L'Étoile (Royal Opera House)
Chabrier's comic opera makes its first appearance at Covent Garden
Gastronomes wouldn't go to Fortnum's for a frankfurter; they'd fit the menu to the venue. Something of the kind applies in opera too, and it's the main reason why Mariame Clément's jolly production of Chabrier's rarity struggles to sparkle. The Royal Opera House is simply too big and grand for it, and the director's cosy comic sensibility - well suited to the more intimate Glyndebourne setting of her splendid Don Pasquale - is defeated by scale.
L'Étoile is what the French call loufoque - a madcap, farcical and affectionate piece of nonsense. But it is also melodically charming and, occasionally, blissful, which is why it's just about kept its place in the outer reaches of the repertoire. There's zany King Ouf and his long-suffering astrologer, a windbag called Siroco (Simon Bailey), plus the inevitable assortment of lovers playing mixed doubles.
To these, Clément has added two non-singing characters of her own: the oh-so-English Smith and a Gallic buffoon called Dupont. As played by Chris Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent, their job is to give the silly narrative of Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo a helping hand across the unforgiving ROH footlights. Both do a professional job of it, despite the limited potential of national stereotypes and Sherlock gags, but they're on a hiding to nothing and end up getting in the way.
While Julia Hansen's picture-book stage-within-a-stage owes more than a little to Terry Gilliam, it would be a mistake to equate L'Étoile with Monty Python. Its absurdities are gentler than that: closer to Shakespearean comedy in their dependence on mistaken identities and fugitive lovers. And it's oh so French. When the heroines, climbing over rocky mountains, encounter a lone man, their natural impulse (in a delicious comic duet) is to tickle him.
'Music that grins'
Hélène Guilmette as Laoula, the king's reluctant fiancée, and Julie Boulianne as her friend Aloès, sing with great charm and a splendid sense of idiom. But in an opera (and an auditorium) that cries out for high definition it's Christophe Mortagne and Kate Lindsey who deliver the goods. Mortagne's riotous King Ouf is superbly defined just this side of caricature, and he supplies a surprising degree of musical eloquence.
It is Lindsey, though, who shoulders the beast, and she does so in style. As the pedlar Lazuli, yet another trouser role (she sang the Composer in Glyndebourne's Ariadne auf Naxos and was one of the best Cherubinos I've seen in The Marriage of Figaro), she gets all the best tunes and delivers them with exemplary projection and characterisation. Her animated performance crosses those distant footlights with ease.
The score itself is sweet and lolloping, with plenty of bright strings punctuated by stopped cymbals. If you only know Chabrier through his orchestral miniature España, that's still enough to give you a sense of his good-natured style. It's music that grins most of the time, then once in a while delights with a touch of tenderness - as in Lazuli's "O ma petite étoile" which the audience lapped up.
Sir Mark Elder celebrates 40 years of regular appearances at Covent Garden with this production, and he enters into the swing of it like a young'un. But he conducts a little too symphonically and thereby homogenises some of Chabrier's colours. As for his players, they're up for anything, including a spot of banter with Mr Addison.
While L'Étoile shines brightly in places, ultimately it could do with a little more wattage. Stlll, it makes for a charming evening, and for once nobody booed.
L'Étoile plays in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 24 February.