Regular readers of my reviews and articles, particularly on this site, are well aware of my hatred of the major record companies. But why, you may cry, when they have given us so much good? Because they really don’t give a shit about the recordings they issue, or reissue, or fail to reissue. If they can’t make a quick buck from something, or any buck at all, it’s going to languish in the vaults until some enterprising spirit takes the plunge and issues it him or herself, at which point some monstrous corporate lawyer will descend on that person, force them to retract the recording that they themselves don’t give a crap about, and sue that person into the poorhouse. All in the name of commerce, not art.
And sometimes, they even screw up at the point of inception. Such is the case with Emmanuel Chabrier’s sophisticated yet wacky comic opera, L’Etoile. This was a work ostensibly written in the Offenbach style, so sophisticated in musicality and orchestration that it not only baffled audiences at the Bouffes-Parisiens (Offenbach’s regular theater) when it was premiered, but also the members of the orchestra who found its rhythms too tricky and its musical expression too subtle for a comic opera. But this was exactly what drew the attention of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, each of whom considered it a little gem.
As for the plot, which was inspired by poet Paul Verlaine, it was also ahead of its time, far wackier and more surreal than anything Offenbach had ever used…but also more literate and erudite. Yet another contradiction. L’Etoile became the favorite opera of a far-out French literary club called the Hydropathes, founded in 1877 (the year of L’Etoile’s premiere), who met at a bistro in the Latin Quarter every night to get loaded, read poetry and listen to music that was considered too strange and obscure for anyone who wasn’t loaded and reading poetry. Two years after the Hydropathes disbanded in 1880 (they had a brief reunion in 1884), an even wackier group called The Incoherents came about. Founded by writer-publisher Jules Lévy, the Incoherents were, like the Dada Movement of the early 20th century, deliberately anti-art and anti-reason. They delighted in “found” art objects and “the drawings of children, and drawings ‘made by people who don’t know how to draw.’ (pace Wikipedia).” It was all part of the same crazy French Bohemian culture that eventually spawned Alfred Jarry and his surrealist play, Ubu Roi, which ironically premiered the same year the Incoherents disbanded (1896). Interestingly enough, their October 1882 “show” was attended by such diverse figures as famed painters Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Édouard Manet and, believe it or not, German composer Richard Wagner! But the influence of the Incoherents didn’t stop with their dissolution, since artist Émile Cohl, who had also belonged to the Hydropathes, made a large series of surrealistic cartoons and film shorts for Gaumont between 1907 and 1910. These had an enormous influence on both the surrealist and the Dada movements (not to mention mainstream animated cartoons—think of Koko the Clown) as well as such abstract animation pioneers as Oskar Fischinger.
So we can see that poor little L’Etoile was enormously popular in its time with a large segment of poets, artists and writers (possibly even Wagner?). But what happened to it was that it fell out of favor and out of the repertoire, being too sophisticated to spur big belly laughs like the comic farces of Rossini or Offenbach (whose comic operettas, I must confess, I’ve always loathed and probably always will, particularly Orpheus in the Underworld, despite their frothy music). There was a brief revival in 1941, the centenary of Chabrier’s birth, in truncated radio performances (a recording survives of one such with Ninon Vallin as Lazuli ans Hughes Cuenod as Ouf, conducted by Ernest Ansermet). Then, in 1985, EMI surprised everyone by financing a recording of the opera under famed conductor John Eliot Gardiner. And here it comes: the recording industry interfered with art to produce a piece of crap. Despite fine conducting and singing, either Gardiner or EMI decided to rewrite and rearrange the opera. The list of sins was given by Lionel Salter in his Gramophone review: “The business of the king and his astrologer putting the clock back has been cut, which weakens the final denouement; far worse, Lazuli is made to sing his star romance before his entry couplets, which not only makes nonsense of the situation and (his meeting with the astrologer being omitted) removes the whole raison d’etre for that romance, but renders meaningless his mention of the veil (on the face of the princess with whom he has become enamoured). What’s more, confusion is caused because the writer of the synopsis was unaware of these senseless changes.”
Worse yet, the erratic sales of this recording soon removed it from circulation, and when it was reissued in the late 1990s the physical libretto was omitted and an online libretto (a link to which was purportedly provided in the booklet) disappeared within a year or two, making it virtually impossible for anyone to follow the complex and sophisticated lyrics with any sense.
Several of the opera’s characters have names that are puns or just silly words: King Ouf (Oof or Whew!), Prince Hérisson le Porc-Epic (Prince Hedgehog the Porcupine), the peddler Lazuli (half of Lapus Lazuli, or aquamarine blue) and Hérisson’s secretary Tapioca (as in the beads we use in pudding). Even the Princess Laoula’s name has a meaning: in numerology it has the birth path of 8, meaning that she balances the spiritual and material planes, power, fame and money. The plot, as can be found online in various places (including Wikipedia), is as follows:
King Ouf the First roams his city, in disguise, searching for a suitable subject to execute as a birthday treat. Hérisson de Porc-Epic, an ambassador, and his wife, Aloès, arrive, accompanied by his secretary, Tapioca, and Laoula, the daughter of a neighboring monarch. They are traveling incognito, and the princess is being passed off as Hérisson’s wife. Their mission, of which Laoula is unaware, is to marry her to Ouf. Complications arise when Laoula and a poor peddler, Lazuli, fall in love at first sight. Scolded for flirting, Lazuli insults the disguised king and thus becomes a desired candidate for death by impalement. But Siroco, the king’s astrologer, reveals that the fates of the king and the peddler are inextricably linked; the stars predict that they will die within 24 hours of each other. Fortunes change again, and Lazuli is escorted with honors into the palace.
Lazuli, fêted and well fed, grows bored with luxury and longs for Laoula. Ouf, still unaware of the disguises, furthers the lovers’ hopes of marriage by imprisoning the supposed husband, Hérisson. The lovers depart but Hérisson escapes and orders the peddler to be shot. Gunfire is heard, but although Laoula is brought in there is no sign of Lazuli. Ouf bemoans his impending death.
Lazuli, having escaped harm, overhears Ouf, Siroco and Hérisson discussing the situation, and eventually reveals himself to Laoula. They plan a second elopement. The king and Siroco try to raise their spirits with a large glass of green chartreuse. Ouf, desperate to marry Laoula and secure an heir to the throne, tries to thwart the lovers again. However, when the clocks strike five and nothing happens, Ouf realizes that the astrologer’s predictions were wrong. In a general final chorus Lazuli and Laoula address the audience to a reprise of Act 1 finale.
I was able to find a French-only libretto online—not ideal for English-speaking listeners (I am in the process of transcribing and translating it, but am only about 29 pages into it) but certainly better than nothing. You can access it here; I will provide the English translation when it is finished (it might take me another month).
So if the only commercial recording of this opera is so flawed, why am I writing about it? Because believe it or not, L’Etoile has been revived in the 21st century and, when done well, is packing audiences in (a rare exception was at Covent Garden, where the conducting was leaden and the supertitles inadequate to present the translation fast enough). And I have found a superb performance on YouTube that I highly recommend; despite truncating the spoken dialogue somewhat, enough is left in to make sense and all of the musical numbers are in the right order. The cast includes
Le Roi Ouf 1st, King of 36 Realms – Christophe Mortagne, tenor
La Princesse Laoula – Hélène Guilmette, soprano
Prince Hérisson, Princess Laoula, Tapioca and Aloès in Act I
Siroco, Astrologer – Jérôme Varnier, bass
Lazuli, a peddler – Stéphanie d’Oustrac, mezzo-soprano
Prince Hérisson de Porc-Épic, Ambassador of the Court of Mataquin – Elliot Madore, baritone
Aloès, Hérisson’s wife – Julie Boulianne, mezzo-soprano
Tapioca, Hérisson’s secretary – François Piolino, tenor
Patacha – François Soons, tenor
Zalzal – Harry Teeuwen, baritone
Le Chef de la Police – Richard Prada, speaker
Residentie Orkest, conducted by Patrick Fournillier
Dutch National Opera, October 2014
You can access this wonderful performance (for now, at least) here. Email me know if you can’t make the link work.
And now you know all about L’Etoile…except for the listening. Enjoy!
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley