New York

Opera at the Academy, La Vie Parisienne

New York Academy of Art

In an exercise that seems analogous to the revival of interest in pompier painting and “sentimental” novelists, Opera at the Academy restaged the 1866 operetta La Vie Parisienne, one of Offenbach’s 90-odd opéras comiques. Of course, La Vie Parisienne, like all theater, no longer exists in its original form; the 123-year-old score is a performance guide, not the show itself. This difference proved crucial, for while Opera at the Academy’s version was faithful to its source in important ways, director Christopher Alden and company were free to interpret their source material to a degree not possible in more fixed art forms. In contrast, then, to theorists of the “New Historicism,” who are limited to writing speculative glosses on art objects, Opera at the Academy was able to turn the actual performance of La Vie Parisienne into an active vehicle of cultural criticism.

The performance certainly took liberties. Among the cast of this ’80s view of 19th-century Parisian life were a miniskirted, biker-jacket-clad heroine, a drag “auntie,” and a Brazilian playboy. Characters watched TV, drank Bud, and read Easyriders magazine. Scenes included a coke-fueled orgy and a finale set in a disco. Textual anachronisms abounded. (“She has a house outside the city, in Bensonhurst.”) Perhaps most significant, the entire work was played out in an open loft, with the audience seated close to the action on three sides, with props and costumes that looked like the results of a Canal Street scavenger hunt.

Such conceptual provocations have become standard practice on the experimental opera circuit, notably in equally freewheeling adaptations of more “serious” works, such as the Mozart and Wagner operas directed by Peter Sellars and Patrice Chereau, respectively. These particular features, however, didn’t come off as disjunctive directorial rhetoric. In La Vie Parisienne, both the farcical story line—a proper aristocratic Swedish couple visit Paris to find romantic intrigue and end up screwed, literally and figuratively—and the work’s overall theme of social satire (rather than cosmic searches or mythological adventures) lent themselves intrinsically to such interpolations. “Marginal” theater such as Offenbach’s may be more fertile material for genre-stretching adaptation than better-known, more meaning-laden work.

Another aspect of this production that carried it beyond mere spectacle was the accomplished vocal skills of its cast; most of the performers negotiated Offenbach’s Feydeau-meets-Cole-Porter lyrics (trans- lated into English, no less) and belle époque bubblegumlike melodies (accompanied by “The Dell-Harmonics,” a mini-chamber orchestra) in bravura style. More important, the principals established performing presences that, while built around a period panache, were deployed with an appropriately knowing naiveté, creating a witty, moral melodrama of contemporary immediacy. This slice of Vie effervesced with performance life.

John Howell