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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Opera Review: La Plaisanterie Polonaise

Le roi malgré-lui at Bard SummerScape.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Motel hobbies: The Act III set for Le roi maigre-lui at Bard SummerScape.
Photo by Corey Weaver © 2012 Bard SummerScape/Bard Music Festival
The Fisher Center sits on the Bard College campus in the quiet college town of Annendale-on-Hudson. This Frank Gehry-designed theater is home to Bard SummerScape, where New York's opera lovers travel to hear works from deep in the repertory that are way off the beaten path of Verdi, Puccini and even Wagner. This year, the festival made its first comic offering: Emmanuel Chabrier's Le Roi malgré-lui ("The King in Spite of Himself") a comic confection that had just three performances at its 1887 debut--before the theater burned down.

The case for reviving Le roi malgré-lui is a difficult one. Although the opera contains some entertaining melodies, the weak libretto undermines the composer's efforts. The plot is a cross between the (failed) 1840 Verdi comedy Un Giorno di Regno and the composer's later Un Ballo in Maschera--with a reluctant ruler running afoul of an assassination conspiracy--and eventually joining it.

Here's the story: King Henri, a callow French nobleman is newly elected to take the throne of Poland. He hates his job. He abdicates, switches identities with his best friend Nangis, and joins a conspiracy against himself. Finally, he (reluctantly) takes back the reins of power and wins the girl, who happens to be married to one of his courtiers. The story contains a series of comic gyrations that can leave even the most jaded opera-goers scratching their heads.

All this skulduggery proved an ideal canvas for  Thaddeus Strassberger, the talented  director whose surreal sensibility infused the Washington National Opera's 2010 production of Thomas' Hamlet. Mr. Strassberger opted to stage the first two acts as television programs (the first: an old movie, the second, a live TV special) watched by a bald, middle-aged man (tenor Jason Ferrante) in a lonely motel office. The motel itself became the setting for Act III, where the complicated plot started to resolve itself and the opera finally began to make some sort of sense.

The singers were superb. Baritone Liam Bonner was both suave and confident as King Henri, injecting comic spin into his lines and delivering the heaviest passages of the role in a pleasing full forte. Even better: tenor Michele Angelini, who made the role of Nangis an exercise in stunning ability, soaring fearlessly over the orchestra and nailing some difficult top notes.

The brightest star of the show was the Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman as Minka, the slave-girl caught up in the intrigue and conspiracy. This is a difficult, high-lying part that has some really beautiful music to sing, both in terms of solo arias (the impressive Gypsy song in the second act) and a stunning Act III duet with Alexina, the king's love interest played by Nathalie Paulin.

The large cast was rounded out by comic baritone Fréderic Gonsalves as Fritelli, the hapless, cuckolded courtier. He matched fine singing with physical comedy, despite  spending most of the opera with a briefcase chained to his wrist. Baritone Jeffrey Mattsey made Latski into an engaging villain with a gruff, macho stage presence.

Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra started well enough, diving into Chabrier's frothy music (which sort of sounds like George Bizet on an "off" day with blatant references to Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann and Verdi's Il Trovatore) with gusto. They overcame some dodgy brass playing in the famous Fête Polonaise, injecting local Cracow color and humor into the proceedings.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.