I was rather surprised to see that the very slender plot was adapted from a comic play by Prosper Merimee. Merimee is best known to English speakers as the author of the story that became Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” notorious for being dark, violent, and tragic. “La Perichole,” by contrast is light and funny.
The original play and opera were set in Peru, and the “heavy” was the Spanish Viceroy, supported by his minions, the “First Gentleman of the Bedchamber” and the “Mayor of Lima.” The updated script played by the University is set in 1990’s Hollywood, with “Mr. Viceroy” (Jason Martin) as “CEO of NBC”, and being abetted in his schemes by the “VP of NBC External Affairs” (Austin Jermaine Bare), and the “Mayor of South Hollywood” (Joseph Krohlow). At a birthday party at the “Three Cousins” club, Viceroy encounters the talented but unlucky street singers, the beautiful Perichole (Laura Lemanski) and her swain, Pequillo (Emanuel Camacho). They have been trying to get enough money to get married, with no success. In fact, Pequillo is so bad at “passing the hat,” that they are on the verge of starvation. Pequillo goes off on his own to try his luck further, while Perichole stays behind and tries to sleep to forget her hunger.
She is approached by Viceroy, who offers to “employ” her as an Executive Administrative Assistant at NBC. She has no illusions as to what the deal actually is, but reluctantly agrees, hoping to string Viceroy along at least for a few good meals. She leave a good-by letter for Pequillo at the Three Cousins.
When Viceroy announces his conquest to the VP and the Mayor, they are appalled that he would hire a single woman with no qualifications. The Board of Directors would not stand for it. Relying on an entertainment industry standby, nepotism, they propose that it will work if she were married to an NBC shareholder. Viceroy directs the VP to find a man that they can marry to Perichole and make a director.
Pequillo returns to the Three Cousins, and gets Perichole’s letter. Despondent, he decides to attempt suicide, but is tripped over by the VP, who realizes that he’s found someone poor and desperate enough for anything. He plies Pequillo with liquor, getting him “blind-drunk”. Pequillo goes through with the wedding, having no idea who it is he’s marrying.
In the next scene, Pequillo wakes up in NBC Headquarters with no recollection of how he got there. He is reminded that he got married last night, but not to whom. He is treated with scorn by the NBC staff, of whom the women think of him as pimping his wife to Viceroy, and whom the men perceive as a “kept man.” The VP and the Mayor are more sanguine, advising him that “husband of Viceroy’s mistress” a.k.a. “Assistant to the Assistant Manager for Gender Affairs” is one of the best jobs at NBC, other than their own, having few duties and access to lots of money. Pequillo doesn’t care, he just wants the thousand dollars he was promised and to be allowed to leave. They agree, but insist that first he has to “introduce” his wife to Viceroy at a reception that evening.
When Perichole arrives at the reception and Pequillo realizes that she is the wife he is to turn over to Viceroy, he flies into a rage and denounces her as heartless anand mercenary. At Viceroy’s order, Pequillo is subdued and thrown into a subterranean dungeon.
In the dungeon, Pequillo meets the “Old Prisoner” (Sam Skogstad), who has spent twelve years tunneling out of his cell with a penknife, only to arrive in Pequillo’s cell. Undaunted, the rather mad old man offers to free Pequillo also, assuring him it will only take another twelve years digging through the correct wall this time.
Perichole comes to visit. After considerable recrimination by Pequillo, she lets him know that, not only has she not surrendered her body to Viceroy, she loves Pequillo, and has absconded with the jewelry Viceroy gave her, in order to buy his freedom. She attempt to bribe the guard with a diamond ring, only to find that it is Viceroy in disguise. He locks Perichole in the cell with Pequillo, saying he hopes she will change her mind. After he has left, the Old Prisoner enters and frees them from their chains. Then Perichole calls Viceroy back. The three of them overpower him, lock him up, and flee.
In the final scene, the fugitives are hiding out at the Three Cousins while Viceroy’s minions scour the town for them. While Viceroy is interrogating the cousins, Perichole and Pequillo come out of hiding and beg for their freedom with a song praising the virtue of forgiveness. Moved, Viceroy forgives them, and allows them to keep the jewels (“I am not accustomed to taking back gifts—“). All celebrate the couple’s courage and Mr. Viceroy’s clemency.
We enjoyed this production very much. Between Offenbach’s music, in which the composer employed Spanish-derived themes and dances; the English libretto by Kalmus and Daniel Pippin, Colleen Brooks, and James Zager, much of which was in rhymed couplets; and the ‘topsy-turvy’ plot, the performance had an almost Gilbert and Sullivan feel, which made it quite accessible.
Ms. Lemanski as Perichole, exhibited a lovely, warm, rich, voice which worked very well for the role and the music. Mr. Camacho (Pequillo) has a beautiful but light voice that was hard to pick out of the ensemble pieces, but he has a gift for comic acting that helped get his role across. Jason Martin as Viceroy acted and sang a wonderfully heedless and egotistical “heavy.” They were well supported by the rest of the cast who sang, danced, and acted with what must honestly be reported as varying degrees of skill, but it was all good fun for the audience.
Costumes were pretty obviously scrounged from the actor’s closets, but worked well enough. The modular set by Leroy Stoner looked good and worked cleverly. Jun Kim conducted the orchestra, which handled Offenbach’s score expertly and supported the singers excellently.
We were interested to see that the director was Colleen Brooks, whose performances we had enjoyed in the Skylight Opera Theater’s The Snow Dragon. It was obvious that she has a good grasp of the light opera genre and a clear vision for the production.