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The Duchess goes “Hollywood”

Los Angeles
Los Angeles Opera
09/10/2005 -  and 15, 18, 22, 25, 28 and 1 October 2005
Jacques Offenbach : The Grand Duchess
Frederica von Stade (The Grand Duchess), Paul Groves (Private Fritz), Constance Hauman (Wanda), Rod Gilfry (Prince Paul), John Cheek (General Boum), Anthony Laciura (Baron Puck), Jason Graae (Mr. O), Paul Vogt (Baron Grog), Peter Nathan Foltz (Nepomouc), Suzanna Guzmán (Charlotte), Cynthia Jansen (Lily), Teresa Brown (Olga), Laura Kay Swanson (Iza), Bertha Breslauer (Morrie), Jan Breslauer (Royal Dog Handler), Matt Walker (Sergeant Pierre), Beth Kennedy (Brigitta), Lorin Shapiro (Simone), Guilford Adams (Henri).
Garry Marshall (Director/Adaptation), Vincent Paterson (Choreographer), Heidi Ettinger (Set Designer), Constance Hoffman (Costume Designer), Mary Louise Geiger (Lighting Designer), Jan Breslauer (Dramaturg),
Stuart Canin (Los Angeles Opera Concertmaster), William Vendice (Chorus Master),
Emmanuel Villaume (Conductor).

When the word, “operetta” is mentioned, perhaps one composer comes to mind most often: Jacques Offenbach. It has been said that Offenbach’s contribution to the 19th Century musical stage led the genre into what is commonly known today as the Broadway musical.

Offenbach wrote over ninety pieces for the stage, many with satirical themes, filled with simple yet tuneful melodies. Comic in nature, Offenbach’s music, nonetheless, carries with it a lyrically romantic soul. Its music is infectious and continues to appeal and entertain audiences around the world.

Several of his notable works involved a team of popular librettists, namely, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Parodied subject matter attracted Offenbach to compose such successful operas as La Belle Hélène (1864), Barbe-bleue (1866), La Vie Parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), and La Périchole(1868).

Coinciding with royal visitors arriving in Paris for the Exhibition in 1867, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein was perfectly timed to satirize the current militaristic pettiness of European states and court intrigues. The operetta instantaneously became a smash hit!

Opening their 20th season, Los Angeles Opera sought veteran film and television sitcom director Garry Marshall to make his operatic debut with a new version of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, now entitled The Grand Duchess. Known throughout Hollywood, Marshall’s list of credits runs long with such successful works as Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Odd Couple, and Mork & Mindy (television sitcoms), and Pretty Woman, and The Princess Diaries (movies).

Marshall’s hallmark is to make people laugh, and The Grand Duchess is nothing short of slapstick humor, bad jokes, and silly antics. There is nonstop laughter and chuckling from the audience.

Even before the conductor, Emmanuel Villaume is presented, Offenbach himself (played by Jason Graae) appears at the podium to inform his viewers of what is to take place, and acts as the narrator of the story throughout the night…very corny, but splendidly funny.

Another debut was that of Heidi Ettinger whose award winning Broadway sets laid foundation to a colorful and lavish spectacle at The Dorothy Chandler. Ettinger never allowed complacency to set in, but instead injected red balloons, popped up flags, and moved skies in and out of the scenes. The stage was adorned with a fairytale-like setting in Act I, then changed to a gaudy receiving room, followed by an exquisite Baroque entryway, then ending with the opulent Crimson Suite before returning to the original set in Act I.

As if the sets were not enough to satisfy, the costumes added more innovative “eye candy”. Native peasant costumes, black and white geometric dresses worn by the Duchess’ ladies-in-waiting, pale blue soldiers’ uniforms and the Duchess’ lavish red gown and train cleverly coordinated with Morrie’s royal canine garb led a continuous parade of textures and colors across the stage to compliment the French composer’s melodious score.

World-renowned Frederica von Stade returned to Los Angeles in the title role. A glamorous woman on and off the stage, she consistently provided the perfect touch of elegant singing, light-hearted acting, and a flair of sophistication. No wonder she is a favored bel canto and French repertoire specialist.

Kudos go to Paul Groves playing the quickly promoted private-to-general-and-back Fritz. His radiant voice beamed throughout the evening with confidence and animation, and was the perfect match for his fiancée, the lisping Wanda. The pairing couldn’t have been better.

All the other support cast members carried out their parts in entertaining fashion: Rod Gilfry (Prince Paul), John Cheek (General Boum), Anthony Laciura (Baron Puck), Paul Vogt (Baron Grog), Peter Nathan Foltz (Nepomouc), Suzanna Guzmán (Charlotte), Cynthia Jansen (Lily), Teresa Brown (Olga), Laura Kay Swanson (Iza), Bertha Breslauer (Morrie), Jan Breslauer (Royal Dog Handler), Matt Walker (Sergeant Pierre), Beth Kennedy (Brigitta), Lorin Shapiro (Simone), and Guilford Adams (Henri).

After his successful appearance with Los Angeles Opera’s Le contes d’Hoffmann (2002), Emmanuel Villaume again raised the baton to conduct another masterful Offenbach score. Villaume’s abiding love of French opera infuses every aspect of The Grand Duchess.

If you want an evening filled with witty music, kaleidoscopic colors, and hilariously good singing, seek out The Grand Duchess. You will not be disappointed.

Christie Grimstad



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