Described by its director Laurent Pelly as a “magical vegetable patch enchantment”, Offenbach's implausible 1872 Le Roi Carrotte (“King Carrot”) today makes its comeback onto the musical scene; in spite of initial triumph in Paris, London, New York and Vienna, it's been almost totally absent since 1877. While the initial four act version called for a six hour marathon with 120 performers on stage plus dozens of sets and hundreds of costumes, Agathe Mélinand has adapted the second version of Offenbach's work into three acts and eleven scenes, with a considerably more manageable length. The “magical” aspects may be somewhat subdued, but the Lyonais buffoonery still works – a cute rediscovery of a fairly political work, and entertaining as can be.

Christophe Mortagne (Roi Carotte) © Stofleth
Christophe Mortagne (Roi Carotte)
© Stofleth

With little delay, the vegetarian platter is brought to the table: in the imaginary city of Krokodyne, Prince Fridolin XXIV gets thrown off the thrown and gets his fiancée stolen by a wicked orange root vegetable and is forced to flee the kingdom, all as aresult of having defied the somewhat vindictive witch Coloquinte. Working from the E. T. A. Hoffman tale Klein Zacharias genannt Zinnober, librettist Victorien Sardou places a number of obstacles and diversions into the path of his return to power, which drag off the small band of rebels (Fridolin, Rosée-du-Soir, Robin-Luron and various acolytes) as far as Pompeii to obtain a magic ring which doesn't ultimately amount to much but is an enjoyable ride.

Victor Aviat's conducting takes a while to settle in. The overture sparkles, but initially, the sound is a shade flat; the first violins struggle for accuracy and unfortunately, the entrance aria from mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne as Robin-Luron (a good actress, with a relatively light timbre) is too subdued beneath the orchestra. Right from the start, the chorus's enthusiasm is powerful (the first scene shows medical students in a full scale freshers' initiation rite, binge drinking in a brasserie), and for the whole opera, the chorus is an effective vehicle for Offenbach's typical style – even if contact with the orchestra is occasionally lost, leading to mistimings. Within this burlesque setting, we see the first contact between Fridolin and his betrothed. These two main roles get a more than worthy casting: Yann Beuron's experience in opera and operetta and his rounded and powerful tenor make him as perfect a choice as Antoinette Dennefeld as Cunégonde. Her petulant mezzo-soprano, well accustomed to opéra-bouffe, is warm, her manner fresh and impertinent. With undeniable charme and a particular lightness, Chloé Briot, as Rosée-du-Soir, gives us some beautiful singing, her coloratura duetting with the flute or with other singers.

But in 2015 in Lyon, Le Roi Carotte is every bit as much a feast for the eyes. Laurent Pelly has dreamt up a dizzying staging full of humour down to the last detail, perfectly serving the exuberantly hilarious libretto. The diversion to Pompeii, in the shadow of the volcano, evokes Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (there's a hilarious scene when Fridolin's little band explains to the ancient Romans what a train is); vegetable patch chase sequences recall of the 1980s Commodore 64 video game Crystal Castles; some of the reproductions of insects are straight out of the library of the Musée des Confluences (Lyon's science and anthropology museum), with the queen bee and her army forming a clever alternative to the original ballet scene.

Laurent Pelly's staging © Stofleth
Laurent Pelly's staging
© Stofleth

The comedy is embedded into variations on a theme. The stiff, staid portrait gallery of the ancestors found in scene 3 is later transformed into portaits of vegetables, with which Carrot I (Christophe Montagne, an excellent actor and singer) surrounds his throne room (the throne is actually a vegetable crate). At this point, the dominant hair colour at court is orange. And when the vegetables get a bit flabby and start to wobble, Cunégonde, getting her wits back, looks at the worn out, muddy bottom of her husband (“how could I have loved that”), the carrots are soon cooked. It has to be said – the costume's indecency requires it – that the root between the legs of the usurping monarch is somewhat flaccid, and Fridolin's return to power is the easier for it. In Offenbach's satirical view of the imperial regime, King Carrot finally sees his people mounting the barricades; in the last of these splendid collective tableaux, the people gets rid of its burlesque king, who is thrown into the mincer. Literally.

The soup is on the menu until the 1st January 2016. Go get a ladleful.

 

Translated from French by David Karlin