L'Étoile, Emmanuel Chabrier

New York City Opera

18th March, 2010

Glitter and Be French

It appears—to me, at least—a wise choice on the part of George Steel to have programmed a revival of City Opera’s charming L’Etoile in this, his first (truncated) season, though I must admit the choice, at first, seemed more odd than inspired. Odd because Chabrier’s music is good but not great and the libretto is a trifle. It’s a little like serving an audience dessert when they’ve come for dinner. But the French do excel at dessert and this colorful production by Mark Lamos leaves one happy if not full.

The reason this work serves Mr. Steel’s purpose so adeptly is that it reminds the public of several things that the City Opera does well that, frankly, the Met does not: namely, smaller-scale works with young(er), appealing casts and sleek, smart productions that resist the operatic temptation to “overdue it.” It’s hard to imagine a comedy working this well on the Met stage, no matter the talent level of the director and cast.

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Photos by: Carol Rosegg

The greatest joy in this production, remounted here by director Alain Gaulthier, is found in the bubbly choreography by Sean Curran and the lollipop stage and costume design by, respectively, Andrew Lieberman and Constance Hoffman, lit effectively by Robert Weirzel. The ensemble of chorus and soloists dances and moves in gleeful rhythmic motion throughout the show and the (economically decorated) stage lights up with energy and humor.

The show was well-cast with lighter, shimmering voices; it was a pity that conductor Emanuel Plasson often kept the orchestra playing above the decibel level of the singing. Whole sections—solos, duets—were inaudible while the orchestra sawed away in the new, much-discussed and much-touted pit. The truth is that opera— and singers in particular—does sound better in the newly refurbished Koch theater; sadly, one might not have surmised that from this performance.

The over-playing affected two singers in particular, the excellent mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne and soprano Jennifer Zetlan, both of whom made strong contributions when one could hear them, but otherwise fought against a tide of orchestral sound and, too often, were drowned. Boulianne was the opera’s lead, the young male lover Lazuli; her voice is sparkling and her technique admirable, but in addition to being overpowered by the orchestra, she was sometimes less than exciting in the role. She lacks, for me, the charisma necessary to bring off this brand of comédie. There are, more so in comedy than in drama, certain singers whose performances sail effortlessly beyond the footlights and with whom the audience forms an almost instinctual bond. When an opera is structured as a showpiece for larger-than-life personalities, as is L’Etoile, it doesn’t suffice to just have (very) good singing in a lead role. It requires magic.

There was some of that stage magic emanating from Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as King Ouf. Although his vocal production is waning, he brings a certain twinkle of the eye to his performance that makes one pay attention. Other strong performances in this vein included mezzo-soprano Liza Forrester, making her debut as Aloès, and tenor William Ferguson as Herisson de Porc Epic.

Mr. Steel has announced the 2010-11season featuring several off-the-beaten-track American works along with a revival of Jonathan Miller’s L’elisir d’amore. If this is the new City Opera, I’ll happily take a subscription.


Bottom line: A sparkling production, a worthy revival.


John Costello


response to this review: response@operaticus.com

Production Credits

Conductor: Emmanuel Plasson
Production: Mark Lamos
Stage Director: Alain Gauthier
Choreographer: Seán Curran
Set Designer: Andrew Lieberman
Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman
Lighting Designer: Robert Wierzel


Lazuli: Julie Boulianne
Laoula: Jennifer Zetlan
Aloès: Liza Forrester
King Ouf: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Tapioca: Andrew Drost
Siroco: François Loup
Herisson de Porc Epic: William Ferguson