Friday, August 16, 2013

The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at Santa Fe Opera

Charlene Baldridge
Ken Howard photo
Santa Fe, Friday, August 16, 2013 --Seen Thursday night at Santa Fe Opera, Jacques Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein premiered in Paris in 1867. It is one of a string of operettas the German-born French composer wrote in the mid 1800s. Among the others were Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Hélène, and La Perichole. Offenbach is perhaps best known for the popular ballet, Gaîté Parisienne and his unfinished grand opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. By his own estimate, he wrote at least 100 operettas. Many parodied Rossini, Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Wagner. The latter two were not amused. Offenbach was in turn parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan along with many other opera composers.

No one loves a good spoof more than I. It’s great fun sitting in the dark listening for the references and quotes with which this score is rife.

As staged by Lee Blakely upon Adrian Linford’s ingenious, hydraulics-dependent scenic scheme, and enhanced by Jo van Schuppen’s clever costume design and Peggy Hickey’s can-can-infused choreography, The Grand Duchess is a visual delight as well. There are so many clever mechanical props and so much shtick over the course of three acts one is quite tested to find adequate descriptors. Some battlefield accouterments are merely unfamiliar, though merrily employed, and there are canons, sabers, rifles and pistols galore. In addition, the limousines and smaller conveyances are thoroughly amusing.

Susan Graham as the Duchess
Photo by Ken Howard

A major reason to produce this sparkling feast for the senses is the singer one chooses to portray the Duchess. In a program note it is suggested that the character might we now term a “cougar.” Even though mezzo-soprano Susan Graham may be a tad young for the appellation, she embodies the lusty Countess with glee.

The character is wooed by the foppish Prince Paul (baritone Jonathan Michie, got up in a pink, rhinestone-studded pink suit and red shoes). She is so bored that Gerolstein has invented a war with which to entertain her. While inspecting the cadets, she stumbles upon a lowly private named Fritz (tenor Paul Applegate) whom she promotes until he eventually becomes a General, charged with leading the legion into battle. Though he would deny it, his promotion and victory, achieved by getting the opposing forces drunk, quite goes to Fritz’s head, much to the consternation of his lovely and innocent fiancée, Wanda (soprano Anya Matanoviĉ).

Fritz is seen in Act I, handing out towels for the cadets’ calisthenics. He is bullied and abused mercilessly by the others as well as General Boum (Kevin Burdette), who all find him indecisive and incompetent.
Susaa Graham as the Duchess
Paul Appleby as General Fritz
Photo by Ken Howard

When Fritz is promoted by the scheming Duchess, Gen. Boum, Prince Paul and Baron Puck (Aaron Pegram) are so incensed that they plot his assassination. When he spurns the Duchess’ advances after his victory, she joins the others and in the end demotes Fritz back to private again, whereupon he declares he will serve his country at home and weds Wanda. Meanwhile, the Countess marries Prince Paul, enticed by his diplomatic attaché Baron Grog’s (baritone Jared Bybee) promise of accessibility. When she discovers Grog is married with children, she resigns herself to life with Prince Paul.

The production is sung in French (with English and Spanish language projections) and uses English dialogue (written by the director) as well, something that may bother purists but bothered me not at all, though the spoken language was not clearly projected.

Kevin Burdette as Boum, Jonathan Michie as Prince Paul,
and Aaron Pegram as Baron Puck
Photo by Ken Howard

Matanovic as Wanda
Appleby as Pvt. Fritz
Photo by Ken Howard

Graham looks stunning, especially in her ball gown (see photos above). The role seems to lie a bit low in her vocal register, but it certainly suits her personality and she seems to have great fun performing it. Appleby is adorable as the incompetent Fritz and has a particularly lovely high voice. I found Matanoviĉ the perfect, charming soubrette.

I’m willing to say that my overwhelming is due to The Duchess being the fourth opera seen in as many nights, the others including Oscar and The Lady of the Lake, which being unfamiliar required a lot of attention and energy, and The Marriage of Figaro. Tonight completes the quintet with La Traviata, which is quite familiar to me.

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