While the rest of New Orleans shivered Wednesday night, a heat wave swept Le Petit Theatre as a comic operetta singing the praises of a famous Louisiana pepper sauce opened to the public for the first time in 124 years.
A cast of seven principals, 20 chorus members, four dancers and a 30-member cohort of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paul Mauffray brought composer George Whitefield Chadwick’s musical work “Tabasco: A Burlesque Opera” back to life under the auspices of the New Orleans Opera Association.
Wednesday night’s opening was the culmination of a painstaking process of rediscovery and reconstruction of the original 1894 score by Mauffray and the libretto by stage director Josh Shaw.
The story centers on an Irish sailor, Dennis O’Grady, shipwrecked in Tangiers, Morocco. To save his life, he poses as a French chef named Francois in the court of a wrathful pasha with a penchant for hot, spicy food, and a sadistic grand vizier who delights in beheadings.
The sailor is aided in his efforts by a brother and sister, Marco and Lola, who pilot a merchant vessel; a beautiful harem girl, Fatima; an “old concubine” from the harem, Hasbeena; and a bottle of the fiery McIlhenny Brand Tabasco Pepper Sauce.
Overall, the production was delightful, packed with humor and a feast for all the senses. A couple of the performers appeared to stumble over their lines in one or two spots, but that was likely attributable to “opening night jitters.”
And if the production seemed to be very Gilbert & Sullivan-like, it was probably intentional. The comical operetta style pioneered by G&S was very much in vogue at the time “Tabasco” was composed.
Much of the material is satirical, poking fun at the social and cultural conventions of the time and even taking lighthearted jabs at the operatic art form itself. And despite violent threats and menacing anger expressed at times, no one actually gets hurt.
Mauffray, a New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and LSU graduate whose New Orleans roots stretch back to the 1720s, did a masterful job piecing together original score fragments that his exhaustive research was able to uncover over the past eight years. Shaw brought the largely outdated language of the original libretto into the present, sprinkled with references recognizable to most New Orleanians.
In the orchestra pit, Mauffray was lively, animated and fully in control of the musicians in front of him and the singers onstage above him. He clearly appeared to be relishing the satisfaction of seeing his years of work finally coming to fruition.
In typical operatic fashion, the romantic leads are the tenor, Jonathan Tetelman (Marco), and soprano, Betsy Uschkrat (Fatima). The secondary couple consists of bass-baritone Taylor Miller (O’Grady/Francois) and mezzo-soprano Brindley McWhorter (Lola). The “bad guys” are the basses Ivan Griffin (Grand Vizier) and Kenneth Weber (Pasha).
Mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas, as Hasbeena, the aging, jilted “senior member” of the harem, straddles the line between good and bad as she struggles to hang onto her place in the pasha’s affections.
All of the singers were in fine voice and proved convincing actors as well. There are roughly 10 songs in each of the two acts, mostly duets and ensemble numbers with principals and chorus. The one especially outstanding aria, “But Not to Me,” is delivered by Griffin, who mournfully laments the thankless supporting role he plays as the Pasha’s obsequious sidekick.
The sets, designed by George Johnson, imaginatively convey the maritime and land-based motifs, especially the ornate byzantine architecture of the pasha’s palace. Julie Winn’s costuming, from the principals to the chorus members, was exquisite and colorful, each outfit reflecting the wearer’s status in the social hierarchy. The lighting design by Mandi Wood was literally spot-on.
“Tabasco” performances continue through Sunday afternoon. All costs for the productions are underwritten by the McIlhenny Co., celebrating its 150th anniversary of manufacturing Tabasco sauce.
"Tabasco: A Burlesque Opera"
WHAT: A comic operetta in two acts staged by the New Orleans Opera Association
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
WHERE: Le Petit Theatre, 616 St. Peter St., New Orleans
INFO: (504) 529-3000. neworleansopera.org