Opera Boston shows its 'cancan'-do spirit
Delightful melodies, verve fill 'La Vie Parisienne'
There is only one remaining performance of Opera Boston's production of "La Vie Parisienne," but it's a fizzy enough show to deserve a nice long run, and it provides a great escape from the anxieties of living in Red Sox Nation. The audience was happily clapping along to one of the entr'acte tunes.
In this show composer Jacques Offenbach spun out enough captivating melodies to supply a dozen of today's tune-challenged Broadway musicals. Most of the book is pretty thin stuff, but that hardly matters because Offenbach always knew when to bring on the showgirls and how to give them something catchy to lift their skirts and cancan to. And there are a few interesting darker notes. One of the
principal characters, Métella, the courtesan, knows everything there is to know about the morning after, and she sings an aria about it; the louche, lewd Paris of popular imagination isn't all gaity. Rick Lombardo's intelligent direction catches that note of sadness behind all the crazy goings on; he keeps things moving at a smart pace, and the hilarity mounts, but it's not all fun and games. The atmosphere isn't particularly French -- in Geoffrey Dunn's 1961 English translation, or Opera Boston's adaptation of it, people say "OK" a lot. This is the Paris of ooh-la-la, derived from the Hollywood fantasy of the city in musical films like "Gigi" and "An American in Paris." This is not as terrible an idea
as it might seem -- one major source of the clichés about Paris is the operettas of Offenbach, and there is a straight line from them to the Follies Bergere and to Hollywood. Script and Lombardo's direction also provide equal opportunity national and ethnic clichés -- Swedes get it as well as the French, and so do Brazilians, Italians, and a whole troupe of blond-wigged, dirndl- and lederhosen-wearing German tourists. The witty sets by Anita Fuchs frame various interiors with painted drops depicting the lower levels of the Eiffel tower; the backdrop looks like a huge painting by Dufy. Nancy Leary's costumes are colorful and witty, and there's some trim military formation choreogrpahy by E. Loren Meeker to complement the display of legs and ruffled undergarments in the cancans.
Opera Boston fields a mostly regional cast, and part of the fun is seeing local favorites, our Bach, Handel and Verdi Requiem brigade, carrying on in a French sex farce. Singers are about as likely to succeed in spoken dialogue as actors are likely to triumph if they embark on "Nessun dorma," but Lombardo coached his cast well. Tenor Frank Kelley and baritone Aaron Engebreth are a deft pair of sex-obsessed young blades, and both sing admirably; Engebreth is hilarious in a routine about splitting out the back of his admiral's uniform.Baritone Robert Honeysucker is a delightfully unlikely tipsy Swedish baron, with an outrageous accent, or mixture of them, and his voice still produces thrilling sounds. Soprano Kathryne Jennings is amusing as his fashion-conscious wife, and tenor Charles Blandy proves a terrific character actor as a rich, randy Brazilian who disguises himself as an Indian prince. Go figure.
Soprano Jennifer Aylmer brings lots of personality and voice to the role of the glamorous glover Gabrielle, although some of the superhigh notes she threw into the bargain were not a good idea. Singers of the calibre of Emily Browder, Nikolas Nackley and David Cushing are sheer lagniappe in the smaller parts. Métella's part is not larger than anyone else's but she is the conscience of the piece. Mezzo-soprano Gale Fuller is voluptuous of person and of voice, soft of speech but unmistakable in pertinent, complex intention. She sings
alluringly, if not invariably exactly in tune; if she were to fix that, she would be just about ideal. Each member of the chorus became an individual and the orchestra played with spirit, although it sounded a little undersized. In "La Vie Parisienne" there are more melodies than you can shake a stick at, so conductor Gil Rose shook a stick at them, giving each of them a voluptuous curve, a pinch on the bottom, an ooh-la-la, and, when it counted, a half-hidden tear.