Magazine article The Spectator

Chabrier's Treasure

Magazine article The Spectator

Chabrier's Treasure

Article excerpt

Irresistible, the allure of a snatched weekend in Paris to catch a rare, adored opera, Chabrier's Le roi malgre lui.

This glorious cornucopia of intoxicating invention has 'enjoyed' a history of bad luck: the delirious imbecility of the plot - 'a negative tour de force, to invent such a confusing story with so few characters' - has occasioned two comprehensive overhauls (most recent the brave rewrite mounted by Opera North in the mid-1990s).

Maybe to revert to the original, embrace the absurdities, and enjoy the music for all it's worth, is after all the best solution; a counsel of victory rather than despair.

And, if anywhere, at the Opera Comique, its natural habitat. The lovable theatre, lavish with ornament outside and within, makes the perfect visual complement to Le roi, save only for the quantum difference between the decor's generalised period idiom and the score's minute particularity. This music is charged with 22-carat treasures of ardour, colour, wit, expressivity, intensity, originality, appreciated at its true worth by Ravel, who claimed with outrageous honesty that he'd rather have composed it than Wagner's Ring or Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.

The Opera Comique's production used the original, but twisted the plot around to be self-reflexive, a sleight of hand potentially pretentious yet, in practice, so deftly executed, a decided success. Spoken dialogue was cut to the bone and toned up for speed and sparkle; the actual score was left intact, given complete, using moreover the exact words that Chabrier set, full of inimitable touches lost when any other text is substituted, however skilled and sympathetic. The cast was spirited and idiomatic; one real star shone clear above the rest in vocal and physical lustre, the Minka of Magali Leger. The chorus imported from the Lyons Opera were heroic in their elaborate, demanding part, the Orchestre de Paris provided just the right timbre and inflection for such indigenous music (despite the setting in Poland, the date of 1574, the heavenly Venetian strains permeating the love scenes, this piece is bred and born of Paris in the 1880s). A special word of praise to the timpanist, whose role goes far beyond marking the accents in climaxes, to encompass numerous nuances of great delicacy, sometimes in unlikely places. …

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