Lost already? You're in a sort of French Monty Python with very good music, coming up fast at Covent Garden. Chabrier's L'Étoile opens Monday. Had lovely chats with director Mariame Clément and conductor Sir Mark Elder for a short and sweet feature in today's Independent.
Here's one of the most beautiful bits of the music, the 'Romance de l'étoile':
The king, the pedlar, his lover, the astrologer, Chris Addison and a glass of green chartreuse… Lost already? Welcome to the absurd fantasy world of Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’étoile (The Star), which opens at the Royal Opera House on 1 February.
It’s rare for the Royal Opera to venture into French 19th-century operetta – but they’ve picked a good one. Chabrier (1841-1894) has long languished in the shadows of his contemporaries, among them Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Fauré – and it is excellent to see him back in the limelight. He was well known in his day for his charm, wit and technical brilliance both at the composer’s desk and at the piano. He was friendly with Degas and Manet and collected impressionist art; he was conducted by Richard Strauss, referenced by Stravinsky, admired by Ravel; and his bright-hued orchestral work España even impressed Mahler. His music’s perfectionism, refinement and lightness of touch (L’étoile even includes a Tickling Trio) mark him out as a creator of the highest calibre. Yet like many musicians blessed with a rare gift for writing good comedy, he longed to compose serious opera and later produced a Wagnerian-style drama entitled Gwendoline.
Posterity seems to prefer L’étoile. As its conductor at Covent Garden, Sir Mark Elder says, “The operatic repertoire is so full of wonderfully powerful, tragic melodramas that it’s lovely, especially in winter, to have a fantastical, bizarre, mad comedy instead. The music is so full of colour, contrast and wit that for a first-time listener it’s irresistible.”
Though neglected throughout the 20th century, L’étoile has begun to shine once more in the 21st. In recent years it has been popping up in opera houses around Europe, with airings in Geneva, Berlin, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, among others; a few weeks ago its overture featured in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Saint Sylvester concert conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
But one reason that perhaps we don’t hear enough French operetta generally is that stylistically it’s so difficult to pull off. “It has to have sensuality, but it also has to have verve and attack,” says Elder. “It mustn’t be heavy, yet it must have great brilliance.”
According to the production’s director, Mariame Clément – who is making her Royal Opera debut with it – we can expect “French operetta meets Monty Python”. For her the big challenge is to bridge the gap between Chabrier’s world and that of 21st-century opera-goers – and that is why Chris Addison, star of The Thick of It and Mock the Week among much else, is treading the boards alongside the singers. “The story is very French,” says Clément, “full of misunderstandings, affairs and disguises, a very convoluted plot - but what it has in common with British humour is the nonsense of it! Monty Python is a frequent reference in our staging.”
“With surtitles, speed and style it’s possible to be very entertaining,” Elder confirms. “And I can promise you that we’ve got some surprises for everyone.”
L’étoile, Royal Opera House, London, from 1 February. Box office: 020 7304 4000