It's all in the stars! To ensure favourable astrology readings and so long life, King Ouf shrewdly writes a clause in his will stating that Siroco the royal astronomer will die 15 minutes after the King. It is wonderful nonsense from Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile, a true opéra bouffe taking comedy into farce with a world of hilariously zany twists and turns in a work which inspired Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias. L’Étoile is a perfect conservatoire choice with its large cast, chorus and sizeable orchestra, all brought to vibrant life under the baton of French conductor Philippe Forget and the ‘car-park’ Bohème director PJ Harris.

William Searle (King Ouf I) and Rosalind Dobson (Princess Laloula)
© Robbie McFadzean | RCS

Life is edgy in King Ouf’s kingdom as the annual day of execution comes around, and a victim is sought. Travelling salesman Lazuli is the unfortunate, but gives his money to Siroco to find out what’s in store. Meanwhile, a party from a neighbouring kingdom arrive: useless ambassador Hérisson de Porc-Epic, his wife Aloès, and the princess Laoula who all immediately go into disguise to blend in with the locals, the ambassador and princess pretending to be married. Laoula does not know it, but she is to be betrothed to King Ouf. Lazuli sees the princess and naturally it’s love at first sight. Siroco bursts in with the news that the King’s stars and Lazuli’s stars are linked and they will die within a day of each other. The comically gruesome execution by spike is stopped and Lazuli is elevated to permanent palace resident. When Lazuli grows bored, elopes with Laoula and is missing, presumed dead there are immediate astrological consequences for King Ouf and Siroco. The whole cast throw themselves into unpicking the fabulous mess.

William Searle (King Ouf I) and Ross Cumming (Siroco)
© Robbie McFadzean | RCS

For the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the simple stepped set, each scene featured a gaudy astrological geometric structure, designer Anna Yates having fun with modern day brightly coloured quirky costumes peppered with King Ouf’s red and yellow stars everywhere, all spectacularly lit by Emma Jones. It’s a very lively piece of comedy, and Harris kept everyone extremely busy, Jack Webb’s movement direction very fluid in the big set pieces including the wild dance appearing out of nowhere when Lazuli’s death seems certain. 

In an ensemble cast, the main roles were well sung with clear French diction while the witty spoken dialogue from librettists Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo was taken at a sparkling pace. In a production packed with tuneful numbers which required singing and acting with perfect comic timing, William Searle’s ringing tenor shone as King Ouf, wonderful in his earthy duet with baritone Ross Cumming’s bold Siroco when, haunted by death’s shadow, they downed copious glasses of green chartreuse. Rosalind Dobson was a sweet voiced petulant princess with Megan Barker, a splendidly perplexed Aloès, both pairing up mischievously in a tickling aria to wake sleeping Lazuli.

Hannah Bennett (Lazuli)
© Robbie McFadzean | RCS

In character roles, Sam Marston's ridiculous ambassador was kept in check by his ledger-laden secretary, James McIntyre as the officious Tapioca. It is the hapless Lazuli who has the lion’s share of arias and tumbling stage business (there is a fall specialist), mezzo Hannah Bennett stepping into the trouser role with a breezy confidence and strong rich voice, a superbly bold and gutsy ‘everyman’ around which the story unfolds, and the stars turn. The large chorus had some standout set piece moments with impressive singing whilst capering about, the sinister dark glasses of the black suited palace guards contrasting with the sashaying Ouf-ette girls and colourful star themed costumes. 

L'Étoile at the RCS
© Robbie McFadzean | RCS

There were stars in the pit too with the large orchestral forces on top form under Forget’s dynamic conducting. Chabrier’s effervescent score was considered shockingly difficult by the house players at the premiere in the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiennes who were more accustomed to Offenbach’s music, yet this Conservatoire band kept things pacey and upbeat. The lively overture was lyrical, the busy percussion section keeping it crisp and snappy, the horns, cornets and trombone combination adding French colour. Forget, a bundle of energy, moved it all along keeping pit and stage together despite the challenge of Harris’ busy stage directions.

In a refreshing approach, Philip White, Head of Opera at RCS is introducing students and audiences alike to rarely performed works on the edge of the repertoire. L’Étoile was a terrific ensemble show, performers and players pulling this delightful opéra bouffe off superbly with a huge dose of fun and madcap nonsense to brighten up a dark January.