That handkerchief! That shawl! Where have we seen them before? Can this tenor from Logan, Utah, be satirizing the great Pavarotti? Can this soprano from Enid, Okla., be perpetrating a travesty of the immortal Callas? Can this farcical concoction called "Monsieur Choufleuri" be a parody of the great bel canto tradition? Listen to the words of the Grand Trio (sung to music whose composer might be named Bellinizetti): "Italia la bella! Mia bella patria! Macaroni buona! Spaghetti di Roma!" What is happening on the stage of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater?
What will be happening repeatedly through Jan. 16 is an Offenbach one-act comedy, forgotten for more than a century and now hilariously revived (in tandem with Gilbert & Sullivan's "Trial by Jury") by the Washington Opera.
The full title of this little farce is "M. Choufleuri restera chez lui le 24 janvier 1833" ("Mr. Cauliflower Will Be at Home on January 24, 1833"), but it could have been called "Offenbach's Revenge." The composer pounded fruitlessly for years on the doors of the Opera-Comique before finally opening his own theater, where he proceeded to make money and enemies. "Choufleuri" (one of countless little confections he turned out for the Parisian equivalent of off-off-Broadway) is his unsentimental tribute to the soire'es musicales that kept him alive through his early struggles. It mercilessly ridicules musical snobbery, operatic fads and the star system, which may have been even more absurd in the age of Liszt than it is today.
At its climax, the soprano, tenor and basso buffo (a formidable singer and even more formidable actor named Francois Loup) are performing their trio in something like Italian (the rest of the dialogue is in French). A connoisseur and his wife are quarreling on the sidelines about whether to shout "bravo" or "brava," and the music is interrupted by a drunken butler (splendidly played by Anthony Laciura) who stumbles in offering drinks to all -- which he proceeds to consume himself when nobody else shows any interest.
The soprano is repeatedly knocked or dropped to the floor, and at one point she is nearly strangled by the tenor, with whom she has sung a duet more like a duel. It is enough to make you forget that this double feature also includes an almost perfect performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's assault on true love, marriage and the British system of justice.
If you look behind the sparkle of this production, there is no more substance in the unfamiliar "Choufleuri" than in the well-known "Trial by Jury." To work at all -- to avoid being utterly deplorable -- it has to be done with style, spirit and considerable skill. Fortunately, at the Terrace, both pieces are almost painfully funny.
The funniest part is the Offenbach trio, where the soprano and tenor are supposed to imitate Sontag and Rubini, two superstars of 150 years ago. Since nobody today would recognize a parody of Sontag, Susan Peterson adopts a costume and gestures associated with Maria Callas -- though she stops short of matching the famous Callas wobble in her voice. Michael Ballam is too small to mimic Luciano Pavarotti's imposing physical presence, but he compensates with superb manipulation of a handkerchief, held stiffly at arm's length. Francois Loup's contribution is more subdued but rock-solid; above all, he establishes and sustains the Daumier-like style of the production.
Ballam and Peterson also contribute much to the very British style of "Trial by Jury," aided greatly by Zack Brown's austere courtroom set, with its large portrait of Queen Victoria. But "Trial by Jury" is dominated (as it should be) by the prancing and posturing of James Billings as the judge.