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Garry Marshall is a shtickler for humor

Times Staff Writer

Though now a moderately mature, important and occasionally innovative company, the Los Angeles Opera opened its 20th season with something safe and silly Saturday, a new version of a Jacques Offenbach operetta.

The gala crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was Hollywood-heavy. The draw was Garry Marshall, making his opera debut with his new version of “La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein,” now “The Grand Duchess.” My guess is that most on hand knew of him and his work in film and television sitcoms. He has made popular movies -- “Petty Woman” and “The Princess Diaries” among them.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 14, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Garry Marshall film -- A review of Los Angeles Opera’s “The Grand Duchess” in Monday’s Calendar section said one of director Garry Marshall’s movies was “Petty Woman.” It was “Pretty Woman.”
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 14, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
“Grand Duchess” -- A headline in Monday’s Calendar section on a review of the Jacques Offenbach operetta “The Grand Duchess” misspelled Offenbach’s name as Offbenbach.

Marshall is a funny man, a likably lightweight director with a determination to get laughs. Nothing is too corny for him, and he tries too hard. But that hardly makes him any less likable or unfunny. He gets the laughs, a lot of them. And groans.

Nobody, other than humorless historians, wants their Offenbach straight. These mid-19th century Parisian operettas were entertainments of their time, wicked satires of government and society. Offenbach is, moreover, back in fashion in France, mainly in updated productions that honor his spirit, which means they are too sexually scandalous and politically barbed for the timid, self-censoring American lyric stage.

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Here, Offenbach gives us a flippant, inexperienced young leader whose hawkish handlers start a war for diversion and their own profit. Gerolstein’s grand duchess is a party girl who falls easily for soldiers. She promotes Fritz, a country-bumpkin private, to general because she finds him cute. And much of the intrigue revolves around her trying to get his fiancee, naive country girl Wanda, out of the picture.

Marshall is careful to keep Gerolstein an anachronistic comic-book country, although a single aside about weapons of mass destruction got a huge hand Saturday. His invention is to populate Heidi Ettinger’s comic-book set with familiar types, the kind you are likely to see on television. And to include huge amounts of physical comedy.

The dialogue, which is performed in English, is -- for the most part -- new. Offenbach’s score is sung in the original French, and it is old. The transition is awkward, but Marshall handles it cleverly by bringing Offenbach into the picture to comment on the action, the times. He’s Marshall’s alter-ego, the exaggerated New York accent exchanged for an exaggerated French one.

The composer, agreeably played by Jason Graae, has a lot of competition on a stage crowded with acrobats sliding here, juggling there. The shtick, as the evening progresses, gets shtickier, and everybody gets the relentlessly affable bad jokes. One example: When a baron doesn’t know the password to get through the troops, he complains that it should have been “matzos.” Why? Because when you say “matzos,” the guards will reply, “Passover.” You get the idea.

“The Grand Duchess” was staged principally because Frederica von Stade wanted to sing the title role. She is not the first mezzo-soprano who has, late in career, enjoyed this romp, and she doesn’t pretend to be young. Instead, the dynamic is changed to that of an older woman chasing after young men, which allows for a whole new set of funny reactions. And diva-deflating Von Stade is a humorously high-maintenance scatterbrain.

What she does change, however, is the tempo. Offenbach has written carefree, challenging music for her that sparkles, but Von Stade has to use her voice these days with care. Still, her role works.

In fact, much of the show works because the music works. For that, credit Emmanuel Villaume, who conducts with the right lilt. It’s a slight waste to have Paul Groves (a daring tenor who has worked with Peter Sellars and Achim Freyer) and Constance Hauman (who is best know for her sexually charged Lulu) as a couple of dopes. And enough of her lisp already. But both prove gifted comedians. As does Rod Gilfry, the stiff Prince Paul who vies for the Grand Duchess’ hand and gets a straight-guy makeover from Baron Grog’s queer eye, played by Paul Vogt. John Cheek booms as General Boum, a two-bit Bismarck. Exaggeration is the name of the game in Anthony Laciura’s scheming Baron Puck, who has a tiresome habit of popping his hand over mouth. You get the idea.

In the end, “The Grand Duchess” probably tries a little too hard to entertain, entertain, entertain. Even the famed Can-Can from a different Offenbach operetta gets, not ineffectively, thrown in. We live in times that may need more than that from our arts institutions. But L.A. Opera is not as financially flush as it would like to be, and this will surely fill seats.

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Two things, though, I wished for Saturday. First, something more than fun, fun, fun, when the news shows us so much suffering (say a bit of Katrina fund-raising). Second, an acknowledgement from the Music Center that it has got to go out and raise a couple of million dollars for a new sound system in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The dialogue is amplified, the music is not, and that proved the worst of both worlds Saturday. The dialogue sounded as though it came out of tin cans. The singing sounded undernourished. In situations like this, both should be amplified, and well.

Oh, and one other thing. Nothing is gained by singing in French.

*

‘The Grand Duchess’

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Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 Thursday, Sept. 22 and 28; 2 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 25; 8 p.m. Oct. 1

Price: $30-$205

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or

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www.laopera.com


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