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Ebullient Offenbach

Santa Fe
Santa Fe Opera
06/28/2013 -  & July 3, 6, 12, 19, 30, August 7*, 15, 21, 24, 2013
Jacques Offenbach: La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein
Susan Graham (La Grande-Duchesse), Paul Appleby (Fritz), Anya Matanovic (Wanda), Kevin Burdette (General Boum), Aaron Pegram (Baron Puck), Theo Lebow (Népomuc), Jonathan Michie (Prince Paul), Shelley Jackson (Iza), Julia Ebner (olga), Sarah Mesko (Amelia), Sishel Claverie (Charlotte), Jared Bybee (Baron Grog), Dan Kempson (Notary)
The Santa Fe Opera Chorus, Susanne Sheston (chorus master), The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, Emmanuel Villaume (conductor)
Lee Blakeley (director), Adrian Linford (set designer), Jo van Schuppen (costume designer), Rick Fisher (lighting designer), Peggy Hickey (choreographer)

(© Ken Howard)

Offenbach scored a smash hit with this delightful comedy about a debauched Grand Duchess who promotes a simple soldier to general in a gauche attempt to seduce him away from his true love. The 1867 premiere's immense popular and commercial success went right along with the attention of many of Europe's crowned heads and men of state. No less a mover and shaker than Otto von Bismarck declared its military fripperies the picture of warfare at his time. After France's defeat by him just three years later, the new French government banned the opera for a time, associating its satires closely with military disaster.

Santa Fe first mounted Offenbach's less known smash hit as long ago as 1971. This time around Lee Blakeley reimagines the work as what he hopes will be an accessible commentary on modern American sensibilities. For starters, he takes the action out of a militaristic and vaguely Germanic nowhere and resettles in early twentieth-century America. Adrian Linford's sets evoke what was not exactly a milieu of grand duchesses and flashy court nobles, but it did have a lively culture of honor, political intrigue, and scandalous romance.

The frenetic overture accompanies a hilariously vigorous army calisthenics routine. The central character of the grand duchess is reborn as (or reduced to) contemporary pop culture's "cougar," a woman of a certain age who delights in younger men. And to give it a fully American flavor (even though sung in French), the spoken dialogue is delivered in a modern American vernacular text written by Blakeley himself, replete with amusing double entendres for which the "privates" of the Grand Duchess's army provide a frequent target. And, set in America or not, what would Offenbach be without a show stopping dance? In this case a riotous can-can closes the second act.

Star mezzo Susan Graham has taken to the lighter nineteenth-century repertoire lately, having appeared to great acclaim in Lehár's Die lustige Witwe (or La Veuve joyeuse) in Paris last season. These types of roles do not allow her extraordinarily rich lyric qualities to expand to their fullest extent, but her statuesque stage presence and the devilish dramatic charm made her absolutely perfect for the role.

The young tenor Paul Appleby countered her with ebullient charm and a voice of rosy warmth. As his true love Wanda, Anya Matanovic captured innocence at its fullest. A robust supporting cast of soldiers, politicians, conspirators, dancers, and party guests filled the stage with that kind of dynamism that reminds us what theater truly is.

Emmanuel Villaume led an energetic performance that never flagged in energy and left the audience walking on air in the New Mexican desert.

Paul du Quenoy



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