This is the first time the Royal Opera House has staged Emmanuel Chambrier’s opéra bouffe L’Etoile, and it’s clear the production team has gone to great lengths to make it accessible, while acknowledging that the story is anything but.
It’s essentially a hyperactive farce, where practically everyone is in disguise and pretending to be someone else’s wife. The first act opens with a tyrannical monarch strutting around the stage looking for someone to execute. For this is King Ouf’s birthday, and he wants to try out his new impaling machine, which turns out to be an armchair with a wind-up spike hidden in the seat.
The jokes don’t get much more subtle than that, sitting somewhere between Monty Python and Eurotrash on the comedy spectrum. Enormous fingers of shame descend from the heavens, kitsch cardboard lipsticks sit in cosmetic shops populated with beaming cutouts of 1950s housewives, and silk negligées are whipped coquettishly off Renaissance nudes.
To help us make sense of it all, Chris Addison has taken time away from being a bumbling English archetype in The Thick of It to be a bumbling English archetype in an opera. When he isn’t sipping tea and nibbling toast, he’s breaking the fourth wall to clarify just what the hell is going on.
For the most part, this serves to dilute the bizarre Gallic humour, but modern references to Boris Johnson and BBC’s Sherlock are rather too eager to please.
And just to culturally confuse you further, the costume and set design has more than a touch of the Oriental about it. The chorus are robed in pastel silks and the King’s palace is opulent in tessellated tiles.
The one thing that’s clear as day is the quality of the score, which is instantly memorable and conducted with great joie de vivre by Mark Elder, who marks 40 years since his ROH debut. The native French-speaking principle cast are on top form, and the biggest cheer of the night went to love-struck teenager Lazuli, played by a woman, Kate Lindsey, in keeping with operatic tradition.
The staging may be as subtle as a spike up the bum, but the music is never less than sublime, making this an enjoyable, if daft, night at the opera.