Emmanuel Chabrier's "The King in Spite of Himself" ("Le Roi Malgré Lui"), which was presented as part of the Bard SummerScape festival in a co-production with Ireland's Wexford Festival Opera, is the sort of romp that makes you think it might have been fun to live back in the era of the Belle Époque. Larger in scale than the composer's frothy "L'Etoile" (1877), "The King"—which had its premiere at the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1887—is a send-up of French grand opera and of such Chabrier colleagues at the Opéra-Comique as Georges Bizet. The plot is perfectly absurd, the musical jokes are legion, and director Thaddeus Strassberger entered completely into that spirit with a production that left you guessing even about moments that might possibly be taken seriously.
Based on an 1836 play, with a libretto by several different dramatists, "The King" takes off from the true story of Henri de Valois, a son of Henri II and Catherine de Medici, who found himself elected King of Poland in 1573. (It was a brief reign: In 1574 his brother died, and he went home to become King Henri III of France.)
In the opera, the homesick king, gloomily awaiting his coronation in Krakow, enthusiastically joins in a conspiracy to overthrow himself so that he can go home. Naturally, he is in disguise (he pretends to be his friend Nangis, whom he orders arrested in order to set up a revenge motive). Other characters in this farce include his chamberlain, Fritelli (an Italian); Fritelli's Polish wife, Alexina, whom Henri once rescued in Venice, and who continues to fascinate him; Minka, a serf in love with Nangis; and Count Laski, Alexina's uncle, the originator of the conspiracy. Identities and loyalties are all up for grabs, and for much of the time no one seems to know what is going on.
The work is made up of musical numbers connected by dialogue. Chabrier had a gift for tunes as well as comedy, and the two come together in sly jokes like a triumphal march for the King's Guard that has a sluggish air, indicating that perhaps the soldiers are not terribly impressive. Even the lovely Act III duet in which Minka and Alexina worry about their lovers is somehow over the top, especially considering that neither woman is sure which man is really the King and which one is Nangis. And then there are the nods to other operas: Minka sings a "Bohemian gypsy song" about how love is as free as a bird and a filigreed nocturne as a signal to her lover. No doubt regulars at the Opéra-Comique would have gotten the references, as "Carmen" had its premiere there in 1875 and "Lakmé" in 1883. There's also a barcarolle duet, in which Henri and Alexina recall, not entirely positively, their Venetian idyll; the audience recalls "The Tales of Hoffmann."
Mr. Strassberger's take on this wacky world was hilarious. With sets by Kevin Knight, costumes by Mattie Ullrich and lighting by Simon Corder, he updated the period to the present, more or less, except for a few bewigged courtiers in lavish 18th-century French attire and Alexina's elaborate hairstyle, a cross between Marge Simpson and Marie Antoinette. Locations included a container warehouse (Act I) in which large packing cases opened to reveal French gamblers, a television studio (Act II) with fatuous-looking hosts in evening dress doing red-carpet interviews and commentary for the King's coronation festivities, and a hotel (Act III) made up of two stacks of bright orange rooms, each containing numerous scantily clad occupants who had clearly been making a night of it.
Henri made his first entrance on a tanning bed, and sang his lament of homesickness lying flat on his back. A gondolier in a gondola appeared whenever the Venice idyll was invoked. Minka sang her gypsy song in silver lamé, with a prop microphone, as the featured entertainment for the coronation; a commoner, Basile, at home in his armchair, was transfixed by her image on his rabbit-eared TV set and prayed desperately to a photograph of Pope John Paul II when the picture went dark. The large chorus donned elaborate Polish national dress for the coronation and joined in an impassioned oath to overthrow the King, with much waving of swords, that looked and sounded like a takeoff on Meyerbeer and the grand French tradition; so did the Act II finale, in which Henri vows to assassinate himself.
As the King, Liam Bonner oversang a bit at first, with too much vibrato in his handsome baritone, but he settled down in Act II, and Henri's total delight in the nonsensical situation was infectious. Andriana Chuchman brought a lovely high soprano to the role of Minka, though she had a tendency to sing under pitch. The strongest work came from Nathalie Paulin, who displayed a rich, creamy soprano and excellent comic timing as Alexina, and baritone Frédéric Goncalves (Fritelli), who put across the spoken dialogue with authority. Also entertaining were Jeffrey Mattsey, a bloodthirsty Laski in black tie, and Michele Angelini, whose pretty tenor was ideal for Nangis.
The chorus, well-prepared by James Bagwell, had a firm grasp of the intricacies of the score, including a jolly canon about the relative merits of killing the King, and a complaint from the Polish women about what rotten lovers Frenchmen are. Despite a somewhat lethargic start and a few coordination issues, conductor Leon Botstein led a lovingly shaped, well-paced performance.
Ms. Waleson writes about opera for the Journal.
A version of this article appeared August 7, 2012, on page D6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Plot Not Meant to Be Taken Too Seriously.