The Washington Opera's comic double feature is back for a second season at the Terrace Theater; there have been some cast changes, but the verdict remains essentially what it was last year. Gilbert and Sullivan's "Trial by Jury" is merely perfect; Offenbach's "Monsieur Choufleuri" is a bit better than that.
Each is a small jewel, given a nearly ideal setting in a theater that is a small jewel box. They contrast nicely in style as well as language; "Choufleuri" is a French farce with music, focusing on one hectic evening in the life of a merchant with social pretentions and deriving most of its comedy from the situation and the quirky personalities involved. "Trial" is more like a Victorian comedy of manners, rather abstract in its comedy, which is directed primarily against rather abstract targets: human nature and social institutions. Each demands a highly developed performing style based on a long tradition, and for each the Washington Opera has imported a specialist in that style: Franc,ois Loup from France for the Offenbach and John Reed, of the late, lamented D'Oyly Carte Company for the Gilbert and Sullivan.
"Choufleuri" begins to be funny almost as soon as conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg raises his baton. "Trial," under the same baton, takes a few seconds longer--unless you count the curtain as part of the performance. Patrons coming in and looking for their seats are greeted by a curtain on which is painted the front page of a Victorian-vintage London newspaper, filled with the shocking story of a young bride abandoned at the altar. As the curtain rises, the same newspaper is seen in the hands of the jury, the Usher of the Court, and the learned counsel, all of whom are clearly eager (legal technicalities be hanged!) to get the titillating details on the case they are about to try. A portrait of Queen Victoria smiles down more or less benignly on the proceedings, though the events of this one-act romantic melodrama would shock her matronly heart.
"Trial" is essentially a simple tale of infidelity, unbridled lust and legal chicanery, deviously attacking those two pillars of Victorian society, the family and the law. The jury begins to shout its wrath at the hapless defendant before the trial begins (though its members admit privately that they used to carry on in the same scandalous way). Everyone in the courtroom is in love with the plaintiff, except the defendant. "Cheer up," sings the (all-male) jury, "we love you." The judge invites her to approach the bench--in fact, to sit down next to him. They disappear behind the spread-out pages of a newspaper that trembles eloquently, and before you know it, the judge and plaintiff are being married on stage.
Most of the casting is the same as it was last year, and Zack Brown's splendid sets and costumes are used again, but this year's "Trial" is made significantly different by the presence of Reed, who began playing the role of the Judge in the mid-'50s at the shrine of Gilbert and Sullivan. It would be idle and presumptuous to lecture such an authority on fine points of Gilbert and Sullivan interpretation, but it is fair to advise those who enjoyed James Billings in that role last year that this is quite a different Judge--less lavish in his expenditure of energy and less inclined to monopolize the spotlight.
Reed comes from what is essentially an ensemble tradition, and he approaches the role not as a big-name soloist but as a sort of chamber musician. One positive result is that some of the supporting singers attract more attention, particularly Marvin Finnley, who is exemplary (as he was last year) in the role of Attorney for the Plaintiff, and John Fiorito (new to the production this year), who is a stalwart and rich-voiced Usher. The chorus repeats last year's vintage performance, and Peter Mark Schifter's stage direction remains as impressive as it was last season. As for "Choufleuri," it seems even better than it was last season--a particularly impressive achievement because the element of surprise seemed so important to its effect. Either the orchestra has improved or Kellogg has been carefully observing the antics of some big-name conductors on television. Whatever the reason, the overture, which was mildly amusing last season, is hilarious this year. The audience reaction began with isolated chuckles after the opening bars, as Kellogg began to introduce precisely calculated exaggerations of tempo and phrasing into this clever parody of bel canto overture style, and then awareness slowly spread and the laughter increased. By the time (toward the end of the overture) he had begun "conducting" woodwind obbligatos by nodding and shaking his head, the audience was in stitches. It is the first time I have ever heard an opera audience begin to laugh before the curtain went up--a splendid tour de force introducing an extended tour de farce.
Loup, who has already delighted audiences this season in "Tosca" and "Cenerentola," is at his best in "Choufleuri"--mugging, prancing, timing his words and gestures with superb precision and repeatedly getting laughs for his French jokes from audience members who do not normally understand spoken French. Like Reed, but with considerably more panache, he is a fine ensemble player, giving and eliciting superb cooperation from those who share the stage with him. Notable among the supporting players were two who are new to the production this season: Leonard Eagleson as the drunken butler and Joanna Levy, who raises to epic proportions her argument with her stage husband (Reed) over when one should shout "bravo" and when it should be "brava."
Returning this season and marginally more splendid than before are soprano Susan Peterson and tenor Michael Ballam, who perform the romantic leads in both operas. Each puts an excellent voice at the service of a distinguished comic talent. As it was last year, the high point of the evening is their parody of Pavarotti and Callas in a trio where Loup seems to be imitating King Kong. It brings to a climax the funniest evening of musical theater we are likely to see this season.