And why not? It had after all
come a long, long way from the days when LA was seen by the
rest of the world as a cultural backwater and the only opera
one could listen to with any regularity was... ummm... the soap
variety. Well, those days are over, and today LA Opera can rightfully
stand shoulder to shoulder with the finest in the world, and
abide by its own rules. As it did with its 20th anniversary
celebration: it threw a party and had a ball - with "The
Grand Duchess" or La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein,
an operetta by Jacques Offenbach, one of his Parisian
hits in the 1860s. Staged for the anniversary in the manner
of grand opera (rich, colorfully elaborate sets and lavish costumes
to the tune of $2M), it
is light and lyrical, hilariously comic and frivolously satirical,
at times downright silly! - the way the composer meant it to
be. And festive - with a happy ending the way birthday celebrations
are supposed to end.
LA Opera put Hollywood in the director's chair in the person
of Garry Marshall, popular veteran director of hit movies (Pretty
Woman, Princess Diaries, Runaway Bride) and TV
programs (Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley).
In this age of mixed media, why not a Hollywood director? And
for an operetta designed to entertain and make people laugh,
why not a specialist in comedy?
And so, with General Director Placido Domingo's blessings, Garry
Marshall, directing opera for the first time, adapted Offenbach's
operetta for today's audience: singing in French as in the original,
spoken dialogue in English, a handful of new characters, (the
major one named Offenbach - an elfin caricature of the composer
- who first appears at the conductor's podium to introduce himself
and the show, with a warning that he, Offenbach, will be back
often - pun # 1 of the evening! (And indeed he does, as narrator,
commentator, self-promoter - at times in the middle of the action,
at other times from the outside looking in.), and more than
a sprinkling of good and bad jokes that never fail to draw hearty
laughs (or occasional groans) from the audience, a lot of clowning,
and some circus-type acrobatics.
||Here, in pictures,
is the gist of the story of "The Grand Duchess".
Star billing went to renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von
Stade who, singing the title role for the first time, was
in good voice and form. A natural comedienne, she charmed
the audience in the role of an older woman chasing a younger
man. Tenor Paul Groves and baritone Rod Gilfry, known to
opera audiences for their more dramatic roles, both showed
a flair for comedy, giving winning performances as Fritz
and Prince Paul. Constance Hauman who auditioned for the
role was delightful as the lisping Wanda (try saying Myth
of Sisyphus!). French conductor Emmanuel Villaume served
Offenbach's elegantly lively music well.
You've got to hand it to Placido
Domingo for having the vision to draw on Hollywood's vast pool
of directorial talent. Certainly something can be gained from
the cross-fertilization that could ensue from this sort of interaction
between opera and the movies, two forms of entertainment (elitist
and perennially struggling for funds vs popular and,
it seems, eternally rich) that in Los Angeles have traditionally
lived separate lives on opposite sides of the tracks. A wider
audience, for example, never a problem for the movies, can only
mean good news for the future of opera.
So, did the Marshall Plan work? Purists of course will always
want their operas and operettas "pure and unadulterated".
But with an audience that seemed to have as much fun as the
stellar cast on stage, it sure did.
Photos: ©Robert Millard,
courtesy Los Angeles Opera