Last night my opera buddy Denny and I enjoyed the Los Angeles Opera production of Offenbach's The Grand Duchess. What a delightful, hilarious romp! As I've mentioned before, Los Angeles Opera benefits from LA being rich in creative talent as the home of the entertainment industry. In this production, Garry Marshall, creator of numerous TV sitcoms (including Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and The Odd Couple), director of many films (including Pretty Woman, Beaches, and The Princess Diaries), not only directed but adapted the French operetta. Marshall took Offenbach's music and the original libretto, and added his own comic touches. Just before the curtain went up, a bespectacled man with a wild shock of gray hair, who seemed to be the conductor, appeared and received polite welcoming applause, and egged the audience for more. Just then, the real condutor appeared, and tapped the other on the shoulder, "Excuse me, but what is this, guest conductor night? Who are you?" Comes the amiable reply, "Ah pardon, monsieur, but I am Jacques Offenbach! And I'll be back often!" And indeed he was. Marshall added the character of Offenbach, who appeared at various times throughout the performance for amusing narration and color commentary. This set the overall tone of the opera poking fun at itself, as the performers frequently stepped out of character for self-conscious asides to the audience. In this version, the Grand Duchess' favorite confidant is her little dog Morrie, and when we first meet Morrie (played by an adorable mutt all dressed up), one of the characters explains that the Duchess' dog Morrie is a male dog, but he's being played by Bertha, a female dog, and this is a rare "canine trouser role". In the opening of the second act, the royal hall is filled with dancing ladies of the court, receiving letters from their soldier husbands and lovers. And amidst them is a maid in traditional black skirt and white apron with a feather duster, scurrying around dusting everything, with marvelous physical comedy. She's dusting under the large dresses of the ladies, and at one point, she's dusting break-dance style in circles on the floor. And there were also the contemporary quips. At one point, the Duchess is reflecting on the history of murder and scheming in her family, debating whether she had it in her to join in a murder plot. Deciding against it, she quips, "It's not like I'm one of the Sopranos. I'm a mezzo!" At another point, a newly appointed general is commenting on the old general he's replaced: "He's not a bad guy really, although he was always a bit paranoid about the enemy invading, ranting about their secret weapons." Even the supertitles got into the comic act. While all of the singing was in the original French, all of the spoken dialog was done in English. After the opening numbers when the cast first switched into English, the supertitle flashed "Well obviously they're speaking English now and you don't need us anymore, so stop looking up here. But we'll be back when they sing in French again!"
Clearly much of this was Marshall's innovation, but Offenbach himself was constantly revising his material to suit his audience, and I have to think that he would have whole-heartedly approved. And the performance was one of those that the cast seemed to be having a hoot themselves, a contagious spirit that just made it all even funnier. I certainly can't remember an opera where I've laughed more, out-loud and often. I should add that I don't think the comedy came at the expense of the opera. There were some top-notch performers here, including Frederica von Stade as the Duchess (a great actress as well as a beautiful voice), baritone Rod Gilfry (apparently he's no longer Rodney) as Prince Paul, and tenor Paul Groves who was marvelous as Private-cum-General Fritz. The sets and costumes lent a vivacious and colorful Belle Epoque texture to the whole affair. What fun!