08 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: ‘The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein’

Celebrate! Susan as the Grand Duchess.
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

There’s so much fun to be had in Santa Fe Opera’s new production of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, once you get past a fatal flaw in the staging concept of director Lee Blakeley — so let’s get it out of the way. By transplanting this ultra-European gem to the United States, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, Blakeley makes the piece more immediate, but at the cost of the work’s darker underpinnings.

A fine essay (by Gavin Plumley) in the program explains that Offenbach’s operetta is not merely a fizzy trifle but a pointed satire. The rise of nationalism and militarism in Europe around the time of the premiere of Grand Duchess, in 1867, had important consequences, as France had seen already and was about to see again: the attempt by Napoléon III to set up a French empire in Mexico was crumbling; three years later, his adventurism in Europe led to the Franco-Prussian War.

While it’s true that jingoism is an apt enough equivalent of European militarism, and one which had dire consequences that the majority of Americans don’t seem to have considered at the time, it’s also true that nowhere in the U.S. would the headmistress of a military academy (if such a person existed) have had the power to send her pupils off to die in battle — as the Grand Duchess gleefully does.

Maybe Blakeley’s conceit would work, if this “Gerolstein” were one of those miniature steampunk empires that Jim West kept stumbling upon in The Wild Wild West — and I rather like the idea of the Grand Duchess as a feminized (and much taller) version of the diabolical Dr. Lovelace, with the power of life and death over her minions. But Blakely doesn’t carry the concept that far. Instead, he achieves the singular feat of making Offenbach’s operetta at once more immediate and more trivial.

Susan has this effect on me, too.

I hasten to underscore, however — you really don’t think much about this while you’re watching. Blakeley’s production is great fun, with often striking sets, costumes, and choreography; and it showcases a number of remarkable singing artists. With Emmanuel Villaume conducting a restored edition of the score, it’s a Grand Duchess to remember.

Leading the pack, of course, is Susan Graham, who from all appearances is having a high old time as the lusty Grand Duchess. Decked out in gowns designed by Jo van Schuppen, she lets loose an inner diva, imperious, capricious, and very funny. Watching her review her troops is like watching a very greedy little girl in a toy store, though there’s never any doubt that her intentions are grown-up. And she looks gorgeous.

It’s hard to believe this is the same singer who incarnated Berlioz’s Didon (at the Met) and Argento’s Tina (in The Aspern Papers in Dallas) just months ago. While she generally takes care to include comic numbers in her recitals, she seldom essays completely comic roles: one knows that her timing will be flawless, and that she’ll know just how far to go for laughs, but it’s a treat to see her construct an entire character.

Susan also sang Offenbach’s Belle Hélène here in Santa Fe, in Laurent Pelly’s production, in 2003. French repertoire is her specialty, of course, and since all the songs in Grand Duchess are performed in French (presumably because so many have only recently been rediscovered), she’s able to draw on her understanding of the language and her sensual delivery of the text. Ornamenting some lines and caressing others, ecstatic in her love of “militaires,” she sounds absolutely radiant — a far cry from the stereotypical, late-career Grand Duchess. This is a role debut for her; I’d like to think she’ll return to it often.

Ah! que j’aime les militaires!

One did wish that Villaume would rein in the orchestra a bit: at various points in the evening he drowned out all the singers. But he leads with all the verve one could want, and the restored material does a great deal to illuminate the characters’ emotional lives. The climax of Act II is like an explosion in a fireworks factory. Overall, the score is a testament to Offenbach’s seemingly inexhaustible melodic gifts, with effervescent, memorable numbers following in rapid succession — which Villaume certainly seems to enjoy.

In his reading of the score, you never wonder why Offenbach was so popular in his day, though I do regret that his operettas aren’t performed more often in the U.S. today. If things had worked out differently, Madeline Kahn might have made her debut with Santa Fe Opera as the Grand Duchess, in a staging by Charles Ludlam and a translation by Michael Feingold, in the 1980s. Maybe that would have given Offenbach the boost he needed.

In the present production, the young lovers, Fritz and Wanda (played by Paul Appleby and Anya Matanovicˇ) are among the prime beneficiaries of the restored material. Their duet in Act I is delightful, and they deliver gorgeous singing with surprisingly spunky characterizations — especially in Matanovicˇ’s case. Not least with her resentful glares directed at Susan, Matanovicˇ fleshes out an otherwise conventional type, revealing a steely resolve that suggests Wanda might make an estimable despot herself.

Appleby was a memorable Hylas in Troyens at the Met with Susan, and his Fritz is as lively as Hylas was dreamy. Few tenors in operetta can have thrown themselves into demanding stunts with the zeal that Appleby shows here — to the point that he injured his ankle. Hobbled, he keeps going, like an Energizer Bunny with high notes.

Paul Appleby as Fritz.

Kevin Burdette, as General Boum, is in a league of his own, kicking up his heels and performing gymnastic routines even while singing in a resonant bass-baritone; he’s equally at home in pratfalls and dialogue. Having seen his Archibald in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience at Glimmerglass and his Ogre in El Gato con Botas with Gotham Chamber Opera (among other roles), I knew he’d excel here. His command of the stage is complete, no matter how silly the business at hand. If this man isn’t working constantly, then there’s something rotten in the state of Opera World.

As his partners in crime, Baron Puck (here a Catholic clergyman, for some reason) and Prince Paul, Aaron Pegram and Jonathan Michie deliver their fair share of laughs, too, along with almost incongruously pretty singing. Michie’s physical characterization is especially fun: tall and rail-thin, he moves like a rubber band.

Partners in crime: Burdette, Michie, and Pegram.

A corps of eight dancers enlivens the stage at several points, with flips and an elaborate can-can at the close of Act II, and the cadets dance, too. In their uniforms, they’re indisputably — and quite appropriately — sexy. I note with pleasure that one of those cadets, Dan Kempson, steps forward in the small role of the Notary.

Though this production might have done more to make its satirical points, it’s certainly enough to take your mind off your troubles — and almost enough to take your mind off the inconsistency in the staging concept.

The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 24. For more information and tickets, click here.

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