Often while I read a review of a French opera performance in Diapason magazine, where many a famous singer is dismissed for “not being French enough”, I think to myself that French should learn to accept the trade-off involved in the internationalization of their national repertoire, in the same way Italy and Germany have done without making such a fuss. However, this evening, while watching the performance of Chabrier’s L’Étoile in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden I guess I could finally understand their point. Of course, works like Bizet’s Carmen or Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande are complex enough to survive the acclimation, but the subtle charms of an operetta are far more sensitive to new environments.
Simon Rattle’s wish to highlight the multicolored orchestration was evident from bar no.1 and he produced some brilliant effects with the Staatskapelle Berlin, but those were often achieved at the expense of lightness – and this is a no go in this repertoire. Under the heavy-handed beats, sprightly rhythms finally sounded martial, chiaroscuro was drowned in loudness and clarity was often left to imagination. I have to confess I was finding everything quite silly until I got home and played back my old recording with the Opéra de Lyon and John Eliot Gardiner and then was reminded of how delightfully kitsch the whole thing could be if one leaves it space to breathe and naturally move on.
The cast did not make things actually easier. The only francophone singer this evening, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Roi Ouf Ier) obviously established an authentic atmosphere whenever he was on stage. However, at this point in his career, his command of high tessitura is no longer faultless and, even if he cheated with savoir-faire, one wanted a bit more freedom in these high-lying phrases over the chorus and other soloists. Giovanni Furlanetto (Siroco) proved to have reasonably fluent French and found no difficulties in this writing, but his vowels could be some times too dark to achieve complete clarity. Among the women, only Stella Doufexis (Aloès) could produce the necessary chic in her pearly high mezzo soprano.
Although Juanita Lascarro has nothing to be ashamed of her Laoula – her soprano is seductive enough at least – she lacks the bright high register to shine atop ensembles as she is expected to do and her French is mostly indistinct. Magdalena Kozena is not entirely idiomatic either, but her diction is far clearer. Her high register always had a certain “constricted” quality that gave her a certain reedy charm, but this seems to have developed to downright strain and uneasiness. All ascent to top notes were marked by absence of legato and loss of tonal quality. To make things a bit more problematic, the lower end of her range also proved to be recessed and mostly inaudible. Her acting was most convincing, but the jauntiness did not made into her singing, which was quite unvaried and expressive in the wrong way – not natural enough as this music require. She had her moments, of course, such as in the quator des baisers, where her repeated calls for Laoula seemed infused in with sensuousness. I hope that this was only a bad day. Douglas Nasrawi’s Hérisson de Porc Épic involved a lot of ungainly vocal production, but Florian Hoffmann proved to be a most efficient Tapioca.
Baritone Dale Duesing is enjoying a second career as stage director. In this production, he does not seem to want to interfere too much in the action (what is positive), but too often offers slapstick clichés and abounds in silly choreographies (yes, I know…). I do not know if I like Boris Kudlicka’s scenery – it certainly looks like what one would see in an uncreative staging of a vaudeville play, but the point of the complicated change of sets escapes me, unless the idea was to produce an excuse to introduce more Chabrier into the proceedings. In any case, the homogenous good level of acting from all soloists is something to be praised.