|Susan Graham and Paul Appleby (photo by Ken Howard)|
Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein is a trifle, a cream puff filled with air that could collapse if it were roughly handled. Not so here! The work was affectionately and gently handled by Director Lee Blakely. There is nothing here to sink your teeth into but there is plenty to get the corners of your mouth to turn up. We dare you to try to wipe the grin off your face.
The story concerns one very domineering Duchess who refuses her suitor, the pink-suited Prince Paul -- hilariously portrayed by the versatile baritone Jonathan Michie (who apprenticed at SFO for two years)-- in favor of Fritz, a very clumsy private in the army whom she elevates to general. One can imagine the irate reaction of General Boum, hilariously portrayed by bass Kevin Burdette who has a real flair for Offenbach (seen in that composer's La Périchole at New York City Opera) who gets successively demoted as Fritz gets promoted. Mr. Appleby has major fun portraying Fritz who is transformed from a bumbling private into a confident general.
His sweetheart was beautifully sung by lovely soprano Anya Matanovič. The Baron Puck was performed by a funny Aaron Pegram, a character tenor of great talent. We were further delighted to see several apprentices onstage, doing justice to their roles as Baron Grog (Jared Bybee), a notary (Dan Kempson), an aide-de-camp (Theo Lebow) and bridesmaids (Shelley Jackson, Julia Ebner, Sarah Mesko and Sishel Claverie).
The wild onstage antics and sight gags are so effective that it is easy to lose sight of the glorious singing onstage but mezzo Ms. Graham never disappoints and throws herself into the outrageous role with delicious abandon. We loved the chorus lineup of soldiers collapsing like dominoes and we loved the sound they produced (thanks to Chorus Master Susanne Sheston). We laughed ourselves silly over Fritz' going into battle on a wooden pyramid masquerading as a horse. We loved the seduction scene between clueless Fritz and the predatory Duchess. Other scenes that captured our fancy include the group of women reading letters from their soldier sweethearts and Fritz describing his triumph over the enemy by getting them drunk.
The frothy melodies kept the orchestra on their collective toes, conducted in true Gallic style by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume. Scenic design by Adrian Linford was effective, as was lighting by Rick Fisher. Dazzling period costumes and resplendent officer's uniforms were by Jo van Schuppen. We would be remiss not to mention the no-holds-barred choreography by Peggy Hickey; it seemed to us the dancers had as much fun as the singers, dancing the can-can with wild abandon. Oh how the audience of 1867 must have loved that! But the audience of 2013 loved it no less.
Dialogue by Mr. Blakeley was spoken in English; songs were sung in French. Diction was excellent on all accounts. Our only tiny quibble was setting the piece in a military academy when it is clearly an army outpost. To have a Duchess, you would have had to have a European army. We do not think that this "adjustment" made the piece any more relevant to a contemporary audience.
© meche kroop