Pick French singers to sing French operettas.
That's the first lesson you're bound to vouchsafe from New York City Opera's delightful production of Jacques Offenbach's happily anarchic operetta "La Perichole" now at City Center.
A second lesson is that it's perfectly OK to let your set and costume designers go wild when you're staging a zany show. Thankfully, they did.
That becomes obvious the moment you see the stage and its first image: a twenty-foot high emoticon of an ancient Inca smiley face.
Then things get really wacky in this tale of a pair of eighteenth century Lima street singers who, though passionately in love with one another, are separated by the machinations of a villainous Spanish Viceroy (Kevin Burdette) determined to turn the distaff half of the team (Marie Lenormand) into his latest mistress.
To achieve this goal the viceroy must marry her off first, then place her new husband into the dungeon of his palace. This plot becomes bungled when his agents pick up her singing partner and lover (Philippe Talbot) and booze him up sufficiently that he fails to recognize his intended bride as his actual one.
Like all of Offenbach's best work, "La Perichole" is full of enchanting melodies, simple but winning vocal harmony, and strange, irony-filled happenings.
This sort of light but wonderful work is the kind that the Met rarely performs and which City Opera proves its worth by staging -- most especially when it does so as splendidly as in this case.
That special credit must go to Lenormand and Talbot, set designer Paul Steinberg and costume designer Gabriel Berry.
Lenormand and Talbot weren't the biggest names among the cast. That was Burdette, the Viceroy. But, being French, they sing clearly and know how to play the jokes. Thus, Lenormand, a high tessitura mezzo-soprano, manages to project sexiness, savvy and a quick wit in the part of the street singer who fears the Viceroy's power and libido but is conflicted by her desire for his riches. (My native Parisian companion reports that Lenormand acted the role with an affected "street" Paris accent that's akin to a London Cockney.) Talbot, meantime, is charming as Lenormand's dopey and irascible paramour.
The two are aided by the production's slyly anachronistic sets and costumes and director Christopher Alden's many amusing interpolated gags.
In this version of "La Perichole" all of the viceroy's aides dress like Russian mobsters and his birthday party guests dress for suburban barbecue cook-outs. In turn, the half-mad Viceroy attempts to disguise himself among his people by wearing a child's plum-colored super-hero costume (with cape) and a rodeo costume.
Unfortunately, Burdette is the production's one real weakness. While he looks appropriately ridiculous -- like a cross between Groucho Marx and Christopher Lloyd -- he's a wildly self-indulgent performer who drags out every scene he's in to twice its desired length. What's more, while he has a smooth bass voice, he mumbles every line he sings.
But the production more than survives this.
There's one performance left, and tickets are still to be had. If you love beautiful music and off-beat comedy, don't be afraid of the giant Inca smiley face.
"La Perichole" will be performed again on Saturday, Apr. 27 at City Center, 131 West 55th Street. For more information and tickets, call 212-581-112 or go to www.nycopera.com.