezzo-soprano Deborah Domanski). Noted character singer and French baritone Jean-Paul Fouchecourt plays the wacky King Ouf.
"Chabrier is a little forgotten by some people, and that's too bad," says Gauthier, who adds that none other than Claude Debussy once named Chabrier his favorite composer. "The Star" is "just clever and light and charming and filled with very beautiful music."
Well, that's entertainment.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3 and 5; 3 p.m. Feb. 7
Where: Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Information: 472-5992, www.austinlyricopera.org