`Parisienne' is snappy, saucy and so oo-la-la

MusicReview

February 19, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Assuming that John Ashcroft doesn't shut the show down, the Opera Comique from Paris will continue titillating audiences at the Kennedy Center through Sunday with a fanciful, antic production of Jacques Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne.

No wardrobe malfunctions here. Each breast-baring - we're talking the Full Janet - is intentional in a staging that suggests a cross-pollination of Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks movies, the Follies Bergere and even a touch of San Francisco's long-running, over-the-top cabaret Beach Blanket Babylon.

Somewhere in all of the flesh and frou-frou is an 1866 operetta with a silly, but workable, plot that involves a Swedish baron and baroness, an elusive Parisian courtesan and her former lovers, masked aristocrats and servants masquerading as aristocrats (inspiration for Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus), and, of course, can-can dancers.

This week's appearance, part of the Kennedy Center's Festival of France, marks the Opera Comique's U.S. debut. Primarily a venue for works with music and spoken dialogue, the company has premiered masterworks by Donizetti, Bizet, Debussy and many others since the 18th century. Judging by his Parisienne production, director Jerome Savary takes a very broad view of how to honor that legacy.

In the midst of Parisienne, Savary gives a cute nod to Offenbach's single entry into grand opera, The Tales of Hoffmann - a character breaks into a bit of that opera's mechanical doll scene. It's just one of the novel interpolations along the way.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Toulouse-Lautrec pop up; so does an ungainly man in leather drag who, by his own admission to the audience, "must be in the wrong production." And, at one point, there's "a word from our sponsor." To supplement all the sight gags are extra-saucy surtitles (Evelyn Wood graduates will have an advantage trying to read them).

Sometimes, it seems as if the original libretto and score were considered of secondary importance back in the planning stages for this venture, but there's still enough substance left. When you hear the creamy voice of Maryline Fallot (the Baroness) wrap around a sweet melody, for example, the enduring charm of Parisienne comes through strongly.

Throughout, the energy, enthusiasm and polished timing of the whole cast suggest a genuine affection for the material. All of the singing is at least adequate, often more; Martial Defontaine (Gardefeu) and Marie-Stephane Bernard (Metella) are among the standouts. A small but snappy orchestra, led by Gerard Daguerre, has the style down pat. Michel Lebois' clever, colorful sets add a lot.

And then there are the dancers. Men and women both leap into the can-can; you can't-can't imagine what one double-jointed guy can do.

Whether the production really needs servant girls who habitually bend over to expose their frilly underwear (what little there is of it), or a guy who bends over to expose no underwear at all, or a woman with a fog horn, or a big, hairy man in a tutu - well, we do live in a short-attention-span age. This Parisian life is never boring.

Opera Comique

Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday; 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $40 to $150

Call: 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org

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