The great operettas of Offenbach, most of which have librettos by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (also responsible for Carmen – no slouches they), are seen far too little in America, so it is an occasion for rejoicing when a big star takes up their cause. The mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe, though not known as a comic specialist, has proved that her huge voice can be a force for humour in roles such as Mistress Quickly and in a previous production of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein. The opera is Offenbach’s spoof of military life, although it lost its capacity to amuse when the Franco-Prussian war came along three years after its 1867 premiere and the French discovered that an inept army was nothing to laugh about.
But that’s history, and La Grande-Duchesse has long since regained its comic lustre. Not taking any chances, Opera Boston’s delightful production avoids contemporary resonance by setting the operetta at about the time of its composition, or so it would appear from the gilt-framed battle-scene paintings of designer Robert Perdziola’s decor and the elaborate Victorian – make that Second Empire – dresses worn by the heroine.
The production’s mock-formal look supplies a good foil for director David Kneuss’s comic touches, which could have been even more wacky but deftly steer clear of vulgar gags. A high point is an all-male can-can by the soldiers, some straddling fake horses. But the show’s centre of gravity is unquestionably the magnificent Blythe in the title role.
Her high notes (some a bit edgy) could almost count as assault weapons themselves, and at one point the chorus amusingly ducked for cover when she let one fly. Yet the voice is nimble enough to trip gracefully over Offenbach’s infectious, word-orientated tunes, and even Blythe’s physical size contributes to the authority of a woman whose slightest amatory whim can make or break a military career.
The redoubtable James Maddalena, likewise on outstanding form, is General Boum, the duchess’s commander-in-chief until her eye falls on the fetching young private Fritz. Scott Ramsey’s soft-grained tenor, alas, proves a weak match for the latter’s music. Conductor Gil Rose keeps the spirits high in the pit. Musical numbers are sung in French, spoken dialogue is in English. There is talk of taking the production to other venues, and they should count themselves lucky. ()