Once upon a time, Offenbach’s “Parisian Life” was a sparkling, frivolous satire, a smug spoof of and a toast to the naughty appeal and delights of Paris. No more.
Long Beach Opera’s Christopher Alden has stretched poor Offenbach’s opera bouffe on the Procrustean bed of Marxist social analysis until he has wrought a ponderous, moralistic, unfocused indictment of society then and now. The Alden chamber adaptation began a 16-day run at the Backlot theater in West Hollywood on Saturday.
To make sure everyone gets the message, set designer Paul Steinberg has placed a Marxian bromide about history being class struggle at the back of the stage.
The problem is that Offenbach’s music, which sprinkles its own occasional acid amid the high-spirited tunes, contradicts Alden’s grim vision at virtually every turn.
So Alden resorts to inserting new, and sometimes interminable, stretches of heavy-handed dialogue into the Meilhac and Halevy tale of the adventures of various visitors to Paris, as translated by Jean Claude Martin.
The director regards none of the characters with sympathy, not even the servants and members of the demimonde. Corruption is pervasive. However, he especially condemns the upper class, and so Baron de Gondremarck, who might be a prototype of Eisenstein in Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and whose sin of flirtation is no more serious than Eisenstein’s, is made to degenerate into a cocaine addict before being publicly humiliated and virtually destroyed.
Offenbach’s score offers genial forgiveness for all sins. But Alden delays the moment as much as possible and undercuts it by having Frick, metamorphosed into a boot-fetishistic anarchist, at last ignite his three sticks of dynamite to blow the whole society up. Unfortunately, they don’t even fizzle.
For all that, Alden at times confuses Karl with Groucho.
The action careens from light comedy to stultifying moments of serious Expressionism (starkly lit by Heather Carson); from madcap Hollywood farce to sticky realism.
The dialogue becomes increasingly peppered with modernisms and slang, and an occasional vulgarity. The cast delivers the spoken words as if they’re in a TV sitcom, which suits most of them just fine because their acting skills are, with few exceptions, far superior to their vocal talents.
Among the singers offering caricature as would-be compensation for weak vocalism were Henry Stram as Frick, Michael John Lindsay (Bobinet) and Jonathan Courie and Keith Austin Brown appearing a variety of roles.
However, Badiene Magaziner-Gray brought soaring vocalism to the role of the Baroness. Angelina Reaux was the vocally secure, dark-hued Gabrielle. Felicity La Fortune was the vocally tremulous and hard-edged Metella.
Mark Janicello sang Raoul with strength but acted by the Method. Daryl Henriksen was the stiff, hollow-voiced Baron.
Music director Christopher Berg led a small, scruffy but spirited ensemble from the piano. His musically stylish tempos frequently proved uncongenial to the singers who labored to keep up, often throwing clear diction to the winds, especially when they were expected to spit the words out at the audience.
Gabriel Berry designed the period and contemporary costumes.