Henri Bergson famously defined comedy as “something mechanical encrusted on the living”. One suspects that Jacques Offenbach would have been a fan of this definition, and that Christopher Alden most certainly is. Alden’s new production of La Périchole, which closes the New York City Opera’s season, is strange, abrasive, and also extremely funny, careening past the everyday to end up somewhere deeply bizarre.

La Périchole © Carol Rosegg
La Périchole
© Carol Rosegg

La Périchole relates the adventures of the titular Peruvian street singer, who escapes poverty through a liaison with the unstable viceroy, but then discovers that all she really wants is to return to her faithful boyfriend Piquillo. One of Offenbach’s later operettas, it celebrates not frivolity but faithful love – even if the path to that love is not always the most virtuous. The operetta dates from 1868, here it was performed in the larger-scale, three-act 1874 version.

The mythological or exotic settings of Offenbach’s operettas are thinly disguised caricatures of his own Parisian society. In the antics of tinpot emperors and brainwashed subjects onstage, he poked fun at the hypocrisies and corruption of Second Empire France. Alden correspondingly sets this production in a funhouse mirror version of today among what might be a disaffected bunch of spring breakers. Paul Steinberg’s set of a headache-inducing mosaic of chartreuse, black and white looms behind the proceedings, and a bar with an ever-present bartender fills the usually-soused characters’ glasses over and over again.

Périchole and Piquillo are the lone representatives of humanity among a mob of crazed automaton-like, or drugged maniacs, and the plot largely consists of watching them attempt to navigate this unpredictable place. In the first act, Périchole’s cute but modest busking proves a hard sell to the glum, garishly dressed bar patrons – here their song is played directly to the theater’s audience – but she does, unfortunately, catch the eye of the viceroy, who happens to be a sex-obsessed lunatic. The role is a star turn for bass Kevin Burdette, who, in a turn reminiscent of the film A Fish Called Wanda’s Otto, is a remarkable physical comedian whether stalking around as an underdressed superhero or as a cowboy. With the promise of solid food, he lures Périchole to his palace, where a glum crowd of courtiers awaits.

I could relay the plot in further detail, but I’m not sure what good it would do. It doesn’t make much sense, and the details largely serve to provide comic opportunities for the various wacky characters, and for Périchole and Piquillo to be adorable. Likewise, the comedy itself is far less entertaining to read about than it is to experience. By the time Piquillo is strapped to a recliner watching a big TV showing the viceroy and Périchole’s tryst (which goes hilariously awry), you don’t really care exactly how we got here. In his day, Offenbach’s comedies were inevitably described as strange and extreme, and Alden goes to impressive and considerable lengths to restore a sense of strangeness to the comfort of the opera house. (Whether the frequent cackling coming from these characters aligns with Bergson’s theory, is, as they say, outside the scope of the current review.)

This surreal atmosphere works very well with Offenbach’s score, whose quicksilver music sometimes hurtles unstoppably forward and sometimes seems to stuff the impossible into improbably predictable musical forms, with the chorus echoing the soloists in uncanny unison. Conductor Emmanuel Plasson sometimes seemed to rein in the momentum, but showed grace and style in this light music. While vocally relatively undemanding, the score requires spirit, and the dialogue confident spoken French.

Both leads are native speakers, and this was a wise decision. As Périchole, mezzo Marie Lenormand was sassy and sympathetic, the most restrained member of the cast, and her singing had great character if not significant volume. As Piquillo, tenor Philippe Talbot also sometimes seemed underpowered, but his sweet tone suited his hapless character. Burdette’s singing was fine, but decidedly secondary to his wacky characterization. As the silent bartender – who in Act II turns into an aged prisoner with a very important penknife, don’t ask – deadpan actor Philip Littell was silently hilarious.

Like many of Alden’s productions, La Périchole seems to have dropped in from a parallel world where things are more intense and scarier. There’s an edge to this comedy that is not often seen in American opera. Périchole and Piquillo are sure guides, and this show is not to be missed.

****1