Set in Colonial-era Peru, the seldom-performed La Périchole (premiered in 1868, revised in 1874) of Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) offers an engaging mixture of colorful settings and equally colorful characters. In view of the work’s relative obscurity within the world of opera performance, the lack of program notes was a disappointing aspect of New England Conservatory’s otherwise enjoyable production, given at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater. The show will be presented again on February 14.
The opera is filled with familiar operatic subjects taken from a wide variety of eras; as with Offenbach’s better-known opera, Orpheé aux enfers (1858), La Périchole uses these dramatic situations and devices to create subtle commentary on the abuse of political power and the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality. Examples include: the “nobleman” trying to have his way with one of his ladies-in-waiting, reminiscent of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (in La Périchole, the colonial Viceroy’s pursuit of the title character), as well as the overly-ardent Spanish lover who is unwilling to accept the realities of French “mistress culture” (also found in the second tableau of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes of 1735); and finally, as in Offenbach’s Orpheé, the main character is a musician who over-aggrandizes the power of his art.
The orchestra, under the direction of Joel Revzen, showed an impressive level of ensemble unity as well as sensitivity to Offenbach’s sudden shifts in texture and style. The chorus did not match their instrumental counterparts’ success in creating effective ensemble, at times falling badly out of sync with Revzen’s clear direction. Joshua Major’s sets present a clean yet colorful tropical backdrop, avoiding cutesyness or an overly sophisticated or (shudder!) ironic reinterpretation of the setting. Melinda Sullivan’s choreography was very charming, including the use of the chorus/kick lines commonly associated with Offenbach, thanks to the popular “Can-Can” from Orpheé; the pseudo-ballet performed by the female chorus members representing the Viceroy’s “harem” of ladies-in-waiting at the opening of Act II also provided an enchanting break from the storyline. The blocking was generally effective, though the occasional positioning of soloists near the back of the stage led to difficulties in vocal projection. The acting style was dominated by comical capering, with the vast majority of the non-comical interchanges coming between the lead couple, La Périchole and Piquillo. Although the audience enjoyed this comical style, I believe it would be better served by equal doses of capering as well as the “dead-eyed deadpan” so popular in the Parisian cabarets at which the composer and his librettists were frequent attendees and performers.
Jason Ryan gave the production’s most charming performance in his portrayal of the scheming Viceroy (to be played by Hernan Berisso at the upcoming Tuesday performance), the role being well served by Ryan’s warm baritone. Christina Bakhoum’s smooth timbre and impressive vocal dexterity was well suited to her portrayal of the female protagonist, the street singer “La Périchole.” David Charles Tay’s trumpeting tenor effectively embodied the persona of Périchole’s singing companion and ardent Spanish lover, Piquillio. Both Bakhoum and Tay were less successful in creating natural (i.e. “believable”) passion in their dramatic exchanges, though Bakhoum’s portrayal of the drunken Périchole was very amusing. The sheer vocal power of Daniel Brevik’s performance as the Viceroy’s henchman, Don Pedro, was perhaps most impressive among the smaller roles. The Viceroy’s “Three Cousins” (Emily Brand, Melody Jenkins, and Mary Starkey) were very charismatic in their commedia dell’arte trios, reminiscent of the “three little maids” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado much later in the century.
The couple’s reunification and return to their carefree life as street singers (a lieto fine that truly requires a suspension of disbelief) is filled with amusing one-liners tailor-made for Ryan’s comic acting. It was well assisted by the spoken role of the Viceroy’s long-time prisoner (Leroy Davis), imprisoned for playing the bassoon badly, offering a delightful close to the group’s performance of this hidden operatic treasure.