Denyce Graves is grand in 'La Perichole,' which is not

Posted: January 22, 2002

Two hours and 40 minutes into La Perichole, the Offenbach oddity being presented by the Opera Company of Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, Denyce Graves gives in and sings the song she knows will get the attention of the viceroy who can spring her from her drab dungeon.

The audience at that point had no such option, and although the opera feels as if it's going to end several times before it actually does (and should), it doesn't. There's more silly plot, more simpleton music ahead. La Perichole goes on like that for a total of three hours, and by the end of the Sunday afternoon show, it was pretty clear why this is the Offenbach operetta nearly no one has ever heard of.

Lest anyone think that the production is one to definitely miss, let me repeat the name of the lead singer. She is Denyce Graves, the large-voiced mezzo-soprano who has made a big hit by breathing new life into the role of Carmen, and who is moving beyond the dangers of being typecast with several new roles this season, including this somewhat bland title character, as well as Federica in the Metropolitan Opera's forthcoming Luisa Miller.

With Graves on stage, the quality of the material didn't always matter a whole lot. I'd be happy to hear Graves sing the stock tables from the back of the Wall Street Journal, or even some of the articles. Her voice is rich and caressing, and when she is singing she brings meaning to every phrase.

Her acting, when dependent solely on her speaking, is another matter. This is comedy, and in passages without music - the production is in English and still uses supertitles - Graves didn't quite know how to inflect her voice with humor or even much interest. She fell back on sitcom vocal patterns.

The role doesn't ask of her what many fans loved in her Carmen. Yes, La Perichole translates as "native bitch." But that's largely a title born of smart marketing on the part of the composer. This is a lightly sketched characterization of a Peruvian street singer, a female lead that could have come out of Rossini or Gilbert and Sullivan.

Graves certainly isn't the only good thing about this first production of La Perichole by the Opera Company. Robert Orth, the baritone well known to audiences here, does fairly funny things with the role of the viceroy, Don Andres. He's a little bit on the foppish side, which makes his pursuit of Perichole as a love object less convincing than it could be. (Although the camp dished up by Christian Graze in the part of the gossipy Marquis de Tarapote made Orth seem like a regular Ernest Hemingway.)

Graves' voice outweighs that of her love interest on the richness scale. Richard Troxell in the part of Piquillo has a light tenor voice that doesn't always hold its own.

Dorothy Danner is the director. She keeps the stage busy with bosomy women and a town atmosphere that seems to list debauchery as a residency requirement. Nothing wrong with that, although some of the schticky physical humor gets old real fast.

The most attractive set, and the most distinctly artful one I've seen in an Opera Company production, comes in Act II, in the drawing room of Don Andres. Painted in rich colors and elaborate detail, Boyd Ostroff's rendering of a royal abode never seemed more like something worth aspiring to. It did what the best set design does, giving added emotional understanding to Perichole's attraction to the world of wealth and power, even when it thwarted her own path to true love.

Peter Dobrin's e-mail address is pdobrin@phillynews.com.

La Perichole

Music by Jacques Offenbach, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy.

Conducted by Stephen Lord; directed by Dorothy Danner; set and lighting design by Boyd Ostroff; costume design by Richard St. Clair; wig and makeup design by Tom Watson; chorus master Donald Nally.

Cast:

Denyce Graves (La Perichole), Richard Troxell (Piquillo), Robert Orth (Don Andres), Terry Hodges (Don Pedro) Douglas Perry (Count Panatellas), Christian Graze (Marquis de Tarapote), Ramone Diggs (First Notary), Levi Hernandez (Second Notary), Grant Neale (Old Prisoner), Karen Slack (Guadelena), Tracie Luck (Virginella), Jody Kidwell (Mastrilla).

Presented by the Opera Company of Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Additional performances: Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Jan. 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 2 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.75 to $147. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.operaphilly.com.

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