The chicken didn't rate top billing–nor any program mention, for that matter. But it came close to upstaging the rest of the cast during the second act of Les Brigands, currently playing at Opéra Comique during the third of seventh performances (seen on June 26). This was no mean feat, considering the frenetic bustle of activity generated by one of the funniest ensemble casts I've seen in this theater.
Jacques Offenbach's final opéra bouffe (a satiric genre, distinct from the broader opéra comique) from 1869 relates the unlikely tale of a band of brigands that reforms its thieving ways after a series of events that include an innocent farmer joining their ranks for love of the chieftain's daughter. Before their conversion the band takes over of the Duke of Mantua's household planning to intercept the 3 million franc dowery brought by the Princess of Granada to their arranged marriage, a plan that of course comes to naught. Despite the familiar plot elements the parody predates Bizet's Carmen by six years: Schiller's 1781 Die Raüber, with its nascent revolutionary Robin Hood sympathies, inspired librettists from Scribe to Maffei (I masnadieri), to Offenbach and Bizet's collaborators Meilhac and Halévy, and even Brecht. Les Brigands makes light of the evergreen theme of wealth and its inequities, playing on popular themes and mocking stereotypes in broad comic schtick executed with gleeful abandon by a large and skillful cast of comedians.
The funny business is apparent even before the first notes, as a doddering conductor is led into the pit (arranged as in Offenbach's day, with winds behind the conductor's back) — and begins the overture to Carmen. The music quickly succumbs to audience outcry before the real chef steps onto the podium and launches the real score. Distinctively French melodies, catchy if mostly unmemorable, alternate with dialog and plenty of slapstick stage business, including a collection of silly walks worthy of Monty Python. Concerns over political correctness evaporate–personally I was too busy laughing at the goofy portrayal of the Princess of Granada and her lisping Castillian entourage and at the G-&-S-worthy Carabiners (who always arrive too late).
There's often a hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show quality about Opéra Comique's productions. Sometimes it's annoyingly amateurish; this time it felt endearing and genuine, perhaps because the parody was so affectionate and the performers so engaged. The theater's small size magnified the clumsiness of the many elaborate costumes and the vaguely cartoonish sets, but the company's comic timing was impeccable and the energy unflagging. And the score is musically more sophisticated than many of Offenbach's contemporaries, using musical language that recalls his swan song, Les Contes d'Hoffman.
I always find Opéra Comique's largely francophone casts a revelation in terms of French style; this time the vocal level was overall quite strong on anyone's terms. The only singer I recognized going in was Julie Boulianne in the pants role of Fragoletto. This fine young Canadian* mezzo (the program listed her as a soprano but her bio lists more young mezzo roles) has matured vocally and developed ample stage energy since her not-so-distant Juilliard days; she was funny and physically dynamic onstage, and sang with healthy tone. Her love interest, Daphné Touchais as the ingenue Fiorella, was appealing onstage and her light, attractive voice lacked the stringent quality often heard in French sopranos. The charismatic head bandit, Falsacappa, was Eric Huchet, an able comedian and sturdy tenor. Among the many amusing secondary characters the sweet-voiced tenor Loic Félix, as the duke's wastrel cashier, was particularly captivating. Francois-Xavier Roth led an energetic and stylish reading, notwithstanding occasional scrappy ensemble work and less-than perfect intonation from his modern-and-period-instrument orchestra, Les Siècles.
About that chicken: from the moment of its Act II appearance with three other birds in the kitchen of the Duke of Mantua it rarely left the front of the stage, plucking at crumbs and dodging plenty of hyperactive pratfalls. It cemented its vaudevillian bona fides by improvising a scene by positioning itself in front of the falling curtain. The audience remained in the stuffy auditorium to applaud the stage-struck bird's capture by one of the bandits. (other animals included 3 more chickens, a mule, a basset hound, and an authentic-looking moose head that poked from behind a boulder for a few moments, plus countless freshly shot game animals–stuffed–that fell from the sky at strategic moments. I suppose you could also include in that count the different animal calls heard at the beginning of the piece).
*Opéra Comique has been making good use of her compatriots as well–I've heard mezzo Michele Losier and tenor Joseph Kaiser in recent seasons