February 23, 2014

Rethinking Opera: L’Etoile at Ithaca College

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By MARISSA TRANQUILLI

Colloquially an “opera” has come to mean “a show in which someone sings really high, probably in a different language, and at which the entire audience is probably rich or culturally snobbish.” Or, at least, that is what was apparent to me looking at the expressions on my friends’ faces when I told them I went to see an opera at Ithaca College.  Ithaca College’s production of L’Etoile (The Star), however, was anything but stogy and old.  Performed in English, stuffed with over-the-top humor, self-effacing humor, drunken characters and non-stop innuendo, L’Etoile completely redefined the way that I look at opera.

L’Etoile premiered in 1877 and was originally written in French.  However, it was modified for the American stage and translated with a new libretto in 1890.  It tells the story of a monarch, King Ouf (Eric Flyte) and opens with Ouf in disguise, roaming the streets of his kingdom. Ouf is essentially trying to troll civilians into speaking out against the government — in an effort to fulfill the tradition of executing a libeller each year on his birthday for entertainment. The Princess Laoula (Shelley Attadgie), from the neighboring kingdom, is being escorted to Ouf’s kingdom by the ambassador Prince Hérisson (Chris D’Amico), his wife Aloès (Ariana Warren) and his secretary Tapioca (Brett Pond). They decide to come in disguise for no apparent reason — a plot-furthering prerequisite and undeniable trope that the opera pokes fun at.  So, in a very Moulin Rouge-esque style, Laoula does not know that she is engaged to Ouf and falls in love with a poor peddler/make-up artist named Lazuli (Rachel Ozols).

The complications arise when Sirocco the astrologer (Michael Roddy) declares that Ouf and Lazuli are cosmically connected and that if Lazuli dies, Ouf will die an hour later.  As Ouf has added an addendum to his will stating that when he dies Sirocco will be killed 15 minutes later, both men have a vested interest in keeping Lazuli alive and happy.

This, of course, sets the stage for ensuing ridiculousness, miscommunications and other fun.  As the Director of Opera at Ithaca College said, “L’Etoile is the pinnacle of comic farce at the peak of European Romanticism.”  The Ithaca College production has the aesthetic equation of Tim Burton meets The Hunger Games: the style of dress is somewhat Victorian, especially in the hats and hairpieces, but sleek suits and modern influences also abound. Characters are color-coded, the set pieces are swooping and off-kilter and everything is so brightly colored it is nearly neon. I was absolutely blown away by the sets and costuming which seemed to emphasize the farcical nature of the show —  the character personalities were embodied visibly in their dress and choreography. Characters had an air of the clichéd English upper class in their movements and personas and yet color scheme seemed to add to the comic feel of these actions and turn them into parody rather than a true to life portrayal.

One cannot go to an opera, of course, without talking about the music. The music, like the rest of the performance, was whimsical and accessible.  All of the actors had very strong voices, suited to the range and demands of the opera.  Many of the songs had the audience in laughter with lines such as, “There’s always a little danger, when tickling a stranger.”

Ithaca College’s stage always manages to amaze, but L’Etoile has truly increased my respect for the theater program exponentially.  I have never been so hooked, invested and in love with an opera like I was with L’Etoile. Though its run at Ithaca College is over, its success has made me more apt to attend all of the operas staged by Ithaca College in the future as they have demonstrated their ability to truly engage the audience and craft a beautiful operatic production.

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