The slide show displays a romp through the Polish countryside featuring drunken car crashes, jacuzzi hijinks, and pictures of old ladies falling in the snow. Is this the pictographic journal of a rich college student’s gap year, or the Count of Nangis delightedly describing to his new king how he raised a marching band to act as an army? In the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts’ production of Le roi malgré lui, it’s both. Written in 1887 by Emmanuel Chabrier, this escapist fantasy operetta is one of the many little-known works the Fisher Center has made its mark on the opera world by reviving, and their 2012 production is now available for streaming. Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger and conducted by Bard College president Leon Botstein, it features a rapid-fire modern sense of humor.
Schemes, Mistaken Identities, and Fish Out of Water
The operetta has a convoluted plot that is partly responsible for its relatively rare full productions, but it was inspired by an odd political situation in the sixteenth century in which the Polish parliament selected the crown prince of France to be their new king. Henri de Valois (Liam Bonner) has arrived in a country he finds grim and frigid with few real friends among locals, but plenty of Austrian-sponsored enemies, and he is not entirely opposed to his own overthrow. But since his mother, the true power in France, is the fearsome Catherine de’ Medici, he must at least get himself ousted in a way that seems plausibly not his fault if he wishes to inherit the more desirable French throne. Enter the Polish lady Alexina (Nathalie Paulin), who desires to rid her country of him while having no idea that she fell in love with him when he was in disguise, and her husband, the Duke of Fritelli (Frédéric Goncalves), whom Henri effortlessly bullies into becoming his double-agent. Enter, too, Henri’s friend the Count Nangis (Michele Angelini), whose identity Henri steals, and the count’s peasant mistress, Minka (Andriana Chuchman), who is bewildered by the alarming reports she gets of her lover’s intrigues. Things quickly spin out of Henri’s control when the offended old guard rally under the brooding magnate Lasky (Jeffrey Mattsey), and he ends up wondering whether he and his friends will even leave Poland with their heads.
An Irreverent Take on Grand Opera
Le roi malgré lui is, musically, much more akin to later operettas such as those of Franz Lehár than the earlier comedic operas of Rossini. Chabrier’s score utilizes waltzes and lots of rhyming couplets, but the ominous droning of the chorus, impassioned declarations of vengeance, and lovers’ longing duets that are typical of other treatments of this sort of subject matter are all treated in a tongue-in-cheek manner. (The Fisher Center has even paired this work with Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet to show the more serious side of romanticism.) The plot is driven by King Henri’s fecklessness, and there are several songs devoted entirely to his comrades complaining about or expressing condescending bemusement regarding their hosts, who aren’t even real nobility, while making complete asses of themselves. But the plot is also so convoluted that, for this reviewer, it became impossible to keep track of the dramatic irony that is driving the humor or to maintain much emotional investment. And although Kevin Knight’s set and Mattie Ullrich’s costumes look lush in close-ups as well as tableaus, the balance of the audio recording is not ideal and it seems likely that some of Chabrier’s musical complexity is being lost in a way it might not be when heard live.
Fisher Center Production Provides Amusing Diversion
Strassberger uses the framing device of the actors being introduced alongside the names of their characters on title cards that resemble those used in Golden Age Hollywood musicals. The chamberlain in charge of the king’s coronation watches most of the play transpire on an ancient television while falling asleep eating his dinner; he admits to having understood none of it despite performing his tasks with great zeal. Although much of the humor is sharp and the performers exude sex appeal, this is a lite opera, and fans looking for comedic high opera should keep that in mind. But since Botstein does keep up the energy of the production throughout three hours of musically nimble madness, and the show is rarely produced, for fans of operettas hungry for fresh content, this limited-time streaming is a rare opportunity.
Running time is a little under three hours in three acts.
Originally performed as part of Bard SummerScape 2012By Emmanuel ChabrierAmerican Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein, music directorDirected by Thaddeus Strassberger
READ THE ORIGINAL PROGRAM NOTES HERE.
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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