The sensation of watching L’Étoile is akin to watching the infamous scene in Moulin Rouge where Toulouse and his band of misfits drink Absinthe and watch the green fairy gyrate in front of them, succumbing to the potent dizziness that the drink induces. Except when you watch L’Étoile, Kylie Minogue isn’t spinning around and instead there’s an entire opera of whirling colours, accents and songs that feel familiar and alien all at once, granting a feeling of existing temporarily within a unfocused daydream.
This is the first time that Emmanuel Chaubrier’s opera bouffe is being put on by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, with French director Mariame Clement making her Royal Opera debut. The set design from Julia Hansen, another artist making their entrance with the Royal Opera, seems to have sought inspiration from Monty Python. Pastel coloured, two-dimensional set pieces drawn in a cartoon style occupy the stage and are operated jauntily as if a large child were playing with the set, moving the pieces at random. The set design compliments the truly bonkers plot, ensuring the bizarre twists and turns of the opera have a suitable playground. A moment of particular aesthetic oddity is the lone white-cloaked figure, who occasionally appears and is dressed in a manner oddly reminiscent of something a Klan member might wear. Though this unusual figure is not alone in making the production a disjointed one: plenty of focus is paid to the fact that the plot is confusing. In one particular moment, members of the cast freeze whilst the two narrators come into the scene to discuss the plot thus far. The narrators provide light fodder and attempt to create a humorous atmosphere by acknowledging the ridiculousness of the action. The problem, for me, is that the narrators are not particularly funny and too much of their bit tried to tap into modern culture. The moment where Smith, comedian Chris Addison, dresses up as Sherlock and enters into his ‘mind map’ falls particularly flat.
The opera is unapologetic in its absurdity and makes no effort to be sensible. Whilst there’s something to enjoy about the unpolished sentiment of L’Étoile, parts of this production feel thoroughly unfinished. The physical actions of the ensemble are clumsy, with numerous sequences awkwardly shuffling across the stage. Members of the ensemble were out of sync with one other and at times several individuals appeared nervous on stage. Though the production has an unruly sensibility, the messy aesthetic appeared unintentional. There’s something sweet about L’Étoile that makes you want to turn a blind eye to its misgivings, but there comes a point where noticing the imperfections becomes unavoidable.
There is a silver lining. The music is where the production truly soars. As Lazuli, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey is terrific. The moments where she takes the stage alone are perhaps the greatest. Overall the music of this opera is worth a listen, and it must be said that L’Étoile is not an unenjoyable production, but it is also not a fantastic one.
L’Étoile is playing at the Royal Opera House until 24 February. For tickets and further information: www.roh.org.uk/productions/letoile-by-mariame-clement