Director Alden once again snatches defeat from jaws of victory with clumsy, tedious staging of NYCO’s “Périchole”
If only Christopher Alden’s gag-choked production of La Périchole had exhibited even a trace of Gallic wit or sparkle, the three-hour farce might have seemed charming rather than tedious.
Based on the true story of a popular Peruvian street singer turned royal mistress, Offenbach’s frothy operetta, opened Sunday at City Center, as New York City Opera’s final offering of the season.
Paul Steinberg’s gigantic mosaic tiled set with matching patio bar—all handsomely lit by Aaron Black—presents 1960s America, where glum suburbanites are holding a birthday barbecue for their boss, a nutcase who favors funny voices and lame disguises (from the Green Hornet to an Amish jailor). Into this goofy assembly come an itinerant singing duo, whose spectacular tear-away costume changes (created by Gabriel Berry) and endearingly clumsy dancing (by Seán Curran) provoke their love-hate relationship.
Top-notch musical presentation came from the fine baton and coloristic ear of conductor Emmanuel Plasson, with two Francophone leads heading a uniformly strong cast. Marie Lenormand’s smooth mezzo-soprano and pert stage manner made the most of the title role’s many demands (at one point she is spun upside-down on a carnival knife-throwing wheel), while Philippe Talbot’s clear, handsome tenor and adorably hapless comic presence made for a triumphant City Opera debut.
Lauren Worsham, Naomi O’Connell and Carin Gilfry delivered exuberant girl-group antics, with mezzo Gilfry sounding especially luxuriant; sidekicks Joshua Jeremiah and Richard Troxell added vocal panache to the wacky capers. The brilliant Philip Littell provided running sight-gags as a fly-swatting, robotic, bassoon-playing bartender, in fact a prisoner who has been chipping for 12 years at his cell walls with a penknife.
Kevin Burdette’s tour-de-force performance as the irrepressibly zany Viceroy—riffing on John Cleese, Toy Story’s Woody, Clint Eastwood, Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, and others—revealed more of this excellent bass (literally more, as he played one scene in nothing but tidy-whities) than his many legit credits combined. If only Alden had disciplined the many embarrassingly long-winded bits.
In spite of an obedient cast and superb work from the chorus, whose many song-and-dance routines showcased their versatility, Alden showed little sensitivity or interest in individual performances, leaving only the flat-footed clumsiness of his concept. Not knowing what to do with the score’s lovely arias, Alden left his singers to flounder, especially Lenormand, who staggered and twitched through the famous drunken aria, Ah! quel dîner je viens de faire, played awkwardly with her gauzy shawl during Ah que les hommes sont bêtes and vamped the sincere Tu n’est pas beau in a fur coat whose va-va-voom reveal turned out to be nothing but a sparkly ice-skating outfit.
Missed opportunities abounded, most sadly the multiple strings of piñatas left intact, even by Lenormand’s baseball bat. And since someone lifted the printed synopsis directly from Wikipedia, couldn’t they have also included a few program notes?
La Périchole plays through April 27th at the New York City Center. nycopera.com