Susan Graham spectacular as Grand Duchess
by James M. Keller (via The New Mexican) - The Santa Fe Opera launched its 57th season Friday night by transporting its audience to a madcap realm where political foibles and military scheming are engulfed in a swirl of silliness. On offer is Jacques Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, directed by Lee Blakeley in an energetic, colorful production that lets the piece wend along its farcical path without trying to invest it with any deep meaning, thank you.
The matter is slight indeed. A Grand Duchess with an unbridled sex drive takes an unseemly interest in her military cadets and particularly private Fritz, whom she courts by promoting him rapidly up the ranks until he displaces even her commander-in-chief, General Boum. When clueless Fritz proceeds to marry his sweetheart, Wanda, the Grand Duchess plots to have him bumped off by the unholy trinity of Boum, her aide Baron Puck and her suitor, Prince Paul; but she settles for just demoting him instead and resigns herself to marrying Prince Paul because, as she muses, “When you can’t have what you love, you must love what you have.”
It’s a slender plot to spin out over three acts, but the Offenbachian point of view is that it’s all right as long as you eke out the evening with an abundance of can-cans in which comely dancing girls display ankles, calves, thighs and acres of frilly undergarments; so that’s the game plan, and the piece has an accordingly miscellaneous feel. The libretto specifies that the action takes place in 1720, more or less, and that the players should wear costumes “in the German style, with as much fantasy as is desired.”
Blakeley writes in the program that he has set the work in a military academy in the American Midwest of a century ago. What comes across seems more European in flavor, with loads of definitely-not-American flags, not to mention a glimpse of an obelisk that seems to place the action near the Place de la Concorde. The production appears to circle more around the time the work was unveiled — 1867 — but with a measure of goofball inconsistency that delights rather than detracts. An endlessly long limousine pays a visit from some future decade, and the military lads wear shorts — surely a garment strictly for the pre-pubescent at that time — in an opening dumb-show of scenes from barracks life, which includes a diverting display of gymnastics.
Adrian Linford’s classic, stately sets (lit effectively by Rick Fisher) allow plenty of open space for action. Jo van Schuppen’s splendid costumes fill those spaces with colorful elegance and yards of military braid, and choreographer Peggy Hickey makes them vibrant with copious choreography that the cast realizes with bounding élan.
Spoken dialogue is delivered in English, but the original French text is retained for sung sections, a common solution in American productions of lighter operas. Here the flow back and forth is accomplished seamlessly thanks to the performers’ tasteful reluctance to over-enunciate in either language. This does open the door to interpolating bits that aim to ramp up the humor, like giving Wanda the surname Fish in order to make a joke about “A Fish Called Wanda” — vaguely amusing, I guess, if we were living in 1988 — or, inevitably, lines like, “Did you see the way she looked at your privates?”
Heading the cast is mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, an international star at the top of her game, in her first-ever portrayal of the Grand Duchess. This operetta is less a vocal showpiece than a spectacle, but she plumbs the score with authority. Her stylish rendition of the Act II aria “Dites-lui” was the musical highpoint of the production, displaying a broad dynamic spectrum, expressive articulation and a spectacular voice that is both velvety and penetrating. She looks absolutely radiant in her Act III costume, a glittering wedding gown.
Fritz is played by Paul Appleby, whose small but remarkably appealing voice is focused, supple and sweet as a ripe peach. The occasions on which he managed to project it into the house made one regret all the more the occasions on which he did not.
Soprano Anya Matanovic is an earnest, pure-toned Wanda, and bass Kevin Burdette is an amusingly browbeaten Boum. Baritone Jonathan Michie serves up an oily Prince Paul, and he gets the production’s most outrageous costume: a pink spangled suit and matching pumps that make him a queenly prince indeed. Tenor Aaron Pegram is burdened with one of the production’s few directorial missteps, being made to whine in a Southern accent that seems out of place in these surroundings, its annoyance compounding through the course of the evening.
The company’s apprentice singers are as strong as ever, as evidenced by an Act II chorus of girls reading letters from their soldier-boyfriends, a wonderfully executed domino-topple of cadets at the end of the Grand Duchess’s famous aria “Ah! Que j’aime les militaires,” and a very droll scene in which the conspirators sharpen an assortment of knives, scythes and cleavers.
The company is in an interim year without a chief conductor, and it showed. What has been a crackerjack orchestra in recent seasons was not one on opening night. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume led a forthright reading that too often drowned out the singers and left many delicacies unaddressed. Apart from disappointing timbres and ensemble work from some of the orchestra principals, one wished for shapeliness, precision, tightness and sparkle in the execution overall. But fear not: Musicians are often exhausted going into opening night, and there is no reason Villaume should not be able to whip his troops into more formidable shape for succeeding performances of this enjoyable production.