NEW YORK (AP) — Jacques Offenbach's "La Perichole" struggled to break through and was ultimately suffocated in Christopher Alden's heavy-handed and annoying production, the last of New York City Opera's second season as a roaming company.
An opera bouffe that's usually airy and sometimes saccharine, "La Perichole" devolved into a series of sophomoric sight gags, overshadowing fine vocal work by mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand as Perichole and tenor Philippe Talbot as Piquillo, the pair of young street singers.
Seen Tuesday night in the second performance of a run of four, this was City Opera's second staging this season at New York City Center, its home from 1944-65. Alden seemed to be inspired by Monty Python's visit to City Center in 1976. Don Andre de Ribeira, the Viceroy of Peru sung by bass Kevin Burdette, pranced about the stage in the manner of John Cleese as the Minister of Silly Walks. He was costumed by Gabriel Berry as a superhero, a cowboy in black and white, a Gatsby-like charmer and Fidel Castro.
All this was distracting, given that "Perichole" can be charming, with a love story, mistaken identity and a happy ending.
Offenbach and librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy set the opening scene in the main square of Lima, outside The Three Cousins tavern. Alden's version is more like a Malibu, Calif., barbecue, where the cousins grill hot dogs and serve the franks to a crowd in modern casual attire, with paper party hats on heads and holding margaritas. Pinatas dangled overhead.
Paul Steinberg's set around them is a gold, black and white mosaic, which transforms into the viceroy's palace for the second act with the addition of a long, aqua sofa in front of a row of cacti.
Performing the 1874 three-act version, with cuts and changes to the spoken dialogue, conductor Emmanuel Plasson led an idiomatic musical performance with verve and grace. But the score was overwhelmed by the hamminess. "Ah, quel diner (Ah, what a lunch)" should be Perichole's comic tipsy aria; here she was a stumbling drunk.
Alden has done some stunning work at City Opera — his Magritte-influenced staging of "Cosi fan tutte" was among the most fascinating productions of 2012, even though it was bleak and at times fought Mozart's music. But here he misfires. Don Andre making the sounds of a French police siren in a microphone was not funny. Shining 31 flashlights into the audience's eyes was not entertaining.
More convincing was the use of video: When Piquillo is imprisoned in the third act, he sees Perichole fending off the viceroy in a palace bedroom with a bat.
Lenormand and Talbot, both French, added precise diction and sweet voices. The three cousins, Lauren Worsham, Naomi O'Connell and Carin Gilfry, were seductive. Philip Littell, librettist for Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire," was a twitching, falling bartender in the first two acts — an Alden addition — who transformed into The Old Prisoner in the third.
There are additional performances Thursday and Saturday. After leaving Lincoln Center and presenting a pair of four-production, 16-performance seasons, City Opera is expanding to 23 performances of four stagings in 2013-14. Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Anna Nicole" will receive its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sept. 17.
Johann Christian Bach's "Endimione" follows at El Museo del Barrio starting Feb. 8, and Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle" at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse begins Feb. 28 in a production that first appeared at the English National Opera in 2009. The season ends with Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)" in an Alden staging at City Center starting April 19.
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