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New York City Opera
The ladies and gentlemen of Peru in Christopher Alden's La Périchole staging at City Center
© Carol Rosegg 2013
Lenormand and Talbot, Périchole and Piquillo for NYCO
© Carol Rosegg 2013
Offenbach's music has often been likened to champagne, but I have never heard a performance in which the simile seemed as apt as at New York City Opera's recent production of La Périchole. Under conductor Emmanuel Plasson, the score seemed to bubble forth, lighter than air, into the City Center auditorium. Tempos were animated but never rushed; even the work's tenderer moments were marked by zip and buoyancy. Marie Lenormand, a splendid French mezzo-soprano, headed a good, zesty cast. The work of City Opera's orchestra and chorus was as crisp as a fine brut and every bit as effervescent.
Christopher Alden's production, seen on April 23, was successful whenever the marvelous music was playing. Alden and choreographer Seán Curran kept the performers moving; the whole stage often seemed like an antic illustration of the music's frothy rhythms. When the ladies of the chorus slowly crossed and uncrossed their legs in the chorus "Bonjour, monsieur le mari," the gesture seemed propelled by the sly minuet itself. Some of the musical staging struck me as overelaborate, and I don't understand why the lovers Périchole and Piquillo were rendered as klutzes in their opening numbers. But for the most part, the creative team seemed to hear the music — a circumstance that can hardly be taken for granted on today's opera stages.
The show was on much shakier ground, though, during its long stretches of spoken dialogue, delivered in slow, overemphatic fashion. Much of the comic business that Alden devised was gross and distinctly unfunny. Kevin Burdette, in the top-banana role of the Viceroy, spent much of the evening humping and farting. In Act III, just when the piece should have been rushing to its finale, he was given a bewildering and tedious piece of shtick, growling like Hannibal Lecter into a stage mic for minutes on end. I had trouble making much sense of the routines for the sidekicks Hinoyosa (Joshua Jeremiah) and Panatellas (Richard Troxell), but the tone was set in the very first scene, when the two loudly batted an ice bucket back and forth along a bar, each repetition digging the bit's grave just that much deeper. The audience typically responded to these gags with a smattering of nervous titters — a response that would make any self-respecting comedian break out in flop sweat.
Paul Steinberg's set, cast in primary-colored mosaics, seemed to place the action in a raffish Yucatán resort — a plausible enough equivalent to the libretto's fanciful "Peru." Some of the show's design motifs were a little less intelligible, in particular the "insect" eyewear worn by Hinoyosa and Panatellas and emblazoned on the drop curtain. Perhaps we weren't meantto understand details such as these but simply to ponder their semiotic associations. For myself, I would have preferred attending to matters closer to the heart of Périchole itself.
None of this mattered when Lenormand was onstage. She maintained an exact balance between the role's elements of irony and sentiment. Even in Périchole's staggering-drunk number, "Ah! quel dîner," she was the soul of elegance. Lenormand is a Despina, a Mignon and Cendrillon Prince, but here the deft offhandedness of her singing, firmly rooted in the spoken word, made her seem less like an opera singer than a creature of the boulevards. When she sang the score's most celebrated number, "Tu n'es pas beau," one could almost think that Offenbach had composed it for her and her alone.
Philippe Talbot, as the romantic hero Piquillo, was an apt match for Lenormand, his limpid tenor emerging with such unforced, natural lyricism that one could well understand why Périchole adored him. Alden's wearisome routines for the Viceroy made it all too clear that Burdette is not a comedian by nature, but in Act III, lamenting Périchole's indifference, this admirable bass suggested an expressive territory in which he could shine. Jeremiah and Troxell may not have been able to redeem their comic business, but their singing exemplified the musical accomplishment of the production. So, too, did the "cousin act" of Lauren Worsham, Naomi O'Connell and Carin Gilfry: their voices blended with the rhythmic and intonational precision of a top close-harmony team. If only the music had never been interrupted.
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