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Chabrier's 'Le Roi malgré lui' at Lyons Opera,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


Chabrier's Le Roi malgré lui is an opera notoriously difficult to stage; Chabrier's music, poised between serious operetta and light opera, is coupled to a complex and unsatisfactory libretto. Complexity is not necessarily a problem, after all many other operas have unsatisfactory libretti; but in Le Roi malgré lui the musical items do not arise naturally out of the plot, as they should in a good operetta; dialogue, structure, the whole dramaturgy is there just to provide an excuse for Chabrier's wonderful music.

And wonderful it is, so directors persistently tinker with the dialogue, hoping to find a version which is truly viable. Laurent Pelly's production at Lyons Opera, premièred on 24 February 2005 but seen on 4 March, was my 3rd, and each time the opera has had a different plot. Opera North ditched Chabrier's plot entirely and set the opera in a late 19th century world of revolutionaries, only managing to prove how difficult it is to add a new plot to existing music. Simon Callow's production at Grange Park made a decent fist of trying to show that Albert Carré's revisions to Chabrier's original book made for a satisfactory opera; but elements of the production weakened it and the jury is still out.

At Lyons, Pelly's collaborator Agathe Mélinand, had again rewritten the plot and tightened up the dialogue. But Pelly also had another idea, probably best explained by quoting the rubric from the programme book (in my own loose translation):-

1887. An Italian theatre in Paris, a stage bare of scenery, three stage managers await the artists. They are rehearsing an historical comic opera by M Chabrier, it is a day like all the others. It is cold. But suddenly ... there is noise in the pit and voices in the theatre and on the opening of the curtain they see ... The public are there and below, the orchestra! Mon Dieu ... all these waiting to hear the work ...

Le Roi malgré lui - Opéra de Lyon. Photo © Gérard Amsellem
Le Roi malgré lui - Opéra de Lyon. Photo © Gérard Amsellem

So as Evelino Pido and the Lyons Opera Orchestra launched into a sparkling account of the overture, the curtain rose on an empty stage, no scenery, and a series of people in 19th century costume did a double take; as the overture finished and the first number started, the cast performed the opera on the stage wearing a mixture of 19th century street clothes and historical costume, and this is how the opera progressed. Periodically the singers were helped by the three stage managers and as the evening progressed their interpolations became more and more ridiculous. There was no attempt to make the dialogue realistic, though occasionally the stage managers wandered by with a piece of scenery.

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Copyright © 10 March 2005 Robert Hugill, London UK


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