You don't have to be French to love Offenbach's "Monsieur Choufleuri," while Gilbert and Sullivan's "Trial by Jury" is a peerless Victorian romp.
The Washington Opera's production, in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, makes these two comic one-acters lovely to look at, exquisite to the ear and great fun. The company put on the same double bill last year, which only goes to show that some jokes bear repeating.
For "Trial by Jury," the first piece on the program, the company imported a D'Oyly Carte veteran, the diminutive John Reed, to sing the role of The Learned Judge. His low- key but always on-key portrayal, punctuated by a funny little two-step, enhances the droll humor of this "dramatic cantata" of woman scorned.
W.S. Gilbert's story of a young lady abandoned at the altar is told through Arthur Sullivan's clever, pleasing music and, in this production, helped by designer Zack Brown's zany visual style (as in a drop of a British scandal sheet and a portrait of Queen Victoria that, Monty Python-like, wags its jaw).
The jilted lady appears at the resulting breach-of-promise trial in virginal wedding dress, accompanied by her flower-strewing bridesmaids. Her beloved, the defendant, is a guitar-strumming cad. The case is tried before an all-male jury -- badly smitten, like the old judge, by this flirtatious maid, and clearly unmoved by the cavalier young man. It ends in the only sensible way, with the judge marrying the lass himself.
The humor works -- and works very well, with this cast -- on many levels. One is a biting lampoon of the judicial system: "Free from bias of every kind, this trial must be tried," the usher of the court intones impressively as everyone sings agreement -- then promptly ignores the caveat.
Michael Ballam and Susan Reed are wonderful as the defendant and plaintiff -- he strutting like Lothario, she swooning and preening at once. John Fiorito, smashing his scepter to the floor, is a substantial, no- nonsense usher, with Marvin Finnley aptly ingratiating as counsel for the plaintiff.
And thanks to director Peter Mark Schifter and conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg, the production's style and musicianship are beyond reproach -- thanks, also, to the reedy-voiced Reed, who, though more stylist than singer, sets the proper tone.
With the same director and conductor, and largely the same cast, "Monsieur Choufleuri" is also a delight: the comedy broad and slapstick, the laughs straight from the belly. The operetta is sung and spoken in French, but you needn't know the words to get the gist of the goings-on.
Francois Loup, an engaging Swiss baritone, sings the title role of a nouveau riche upstart bent on impressing his social betters. He invites them to a soir,ee, promising them three Italian opera stars as high-toned entertainment. When the singers don't show, Choufleuri, his daughter and her suitor -- Susan Peterson and Michael Ballam, again -- must impersonate them, leading to a scene full of fun.
The operetta, the 19th century's answer to high camp (amusingly reflected in Kellogg's exaggerated conducting style in the overture), contains nonetheless some very beautiful music, even as Offenbach parodies Rossini and his ilk. Ballam and Peterson's first duet, in which they comically impersonate flamenco dancers while singing an ode to the guitar, has a tune to charm your socks off.
Even the evening's best joke doesn't slight the music. It has Loup, Peterson and Ballam playing a nonsensical death scene in makeshift costume and pidgin Italian, in Choufleuri's lushly appointed salon, acting like egomaniacal opera stars -- but singing like them, too. TRIAL BY JURY & MONSIEUR CHOUFLEURI --At the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater through January 30.