Wanted: Mistresses, Must Be Married

By Anthony Tomassini

April 22, 2013


Among Offenbach’s many operettas “La Périchole” is generally considered his most charming. Well, charming is not the word to describe the director Christopher Alden’s new production for the New York City Opera, which opened on Sunday afternoon at City Center. It’s zany, demented, surreal, strangely dark — anything but charming.

All told, though, this is an exhilarating staging with a wonderful cast that seems inspired by Mr. Alden’s concept for this tale of two street singers, Périchole and her boyfriend, Piquillo, who get entangled with the outlandish viceroy of Peru. And with the fine French conductor Emmanuel Plasson in charge, the orchestra gives a stylish and confident account of Offenbach’s breezy and tuneful score.

Since George Steel took charge of City Opera in 2009 he has formed a dynamic relationship with Mr. Alden. Once Mr. Alden seizes on a concept, he tends to take it all the way, sometimes too much so, as in his fascinating production of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” for City Opera, which was, by the end, terribly bleak. Still, Mr. Alden is not a director who imposes some arbitrary take on a work.
What comes through in this “La Périchole,” performed in the familiar three-act revision Offenbach made in 1874 in Paris, is a fair reading of the text by a daring director. In the operetta Don Andrès, the viceroy of Peru, is a harmless eccentric who likes to move among his people in disguise to find out what they really think of him, though the disguises fool no one. He keeps mistresses at his palace, all of whom must be married for propriety’s sake.

Mr. Alden sets the story in some vaguely modern Latin locale. It’s the viceroy’s birthday and everyone must partake of public celebrations. But the people look like a sorry lot. Dressed in tacky summer wear with stupid party hats (the imaginative costumes of Gabriel Berry), they gather at the Three Cousins tavern, dragging on cigarettes, looking enervated and sick of it all.
The town plaza is suggested by Paul Steinberg’s dizzyingly colorful set, with a mosaic floor and walls and piñatas hanging from above. The three cousins who run that tavern (Lauren Worsham, Naomi O’Connell and Carin Gilfry, all delightful) are sassy yet bored, dressed in short-shorts with aprons as they grill hot dogs for their liquor-swilling patrons.

When we meet the viceroy, the reason for his people’s depressed behavior becomes clear. This guy is not just eccentric, he’s demented. The robust bass Kevin Burdette makes a sex-crazed and manic viceroy. In this breakout performance Mr. Burdette emerges as the Robin Williams of opera. When he first appears in disguise, he wears a skimpy bathing suit and matching shirt, with tall boots and a swim cap that covers his eyes. He looks like some bizarre Latino Spider-Man. When he comes on to the three cousins, his roughhousing turns aggressive. Yet this lends complexity to Mr. Burdette’s portrayal: the Viceroy is so daffy, he is a little dangerous.

City Opera recruited two winning French singers for the lead roles, which is helpful in a work that has so much spoken French dialogue. Marie Lenormand brings a rich mezzo-soprano voice, grace and spunk to Périchole, and the appealing lyric tenor Philippe Talbot makes an earnest and befuddled Piquillo. When they arrive at the tavern they are trying to earn enough money for a marriage license. They are also starving, so they sing songs for the crowd. In one of many bold touches, Mr. Alden places the couple in front of the curtain as they sing and dance directly for the City Center audience.

The viceroy takes a fancy to Périchole and decides she must be his next mistress. In the main plot twist, the viceroy’s aides, Don Pedro, the mayor of Lima (the charismatic baritone Joshua Jeremiah), and Count Miguel, the First Gentleman of the Bedchamber (the bright tenor Richard Troxell), pressure the unwitting Piquillo into being the official husband of the viceroy’s new mistress. (He doesn’t realize that she is actually Périchole.)

The choreographer Seán Curran has devised quirky and playful dances for the cast and chorus. In drawing out the deeper resonances of the operetta, Mr. Alden comes up with some arresting images. When Piquillo is imprisoned for being a recalcitrant husband to the viceroy’s new mistress, his punishment is at once excruciating and riotous: strapped to an easy chair, he is forced to watch a live video of the viceroy in his bedroom, awaiting Périchole. But Piquillo looks away before he can see his beloved defending her honor by taking a bat to the viceroy. And Mr. Burdette, a natural camera hog, gives another brilliant comic turn in this scene.

The actor Philip Littell, best known to opera buffs as a librettist (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “A Streetcar Named Desire”), has a droll comic turn as a silent bartender through the first two acts, but in the final one becomes the old prisoner who has spent 12 years digging a tunnel to freedom with a tiny knife, only to find himself in Piquillo’s cell.

This is the fourth and final production of the nomadic City Opera’s small season, but all four shows have been impressive.