L’étoile (“The star”), an opéra bouffe by Emmanuel Chabrier, appears to be gaining popularity since the beginning of this millennium and is appearing with increasing frequency  in opera houses. This renewed interest is fully deserved as this new production at the Dutch National Opera, directed by Laurent Pelly, shows. L’étoile is bubbly and light like a glass of sparkling wine, to be consumed without restraint.

The libretto is a mix of the surreal, farce and poetry. In a far away land, King Ouf I is looking for a victim to impale publicly on his birthday, as is the custom. He comes across Lazuli, an impudent young pedlar. The young man has just fallen in love at first sight with Laoula, a princess from a neighbouring kingdom who is travelling incognito under ambassador Hérisson de Porc-Epic’s escort. Upset after hearing that she is already betrothed, he retorts by insulting and even striking the king, thus becoming the designated victim for celebratory impalement. But just before the execution, the astrologer Siroco warns the king that Lazuli’s star and his are connected and that he will die just one day after Lazuli does. Lazuli is spared and escorted into the royal palace where he is treated with all the honours. He however still longs for Laoula. Eventually, and after much confusion, the young pedlarr and the princess get to marry with the king’s blessing.

Laurent Pelly does not elude the darker side of the plot’s humour: behind his comical appearance, King Ouf (an anagram of the French word for “Mad”) is a dictator of the worse kind, whose people wander in a dull monochromic world, while he and his court live in the colourful luxury of the palace. The French director’s staging excels in revealing both the absurd silliness and the poetry of the piece. Surrealist sets (Chantal Thomas) and quirky costumes (Jean-Jacques Delmotte) set the tone, but it is above all the clever typecasting and the witty actors’ direction that work wonders to make this production a delightful moment of musical theatre.

Christophe Mortagne makes an irresistible comic villain as King Ouf I, singing with stylistic assurance. Lazuli is a trousers role and the French mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac undergoes a real metamorphosis. Her body language is suitably cocky and she acts all the spoken dialogues (and there are a lot of them) with her chest voice to imitate, with great success, a male spoken voice. She might be taking too much risk in doing so (her changes of register sound slightly strained at times) but her transformation into a titi parisien (the Parisian equivalent of a Cockney boy) is certainly most convincing.

French Canadian soprano Hélène Guilmette is a lovely Princess Laoula, at her best in the song “Tous deux assis dans le bateau”. Hérisson (Eliott Madore), his secretary Tapioca (François Piolino) and the astrologer Siroco (Jérôme Varnier) are perfectly cast and I particularly liked Julie Boulianne’s rich-voiced Aloès. The choruses are not mere background, and as the hypocritical members of the king’s court, the choir of the Dutch National Opera gives the most amusing performance.

Chabrier’s music is far more refined than the label “operetta” could make one think. Indeed when L’étoile was première in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, the members of orchestra were reportedly bewildered by the difficulty of the score. The work is packed with tuneful numbers. There are some truly comic passages, like a duet between the king and Sirocco praising the comforting effects of the green Chartreuse. There is clever harmonic display in the quatuor des baisers (“kisses quartet”) and sentimental poetry in Lazuli’s lovely romance “O petite étoile”. But it is especially in the orchestral music that the score reveals its understated sophistication and conducted by Patrick Fournillier, the Residentie Orkest playing gracefully, unveiling the granularity and finesse of Chabrier’s charming music. The star of the night, for once, is the orchestra.