Meyerbeer’s Etoile du Nord from Kokkola

Performances of Meyerbeer’s L’Étoile du Nord are rare. Experiencing a video of a performance given by the West Coast Opera Kokkola, not a well-known group, even in Finland, I can understand why. Although it was relayed with English subtitles and I had to hand a synopsis published in the Grove Dictionary, I still could not follow the plot, other than it concerns a romance between Peter the Great, disguised as a carpenter, and a girl Catherine who, in her turn, dresses up (unconvincingly) as a soldier to join him in the army.

And yet it is an attractive work. Being opéra comqiue, rather than grand opera, it is less portentous than Meyerbeer’s more familiar compositions and the score contains many brilliant passages, the highlights being some of the ensembles for soloists and the vocal writing for Catherine, requiring virtuoso coloratura technique. There is also a major role for the chorus, though the music for them is more conventional, containing much patriotic bluster.

Given the lack of compelling drama and a far from witty libretto (Eugene Scribe), the onus was on the performers to maintain the interest of the audience with exuberant activity and beguiling characterisation. Under Maria Sid’s directorial hand, they certainly did this with a communicative enjoyment that made the antics on the stage funnier than they really were. And the same spirit endowed the orchestral playing, the woodwind soloists in particular enjoying themselves. One of the most satisfying and also original passages in the score was Catherine chirping in counterpart with two flutes who entered the playing area for the purpose. The two stars of the show were indeed the conductor Sakari Omaro who kept the piece going at a rollicking pace and his wife Anu Komsi who, as Catherine, delivered a performance of consummate technical skill as well as poignant emotion. There were good supporting contributions from Anna Palamina as Prescovia in the second soprano role and baritone Heikki Kilpelainen as her lover, but the Swiss bass imported for the role of Peter the Great was vocally inadequate.

Not the most profound operatic venture I have come across, but decidedly more enjoyable than many.