Now, many patrician musicians and stage directors clear their schedules to do Offenbach; even the distinguished conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt has been seen joining an onstage kickline. Opra Comique, however, doesn't want your respect. The 1860s-period sets are handsome, even sumptuous, but they're not about realism: Theatrical artificiality is embraced, not minimized, in this adaptation by director Jerome Savary. Stage technology has eliminated the need for scenery-change songs in front of the curtain, but this production uses them as occasions for the characters to confide to the audience. Dialogue is stylized and highly inflected.
This artificiality liberates the production to do anything for laughs (some moments have character-driven humor, others are pure burlesque) and to be fantastically unrealistic. A South American naval officer has colorful ostrich plumes sprouting from his shoulders. A corpulent man in modern female-streetwalker drag wanders onstage, declares he's in the wrong show, and clomps off in mile-high platform shoes. One woman's dress literally radiates 20 feet in every direction, aided by mermaids whose glitter-coated tails are provocatively upturned. Such things work only because these singing actors can inhabit these quirky French character types.
The leading roles are cast with legit operetta voices - such as Marie-Stphane Bernard as the courtesan Mtella and tenor ric Huchet as the man who loves her - though other voices are less cultivated. And rightly so, since their music needs to be delivered with the fluency of a stand-up comedy routine. What I missed Wednesday night was the personality that's so palpable in the famous recordings from the 1931 Thatre Mogador production. There comes a point where the singers have to treat La Vie Parisienne like their own cabaret show. Although winning, this cast stops short of that.
There was still more Offenbach spirit here than you're likely to encounter from American companies. And, paradoxically, because the production is playing in America, you're more likely to take in that spirit. The reason is simple: Surtitles. You wouldn't get them in Paris, and with all of the plot machinations in La Vie Parisienne - it really is a play with music more than an operetta - non-French speakers won't get lost in the piece's hedonistic labyrinth.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"La Vie Parisienne" plays at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today and 1:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Information: 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org.