|Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe commanded the stage from her first entrance to her final note.|
A grand performance of Offenbach operetta
Opera Boston this season has made a big investment in stars, building two of its three productions around singers of international caliber. Last night in the Cutler Majestic Theatre, the curtain went up on Offenbach’s “La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein,’’ in a production expressly created for mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. It all pulls together winningly. Offenbach’s score is masterfully featherweight entertainment, and with this cast, “La Grande-Duchesse’’ is easily one of the most enjoyable things the company has done in years.
The operetta, with a libretto by the same team (Meilhac and Halevy) that brought you the libretto to “Carmen,’’ is set in a fictional 18th century duchy in which trouble is afoot. The Grand-Duchess is coming of age and taking a mettlesome interest in the affairs of state, so her senior advisers concoct a war of distraction to keep her occupied. She knows nothing of war but finds the ritual splendor of military life to be the sweetest aphrodisiac and ultimately falls for Fritz, a simpleton private who, it turns out, is devoted to his equally humble girlfriend, Wanda, and oblivious to the Grand-Duchess’s advances. She even promotes him all the way up the military chain of command, rankling his former superiors to no end. An assassination plot is hatched but ultimately put aside. Fritz is allowed to marry Wanda, and the Grand-Duchess makes her peace with her obsequious suitor Prince Paul.
The music is witty and often seductively tuneful, and David Kneuss’s staging is full of energy and motion. It also looks good, with the costuming (by Robert Perdziola) the most lavish I’ve seen in an Opera Boston production. Dialogue (wisely) is in English translation, and the music is sung in the original French.
Over the years Blythe has been making the imperious Grand-Duchess into one of her signatures roles and she commands the stage from her first entrance to her final note. Her voice has the range to cover easily the many low-lying portions of this role and also the pure power to slice through an orchestra and chorus with apparent ease. But she also inhabits her character in a way that’s utterly persuasive, finding more nuance than you might expect in such a role.
Scott Ramsay’s tenor is modestly proportioned, but he made a sympathetic Fritz; James Maddalena was truly excellent as the irascible General Boum; Frank Kelley sang well and showed his gift for physical comedy as Nepomuc; Torrance Blaisdell, Lee Gregory, Wendy Bryn Harmer, and David Kravitz were all strong. Gil Rose and the orchestra gave the score a wonderful lilt and buoyancy. Catch “La Grande-Duchesse’’ if you can.