Anyone remember The Court Jester, the 1956 medieval romp with Danny Kaye plotting against wicked Basil Rathbone, leading the revolting peasants and juggling the "flagon with the dragon" and the "chalice from the palace" poison plot? I mention it because, deliciously daft though that is, it's considerably less silly than the historical shenanigans so exquisitely set to music by Chabrier in Le Roi Malgré Lui.
Poor old Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894) isn't quite forgotten - his orchestral zinger "Espana" opened last year's Proms - but he is regarded as one of the great one-hit wonders. Enter Phyllida Lloyd who, in 1991, directed Jeremy Sams's fizzy new translation of L'Etoile for Opera North. Now, Simon Callow is mounting a similar charm offensive with Le Roi Malgré Lui, translating and directing - with the help of Kit Hesketh-Harvey on lyrics.
Seated comfortably in Grange Park Opera's impressive new theatre, it's immediately clear that the music is certainly not the reason why this once hugely popular work is rarely revived. Ravel said that he'd rather have written it than the whole of Wagner's Ring and the shimmering orchestral writing effortlessly makes his point. The sparkle and colours Chabrier spins from the orchestra would have made Tchaikovsky marvel. The harpist must be the busiest musician of the lot.
Chabrier was also happy to spice up proceedings with consciously comic music - spookily ascending plucked notes on double basses and high trembling strings underscoring suitably dastardly activities. And give him the chance to write a tender duet and he's off.
So for those of you who don't know it - ie the entire population of the British Isles - here is the plot: bored Henri de Valois is holed up in Krakow as king of Poland but wishes he weren't. Deciding to go home, he swiftly changes his mind when he clocks Alexina, an old flame who is a) Polish, b) married, and c) secretly plotting against him. To save frying your brain I won't explain why he disguises himself as his friend Nangis who, in turn, impersonates the king when not courting Minka, a gypsy girl who, exasperated in the final act, tries to explain what's going on to Alexina and sighs, "I can't follow this. Can you?" None of which would matter were it performed with comic and vocal aplomb but, alas, Callow's becalmed production feels under-rehearsed. There's real vivacity in Quinny Sacks's grand-scale choreography but you could drive a coach and pair through some of the dramatically dead pauses between the end of a dialogue scene and the singers moving into full throttle. And once there, they're too often unsupported by conductor Roderick Brydon who on opening night was failing to keep the ensemble together.
Some of the casting too is problematic. As Henri, Stephan Loges has a strong but unvarying voice which flattens the crucial comedy. Alison Roddy made serious vocal mileage out of Minka but the evening well and truly belonged to Mary Plazas. Her pin-sharp Alexina had all the vocal and dramatic conviction the rest of the production kept struggling to find.
'Le Roi Malgré Lui': Grange Park Opera, Winchester (020 7320 5408), tonight, Tue, Fri
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