Le Roi Malgré Lui
, opéra-comique in three acts, 1887 [The King in Spite of Himself], 1887
Music by Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894)
Libretto by Emile de Najac, Paul Burani, revised by the un-credited Jean Richepin as well as the composer himself, after the vaudeville of the same name written in 1836 by Jacques-Arsène Ancelot (1794-1854).
Sung in French, with English Supertitles
BardSummerscape Festival co-production with Wexford Festival (Ireland)
American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein, Music Director
Stage Director Thaddeus Strassberger
Set Design by Kevin Knight
Costume Design by Mattie Ullrich
Henri – Liam Bonner
Nangis- Michele Angelini
Minka – Andriana Chuchman
Alexina – Nathalie Paulin
Fritelli – Frédéric Gonçalvés
Laski – Jeffrey Mattsey
Basile – Jason Ferrante
This review is for the opening night on July 27, 2012 at the Sosnoff Theater, the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
Subsequent performances in the run are on July 29 and August 1 and 5 at 3 PM.
Tickets $30, $60, $70, and $90, still available
Opera Talk with Leon Botstein on July 29 at 1 PM, free and open to the public
The same production will be given in the fall at Wexford Festival, with Mr. Bonner, Ms. Paulin, and Mr. Gonçalvés repeating their roles.
All photos are being used with authorization - credits are under the photos.
LINKS to the other articles in Opera Lively's extensive coverage of this event:
The announcement of the event with ticket information: [click here
The In-depth "Beyond the Standard Repertory" article about Le Roi Malgré Lui: [click here
OL's exclusive interview with Stage Director Thaddeuss Strassberger: [click here
Conductor Leon Botstein's interview [click here
Interviews with several members of the cast [click here
The pleasant flight from Raleigh-Durham with layover in Philadelphia landed at the small airport in Albany, NY, from where a drive to Bard College takes approximately one hour (two hours and fifteen minutes by car from New York City - by train options with transportation to and from the train station are also provided by the Bard). The first impact hit me when I drove into the Bard campus and in this rural and bucolic setting I suddenly ran into the striking Frank Gehry-designed building of the Fisher center, looking like a large, very very large (it’s misleading in photos) spaceship sitting by mistake on a lawn, next to some woods.
Still with two hours to kill, I walked by the beautiful campus and took personal souvenir pictures of this amazing performing arts center. Next I headed to the curious Spiegeltent, an authentic one in the fashion of European festivals, brought to the Bard directly from Belgium. A young lady wearing the black Bard uniform for staffers was upset that I was snatching pictures. I showed her my Press ID and my Opera Lively business card. She took the card to her manager, and came back with an apologetic smile, saying “I had to check, but my manager told me that Opera Lively is OK.” Good start. As I’d learn later in the after-show party, the Bard press department is very appreciative of Opera Lively’s efforts to cover this event – our interviews had been read and admired, and they were extremely welcoming and friendly, saying that they were excited about meeting the real person under the Almaviva nickname.
Over the Spiegeltent I ran into baritone Liam Bonner, the singer in the title role, who I knew from another performance and from his first interview with Opera Lively. Liam was extremely relaxed, wearing shorts, chatting with two buddies that he introduced to me, while I had some local gourmet ice cream in the picnic lawn surrounding the Spiegeltent. We chatted until there were only 30 minutes left before curtain time, and we were surprised that Liam was not in a hurry at all and not showing any signs of stress. He smiled, adding that he is never stressed out before performances. We had to almost push him to head backstage to change into his costume – I later understood part of why he wasn’t in a hurry: his costume didn’t represent a challenge at all, since Henri de Valois makes his big entrance inside a tanning booth, wearing nothing other than swim trunks.
Then I met my press contact Mr. Mark Primoff, the Director of Communications at Bard, who handed me their beautifully prepared Press Kit. Time to take my seat, and I couldn’t stop a gasp when I first entered the Sosnoff Theater – what a spectacular facility! Front center roll in the mezzanine, with perfect vision of the entire stage and pit, if not for one unfortunately-placed handrail, my only nitpicking complaint regarding this outstanding theater (laughs).
The house was 98% full – pretty good for opera in the middle of the Hudson Valley – but not sold out. A few defections happened after first act, including that of an older couple to my left, who seemed a bit shocked with Thaddeus Strassberger’s at times slightly provocative concepts.
And then the fun began. The main word to define this show is indeed “fun.” It couldn’t be any more wildly entertaining, given the enormous abundance of clever ideas from Thaddeus, whose name is often associated with the words “genius” and “brilliant” in the same sentence whenever someone is talking about him.
The first one of these curious devices rolls on during the overture, in the form of a movie projected on a screen placed in the middle of the curtains, a silent black-and-white piece introducing the cast with old-fashioned calligraphy and photography. Then the screen slides out, revealing behind it a suspended square room where the character Basile can be seen, slumped on a chair, watching TV under a picture of Pope Jean Paul II (we’ll see more of this room throughout the production).
Then the room slides away as the overture ends and we see ourselves watching what looks like the backstage of an opera theater, with stagehands pushing around two large wooden boxes. They proceed to open up the first one, and packed inside like sardines are noble Frenchmen playing cards in elaborated period costumes, wigs, and white facial make-up – to great delight, surprise, and general laughing of the public. The other box is opened up as well, and from it hop up a bunch of chorus members dressed in modern casino attire (tuxedos, provocative and revealing gowns worn by some strikingly beautiful young women).
Thus, the left side of the stage has people in period costumes, and the right side is contemporary. I’d call this a “semi-updated” staging, and it is very curious indeed. Thaddeus later told me that he intended to show that many of the issues in this opera remain pertinent today – such as, what it means for Poland to be a member-country of today’s European Union, with hurdles similar to the ones described by the librettists regarding 16th century relations between Poland and France.
This double timeline remains present throughout the show, and the first act continues with the French and the Poles being shown in traditional costumes, while extras in contemporary attire walk around (camera men, journalists, and stagehands).
The couple to my right can’t take it. They complain that there is too much going on, and feel confused. They furiously browse the playbill, read and re-read the very detailed synopsis. They don’t quit, though, unlike the couple to my left.
I addressed this matter with Thaddeus after the show. Is his staging too busy, adding insult to injury in this already convoluted plot? After all, one of the criticisms that Le Roi Malgré Lui
– an opera with no less than 19 singing roles if we count brief words uttered by maids and soldiers, etc; 7 of them quite substantial - received from Chaubrier’s friend composer Vincent d'Indy, was that the plot was “confusing with too many doors and people entering and exiting, people who come in when they ought to leave and people who leave when they ought to stay.” Well, Strassberger adds more people coming in and out, and then some. Objects drop from the sky in little parachutes. Characters are seen arguing with each other on the wings of the stage. Basile’s room slides to the side and we see the inn-keeper trying to adjust the image on his TV, praying to the Pope, falling asleep on the chair. At times the stage is so full of people that it looks overcrowded. Thaddeus’ reply was that “it’s just entertainment. It’s live theater, it’s in the line of my love for musical theater; curious things happen left and right and it is all lots of fun.” Adds Liam Bonner: “Some people come back to see again Thaddeus’ stagings, to pay attention to things they had missed in the first performance they had attended.” Yes, one needs to scan the stage and be attentive to all this incidental action, in order to take it all. His stagings would probably suffer on DVD, because the eye of the camera would necessarily miss large chunks of the action.
OK, back to act I: it takes a while to get going (which may very well improve in subsequent shows of the run). Even the orchestra seems a bit tentative. Andriana Chuchman looks a bit nervous and sings a bit too loudly, with little artistry in the delivery of the musical lines (as we’ll see below, she substantially improves in acts II and III). In spite of the frenetic stage happenings, Act I paradoxically feels somewhat long and boring with the frequent interruptions introduced by the spoken dialogue. Some of the funniest dialogue is actually cut (Maestro Botstein had told me that once they decided to use the 1887 version with the spoken dialogue unlike the Carré version, they had to shrink the spoken lines because there were too many of them) – such as the part when Fritelli tries to convince Henri that Alexina has a wooden leg, poor teeth, and several children (unless I missed it – I dozed a couple of times, thanks to the fact that I had spent an entirely blank night while typing up the interviews with the cast, which I wanted to release before opening night).
But then, in Act II, the production comes to life! The orchestra attacks the Fête Polonaise with gusto, the choreography is interesting (done with contemporary-clothed dancers in the style of a modern-day TV show such as Dancing with the Stars, complete with TV cameras running around with the image being sent to Basile’s TV, and neon signs directing the public to applause), Andriana Chuchman calms down and hits her stride, not to forget the hilarious silent movie projected on the screen during the Prélude, with the principal singers being interviewed for a TV show.
Act III in Basile’s inn is equally imaginative, with the sets reproducing a two-story hotel with chamber maids pushing cleaning carts around (see picture above), six of the rooms being visible to the public, and filled to capacity with various people in advanced stages of undress, waking up from an orgiastic night (which includes some of the principals such as Henri and Fratelli, the former rolling in bed with a woman in her underwear). As the act unfolds, the hotel guests get dressed and get going, the maids start to clean the rooms, people go up and down the stairs, Laski walks around on the roof… The barcarolle scene counts on – guess what – a real gondola, complete with a gondolier.
To make a long story short, I found Mr. Strassberger’s staging brilliant (there we go, this word is associated with his name again) and wildly entertaining, adding several layers to the story (without ever being outrageous or overly shocking or getting in the way of the music) although I’ll admit to the fact that it isn’t for everyone: some members of the audience will fill overwhelmed and will quit before the end of the show. But so what? They will have something to think about on their way home. That’s live theater for ya.
Of the elements added by Mr. Strassberger that aren’t in the original libretto, two deserve further consideration. One, Alexina in this production is pregnant. This makes a lot of sense. She got a baby from her tryst with Henri in Venice, and the event adds to her bitterness in having been abandoned by him, fueling her thirst for revenge against the French. It did account for a somewhat whiny Alexina in this production, unlike others that I’ve seen in which we get a more assertive and manipulative Alexina. Two, Minka is seen in bed with Henri. This one puzzled me a bit more, and I wondered if it wasn’t too much of a distortion of the original plot, with Thaddeus flexing a bit his Regie muscle. In the after-show party, I continued to wear my journalistic hat a bit more and made inquiries about this device. Andriana Chuchman herself didn’t seem to know what to make of it. She gave me two or three alternative explanations about Minka’s emotional journey until she settles in her love for Nangis. Jeffrey Matsei added that sometimes Thaddeus tells them what he means by what he asks of them, sometimes he doesn’t. Liam Bonner seemed to have nailed it, though: he said, “well, they are French, they sleep around a lot – and Minka is a spy, she is hopping bed to bed to gather intelligence.” Yep, that’s what Thaddeus told me as well – the spy angle and the sleeping around to get information. And when I said to him – “but this isn’t in the opera” he replied – “how do you know it isn’t? Certain things are just expressed in live theater, and such insinuations could perfectly have been present in the creators’ minds – they’re French! Besides, it’s entertaining. I wanted Henri to sleep around as much as he could.” Interesting take! And besides, how not to love some of the very clever touches? Bringing up Henri in a tanning bed while he sings of his longing for his sunny motherland as opposed to wintry Poland was pure genius – the man is singing of the sun, he needs his dose of Vitamin D… This is a good example of an updated detail in a staging that does make sense and does respect the music, while adding an irresistible comedic moment. Thaddeus creates comedy with his staging, to better fit this light opera that is in transition from opérette to opéra-comique, like we said in our article about it that was published as part of our Beyond the Standard Repertory series.
OK, back to a more formal scoring of this production. I give a score of 9 to the staging, bringing it down a notch for the fact that it *will* overwhelm some audience members – not me, though; I’d give it a personal 10, but in terms of what works and what doesn’t for the general public, 9 is a good measure. Costumes – an unrestrained 10! Oh boy, is Mattie Ulrich competent! The costumes are gorgeous, both the period ones and the contemporary ones. Sets and props – another 10, with several interesting twists – the little parachute, the panels rolled in and out to show wintry Poland - complete with rollerskaters evoking ice skaters - versus the TV show atmosphere…
Lighting – a 9, with some interesting moments like the dark stage except for two spotlights during the Alexina-Minka duet, the bright-lit TV studio, the gradual awakening of the lights during the inn scene, etc. Blocking and dynamic use of space – 7 (it does feel crowded and dizzying at times with all the stage traffic – maybe this production would fare better in a larger stage although the Sosnoff Theater stage is well sized). Choreography – 9. Acting, a 10 across the board, with kudos especially to Frédéric Gonçalvés and Liam Bonner.
The musical side – the orchestra gets a 9 from me, down one notch from a perfect 10 thanks to a lackluster first act and a string session that at times couldn’t be heard over the brass – but then, the orchestra performed phenomenally in acts II and III, and maestro Botstein showed great control of it, highlighting the delicacy of the French score in the more intimate moments (when everything was piano so that we could hear well the singers being introspective and lyrical), as well as the livelihood of this varied score (when everything was forte and we all rejoiced in the festive and colorful music) – a 9.5.
The all-important singing, now. It was very, very good across the board. This is a talented cast with no weak links.
Liam Bonner was phenomenal, and much more impressive than the first time I saw him live on a semi-staged performance of Il Trovatore
. This is definitely a singer to watch, who clearly deserves a spot in the current wave of good young performers of this generation of opera singers. His beautiful baritone voice was well carried to all corners of the theater (by the way, the Sosnoff has great acoustics) and was well controlled in all regions of the register. His acting was great as well – he navigated with ease in Henri’s very eventful part. After all, Henri goes from nostalgic and dreamy to angry; from passionate to jaded, from assertive and manipulative to guilty. Thaddeus and Liam added a few touches as well – such as the king playing with a doll at one point, and reacting with effeminate shock when he is given a gun to fulfill the mission of killing the king (at that point, Nangis his best friend, in disguise). This was a reference to Henri III, the real-life historical figure, who was rumored to be gay. Score: 10
French baritone Frédéric Gonçalvés in his American debut was a welcome surprise. Excellent singing, and his acting wasn’t behind either, rendering very well the comedic relief character. Another 10.
Andriana Chuchman was irregular in the first act, but either warmed up or got over initial jitters (or both) because her performance in the second and third acts was phenomenal. While her top and middle are better than her lower register (understandable in a young soprano) she does demonstrate enough agility in her coloratura. Her stage presence is endearing, helped by her striking good looks (she definitely has the physique du rôle for Minka). Her acting is top-notch. Ms. Chuchman is another young singer to be watched, and we are pleased to learn that she is covering Anna Netrebko in the upcoming run of L’Elisir d’Amore at the Met. Score = 8.5 (thanks to the shaky first act - but I'm sure in subsequent shows of the run she will be perfectly able to score a 10 - too bad that I won't be there to see it).
Nathalie Paulin was very good, although her projection suffered in comparison to Andriana’s more powerful delivery. However, she more than compensated for it with exquisite and subtle phrasing of the musical line, and precise technique in the entire range of her voice. An elegant singer who hails from Canada, and was very at ease singing in her native language. Score = 9.
Michele Angelini also did well in the vocally difficult part of Nangis with only the occasional stress. Score = 8.5
Jeffrey Matsei was excellent as Laski – like Ms. Paulin, a very accomplished singer with good technique. Score = 9.
Jason Ferrante in the small role of Basile was a good comprimario that did his part very well. Score = 8.5
Oh, I almost forgot: the chorus! It was terrific! One of the best I've heard in recent memory. Score = 10.
Time to tally the score. An average of 9.2 for singing which gives the production 27.6 points (weighed three times to accomplish for the 30% assigned to singing). Conducting and orchestra bring in another 18.5 points. The staging and technical side scored a total of 45 points, bringing the grand total to 91.1, which is sufficient to reach the A grade (it’s an A-). Without my journalistic hat, I must say that I enjoyed it even above that, and would bring it up to an A instead of an A- (we may never be able to get a live theater performance to score a perfect 100 for the A++ grade, since in live theater, things happen). Overall, a very nice evening of competently staged and performed great opera, in a fabulous venue located in beautiful grounds - more than worth the trip from anywhere, to be able to partake in all of what the Bard, Thaddeus, maestro Botstein and the ASO, and the singers and chorus have to offer.