La Périchole, New York City Center – review

The New York City Opera used to be a vital if modest counterforce to the mighty Met, next door at Lincoln Center. Now, after numerous fiscal and managerial crises, the ensemble – if it still can be thus described – pops up sporadically in disparate, unglamorous locales.

The locale on Sunday turned out to be the City Center, originally called the Mecca Temple (it was built in 1923 by the Masonic appendant body known as Shriners) and, not incidentally, the company’s home from 1943 to 1965. The vehicle, one of only four this season, was Offenbach’s lovely La Périchole, and the result, though well applauded, struck at least one observer as disastrous.

First the good news. Even with a seemingly under-rehearsed orchestra, Emmanuel Plasson enforced grace and sensitivity in the pit. Also, the manically hard-working cast introduced Philippe Talbot, who sang Piquillo with bel-canto suavity against the frenzied odds, and Kevin Burdette, who sang the Viceroy with plangent tone even when required to be hyperactive, obscene and childish (anyone for masturbation jokes?).

The production, alas, was predicated on grotesque charades, obnoxious gags and frantic choreography, all of which contradicted both the spirit and text of the original opéra bouffe. This, in fact, was just bad bouffe, hardly opéra at all.

The mastermind behind the foolishness was Christopher Alden, a director usually capable of effective cleverness. He dressed everyone in modern mufti (designs credited to Gabriel Berry), set the narrative in an irrelevant box decorated with patio-stone patterns and piñatas (designs by Paul Steinberg). He retained miles of clunky dialogue en français and made everyone mug madly.

The chief mugger was pretty Marie Lenormand, who sounded shrill and exuded misplaced sophistication as the should-be sweet and pathetic street-singer of the title (anyone for a striptease?). The busy-busy choristers began the afternoon barbecuing hot dogs, ended it impersonating zombies. Philip Littell served as a ubiquitous scene-stealing bartender who, for reasons unclear, became the Old Prisoner in the final act.

The staging did reflect a sense of style. Unfortunately, it was a perverse style. Charm? Forget it. Eurotrash? Call it Aldentrash.

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