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La Grande-Duchesse Fetching Franco-Bostonian Entertainment


On May 4 at the Cutler Majestic Theater, Opera Boston presented its closing-night performance of Jacques Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, an opéra bouffe in three acts. In addition to presenting a generally satisfying and wholly entertaining performance, the company successfully avoided the pit-and pratfalls often associated with this genre.  Much of Offenbach’s appeal lies not only in his clever and catchy tunes, but also in the social and political satire he and his librettists worked into the operettas.  In lesser productions, this often gets misinterpreted as simple slapstick. But in this case, director David Kneus was able to make the show funny — innuendos and all — without having it degenerate into farce.

A great part of this success was thanks to the cast, who were required to sing their numbers in French but speak their dialogue in English, an effective (and historically precedented) theatrical device. Stephanie Blythe cut a whimsically imposing figure as the Grande-Duchesse. Her rich, Marilyn Horne-like voice filled the hall with a stunning presence that took some getting used to in this light-opera context. But she was rarely overbearing (unless called for), and her range of expression was remarkable. And although she did not engage in the physical burlesquery that most of the other cast members did, her comedic timing in both song and speech was impeccable.  Scott Ramsay presented a charmingly boyish Fritz, with a smooth, facile voice colored by a salon-esque sound perfect for French operetta. James Maddalena was an enjoyably grouchy General Boum; and Torrance Blaisdell and Lee Gregory threw themselves into the roles of Baron Puck and Prince Paul, respectively, singing and acting with over-the-top flamboyance that walked but never crossed the line between comic and inane.  Wendy Bryn Harmer was energetic as Wanda, though she had some trouble expressing the youthful innocence of the character. Her strong, agile voice was a bit too dramatic for the part, and she seemed awkward in her attempts at being girlish. (The dowdy costumes she was made to wear were no help either.)  Regardless, everyone on stage was clearly having a grand old time, and it was infectious; a good thing considering the three-hour length of the work.

Robert Perdziola’s set-design was endearingly simple and probably close, at least in spirit, to what the original production might have looked like.  It consisted primarily of large backdrops in various styles of 19th-century painting and a few judiciously selected props. The period costumes he chose — Wanda’s premature aging effect notwithstanding — allowed the performers to blend into the scenery as if they themselves were part of the picture; a clever use of space, since the stage was so small (for such a large cast) that the players could often do little more than stand and pose anyway. Still, there was some lively choreography, especially in trio numbers with Boum, Puck, and Paul, as well as a delightfully goofy sort of “anti-Can-Can” in the third act performed with gleeful abandon by the male chorus members.

The performance was led by music director Gil Rose, who exercised confident control throughout all the acts. Although he was unable to capture the burgundy-hued brightness and Parisian sparkle that really make Offenbach’s music come alive, his tempi were brisk enough to keep the momentum flowing and the audience from drifting. The orchestra was beautifully balanced, and blended well with the singers.  In fact, all the elements of this attractive production came together for a fetching bit of Franco-Bostonian entertainment.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I was at the same performance. I felt that Scott Ramsay, while good, was constantly overshadowed by Stephanie Blythe and Wendy Bryn Harmer. As for the choreography, it was fun in Act I. However, by the time we were in Act II, I was tired of the constant skipping, clapping, and horsing around (no pun intended). Yet overall, this was the best opera production I’ve seen in Boston this year. Having Stephanie Blythe sing here is such a luxury for us Bostonians.

    Comment by YuenK — May 6, 2010 at 2:12 pm

  2. I attended the Sunday afternoon performance, and I’d like to make two comments: “La Grand-Duchesse de Gerolstein” is a case study in how hard it is to make comic opera work. There are dozens if not hundreds of serious, dramatic operas that hold the stage very well, but only extremely capable masters like Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti have succeeded in holding an audience’s attention for up to three hours in this genre. In this instance, I submit Offenbach was not up to the task. I longed for the concision and tightness of the best G&S works. And I’m afraid that at least on Sunday, Scott Ramsay was completely outclassed by everyone around him…not just the international superstar in the title role. I thought he was going to lose his voice before the work ended; he had less singing to do however in the latter part of the second act.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — May 6, 2010 at 3:20 pm

  3. From the reviewer to YuenK: From discussions with a number of audience members, it seems that individual sonic experiences could differ dramatically from one another based on where one sat in the Majestic. I (the lowly BMInt reviewer) had been sequestered by Opera Boston to the very back of the orchestra section; but even there, under the ceiling of the first balcony, the balance in sound among performers and orchestra was quite good. However, it seemed that from higher up, for instance, the dialog became difficult to hear. This could, no doubt, have also affected how one heard the relative balance among the various singers themselves.

    Comment by Tom Schnauber — May 6, 2010 at 7:29 pm

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