Archive for December, 2017

The Frenchness of Le Comte Ory is a matter of debate. Although Rossini felt himself at home in Paris and was a central presence in the Parisian operatic scene, he is together with Verdi the name one would use for the dictionary example of “Italian opera composer”. Also, a great deal of the music heard in act I is recycled material from Il Viaggio a Reims. All that said, it was written in French for performances at the Opéra, where it met with great success. People like Berlioz liked it. And the truth is that, although the hardware is definitely Italian, the software is unmistakably French. The atmosphere, the ambiguous sense of humor, the elegance and sensuousness of the music (especially the soprano/mezzo/tenor scene in the last act) are worthy of an appellation d’origine contrôlée.

Although Le Comte Ory’s creation had nothing to do with the Opéra Comique, the absence of spoken dialogues does not make it less fitting to the house’s style. The fresh-from-the-oven new production couldn’t be less Parisian: the forces are 100% French, starting with conductor Louis Langrée and a director societaire de la Comédie Française, Denis Podalydès, passing by costumes by Christian Lacroix and ending with a cast filled with the youngest and brightest stars of the French-speaking operatic firmament. I won’t make suspense: it was delightful, concocted to perfection as a creation of a French chef in a three-star Michelin restaurant.

My acquaintance with Le Comte Ory was made by means of John Eliot Gardiner’s Lyon recording and it took me a while to adjust to this evening’s conducting. While the English conductor’s performance shines like fireworks in its exuberance, Maestro Langrée has a more relaxed approach, subtler in its colors and attention to detail. The fact that he had a period-instrument band, the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, gave it an earthier sound that added some spiciness to the proceedings. It has also played richly throughout. Mr. Podalydès is the opposite of a Régietheater director and one could notice only two “interventions”: costumes suggest XIXth century rather than Middle Age and there is an idea that few women would endorse, namely that Ory’s harassment is something a woman cannot resist. Although the female characters clearly say that he is a bully and that they would never forgive his deceit (and they act accordingly), this production shows them incapable of not responding to a man’s insistence. So here the Countess may say she prefers Isolier, but the sexual chemistry goes for the alpha male.

Julie Fuchs is not a name I would associate with bel canto, simply because she has been labelled – with good reason – a Mozart soprano. And yet she deals with the coloratura so beautifully and expressively that one cannot say that this is not her forte. If there is something that the comparison with Gardiner’s Sumi Jo shows is that she is not the kind of soprano who cannot wait to show her in alts. Ms. Fuchs’s voice goes to her high notes with naturalness, but her calling card is the lyric quality of her soprano. During the evening, I couldn’t help imagining that she might be an excellent Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, but there might be a Donna Anna waiting ahead. Her Isolier was Gaëlle Arquez, a mezzo soprano whose firmness of tone and flashiness of high notes are hard to resist. I had listened to samples of her new CD and found them ok, but live she proved to be far more appealing. Maybe it is the repertoire (the usual French mezzo suspects). Tenor Philippe Talbot usually appears in haute-contre roles, but his head-voice acuti are exactly what Rossini would have liked to hear and the tonal quality is dulcet and boyish enough. He has fluent coloratura and phrases with elegance. And he really is a funny guy.

All minor roles were extremely well-taken. Ève-Maud Hubeaux (Dame Ragonde) has a beautiful, rich contralto, Jean-Sébastien Bou (the world’s favorite Pelléas for a while) was an incisive, flexible Raimbaud and Patrick Bolleire was a reliable Gouverneur. Having Jodie Devos for the tiny role of Alice is an extravagance.


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Since the Opéra de Paris has adopted the highly discriminatory policy of forbidding people older than to 35 to enter the building (I wonder how the French constitution could allow someone not to be allowed in a public building because of his or her age…) in some performances, I was not able to see Michael Spyres, Aleksandra Kurzak and Marianne Crebassa as Tito, Vitellia and Sesto in the reprise of Willy Decker’s 1997 production. Although I have seen Crebassa in this role only last August, I was curious to heaR Spyres live for the first time and check how Kurzak would deal with the tricky writing of the prima donna role. As if getting older did not have enough disadvantages… All the same, La Clemenza di Tito is one of my favorite operas in the repertoire and the second cast had its charms too.

Being young would not make you get away with the fact that Dan Ettinger is the conductor scheduled for all performances. My memories of his Mozart performances in the Lindenoper were that they were unstylish and akward. It seems that my memory has not betrayed me. This evening’s was by far the worst conducted Tito I have ever heard in my life. And I’ve seen it in some odd places. The conductor’s beat was so erratic that singers were often ahead or behind or looking forward with a “wtf?”-expression. In order to write this review, I’ve tried to find some method to his madness, but I failed. Generally, one had the impression that phrases would die out of boredom before they reached the last note. But sometimes things moved forward in a spasmodic way without any explanation. Also, it seemed that clarity was seen as the enemy. The orchestra sounded messy, raspy and dyspeptic but for the drums. There was something I cannot really define involving accent. Everything would halt and, when you were almost giving up, the conductor would produce a loud abrupt chord to wake you up. I truly wonder if someone new to this opera would feel like listening to it again after this evening. To make things worse, the chorus sang poorly and was so distant and unconcerned in the first act finale that one would have to use their imagination to believe that there was a public calamity going on.The fact that Willy Decker’s production (at least, as revived) is mostly stactic, dramatically superficial and aesthetically minimalistic in a highly decorative way did not save the show from its marmoreal coldness.

I had never seen Amanda Majeski before and I intend to write a paragraph about her. Vitellia is a very difficult part and Ms. Majeski came so close of nailing it that she ought to work on that extra mile and inscribe her name in the very short line of great exponents of that role. Hers is a big creamy lyric soprano with amazing reserves of space in her lower notes. Actually, in my experience (and this, unfortunately, does not involve having seen Carol Vaness live), she was the Vitellia most adept in her descent into the lower end of the role’s range. She tackled all trills commendably and, if her coloratura is not truly agile, it is decent enough. To make things better, she has a natural feeling for Mozartian phrasing and deals with the Italian text famously. What is missing then? There is some lack of self-confidence when things get difficult, which, for her, means: when things get _really_ high or dramatic. I have no doubt that she has the stamina and the higher overtones to flash it up there, but it seems that the creaminess is her comfort zone and she is unwilling to leave it. My advice is: get an edge and go, girl. This is something her acting could benefit from too. She has a beautiful stage presence and a good figure and is evidently hard-working, but she should think about her gait, which can seem a bit mechanic, especially when she starts to pace around the stage to show agitation. And there is the problem of self-consciousness. I have the impression that she doesn’t find herself talented as an actress, but there were moments when she could find some dramatic truth in isolated gestures. For instance, during Non più di fiori, she puts the imperial mantle on and frees her hair from it. The way she handled her own hair while singing  “anyone who saw how miserable I am would take pity” said everything about the character in that scene. Ms. Majeski already sings in important opera houses, but she can be more than a singer hired for the second cast. There is true potential for greatness there.

She could learn from Stéphanie d’Oustrac, for instance. Nature did not give her the vocal resources or the bearing of Amanda Majeski, but she does not look back and goes for it with everything she has. I knew Ms. d’Oustrac from recordings and was surprised to find that live her voice lacks color and naturalness. It does have some volume, but the range is restricted, low notes limited in projection and high notes rather forced. She sings very emphatically and her Mozart sounds unflowing and graceless, but she has conviction and charisma. The difficult roulades in the end of Parto, ma tu ben mio were adeptly handled without any hint of difficulty. Valentina Lafornita (Servilia) has developed a lot since I last saw her. Now her voice sounds rounder and fruitier and her intonation is more precise. She made some fatal miscalculations in her aria (and the conductor did everything to sabotage her then), but her contribution to ensembles was very positive. Antoinette Dennefeld sounded more typically Mozartian as Annio. Her mezzo is high and bright in a way that suggests that there is a Octavian/Komponist waiting to be sung there.

I saw Ramón Vargas as Tito almost 10 years ago at the Met. He is still a voice to be reckoned with in the role for its volume, richness and flexibility. It sounds grainier now and he is fond of covering the tone  around f, f# in a way that a “true” Mozart tenor would prefer not to, but the sum here is greater than the parts. Marko Mimica was an intelligent and smooth-toned Publio.

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Performances of Handel’s most famous oratorio in December are a tradition of English-speaking countries gradually taking over continental Europe and beyond. This is my second Messiah in France, one particularly pan-European, if one has in mind that chorus, orchestra and conductor are imports from Barcelona and that countertenor and bass were born this side of the English Channel, i.e. La Manche.

Before I speak of the concert, some words must be said about the venue. Its extremely resonant acoustics make it difficult to assess the music-making this evening. I would even say that, without intervention to tame the echo-chamber-like impression, it shouldn’t be used for concerts at all. As it is, although there is a nice glow to the chorus and the orchestra, divisions sound blurred and it can be quite testing for singers.

Jordi Savall is a pioneer in historically informed performances whose interest in Bach and Monteverdi are widely acknowledged, but whose curiosity for Handel has been steadily increasing. Mr. Savall is a self-effacing conductor whose respect for composers involve the eschewal of effects and the search for naturalness. His performance this evening was so honest that it could be called prudent. He clearly sees the work of a non-operatic point of view (which could be called the default these days) and seems to be comfortable with the atmosphere of the spiritual concert   that took place in Dublin under the composer’s supervision. But Handel was an opera composer above anything else, and in numbers like Why do the nations rage so furiously together?, a more vivid approach would have been welcome.

In any case, the crowning glories of this performance were the Concert des Nations’s warm strings and polished trumpets and the exquisite choral singing offered by the Capella Reial de Catalunya, homogeneous yet colourful and expressive throughout. Due to the hall’s resonance, I wouldn’t be able to comment on their pronunciation, though.

I am not truly convinced that countertenors are the best option for He was despised, but Damien Guillon (whose beard makes him looks like Marcel Proust) sounded small-scaled and monochromatic in these unfavorable acoustics. Tenor Nicholas Mulroy too was hard to hear, especially low notes. On the other hand, Matthias Winckler poured voluminous rich sounds, flexible enough for the coloratura and ductile enough for softer dynamic effects. I leave again the best for last, the bell-toned Rachel Redmond sang the soprano part with such spontaneous musicality that one almost had the impression that Handel wrote it for her. She is the kind of soprano whose low register is so appealing that one never feels sorry when her cadenze go downwards rather than upwards. Rejoice, greatly was the only number when I felt that the conductor was rushing things, but Ms. Redmond produced crystalline fioriture without sounding frantic or desperate. She was clearly the audience’s favorite, especially after singing a truly heartfelt I know that my redeemer liveth.

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Reviewers have written miles and miles of sentences about the difficulty of performing Wagner, Brahms or Bruckner, but the sad truth is that no composer has written music as difficult to pull off as that of Johann Sebastian Bach’s. The vocal parts are unsingable, the instrumental parts require virtuoso quality and the ensemble is very hard to balance. Worse: it has to sound effortless and informed by some sort of spiritual depth. Now that we are being honest about the whole thing, it is also truth that, if traditional instruments tend to make it monochrome and opaque, historic instruments live can be testingly erratic. And then there is the complexity of the music itself.

Marc Minkowski and the Musiciens du Louvre are a reference in baroque music and they are almost unrivalled when one thinks of Handel operas. And this is where the problems of this evening’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (cantatas I, II, IV and VI) begin. An opera by Handel, Rameau or Gluck  was written for a group of professional singers whose expressive powers were supposed to be highlighted in the course of performances. Their interpretation was an unwritten part of the score. Without it, the music sounds incomplete. Bach, on the other hand, rarely had musicians up to the task of performing his sacred works. They were not written to flatter their personalities. They weren’t even written to flatter Bach’s own personality, but rather as a means of sharing his vision of the joys of Christian faith, uncool as this sounds today. The key element of a performance of  Bach cantata is the presence of the congregation, who would even sing in the chorales during the performances in church. This music was written to SPEAK to the audience, to involve it in the feelings and ideas conveyed by the text and the music. This evening’s performance did not inhabit this universe. It had to do with being on stage, having fun and letting it rip. If you did not get it, then it is your problem.

Almost everybody in the theatre seemed happy about it, so the fact that I did not enjoy it is actually my problem anyway. I do believe that the slow tempi traditionally used to Bach’s sacred music actually disfigured it, robbing it of the dance rhythms around which they are structured. However, overfast tempi can be disfiguring too, sometimes in a most unmusical way. When you hear an orchestra that hardly copes with hitting the notes in supersonic speeds on pitch and without any nuance and singers spitting the text without any possibility of clarity, then this cannot be the right tempo. And there is the problem of balance. Maybe it was the acoustics of the hall, but the performance was heavily bass-oriented, violins barely hearable against a wall of cellists and bassists that moved as if they would burn their instruments on stage after playing them with their teeth. This can be very exciting in Ariodante, but not here, when the feeling is very different and when it obscures a lot of powerful examples of music rhetorics and counterpoint itself.

In the chorus, this was even more problematic. The forces available involved a 3-per-part (including soloists), but for the bass, who had two singers. They were often overshadowed by the small orchestra and, due to the lack of homogeneity, balance was very poor. Again, it could be the acoustics, but one would hear the basses, one of the tenors and sometimes one of the sopranos. In the encore, a one-per-part experiment was made in a number of the 5th canatata and one should thank the conductor for avoiding this for the rest of the evening. Then there was a very exotic group of soloists.  Both sopranos lacked the purity of tone and the instrumental focus a Bach soprano is supposed to have. Both sounded ungainly and projected poorly. Lenneke Ruiten at least could produce some edge to pierce through, but then the results were acidulous. Helena Rasker is a true contralto who could caress her lines in Schlafe, mein Liebster and produce, for once in the whole evening, some Innigkeit, but was sabotaged by fast tempo and heavy-accented orchestral playing. Valerio Contaldo dispatched amazingly clear coloratura in warm tone in Frohe Hirten, but sounded small-scaled elsewhere. Paul Schweinester sounded a bit grainy (or it might be the acoustics), but otherwise stylish and engaged in his Evangelist duties. I leave the best for last: James Platt’s dark, resonant and flexible bass was the secret weapon in this concert. For he alone, this was worth the detour.

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The fact that Haydn’s The Seasons could be described as “the Gemütlichkeit’s guide to life, love, agriculture, hunt etc” does not make it a favorite in the Austrian composer’s opus. Generally, when a concert hall gathers the forces necessary to perform it, it ends up using them for a performance of The Creation. In any case, even if it is true that the latter is a more consistent work, The Seasons has its moments, especiaolly the large scale chorus numbers. If one feels inclined to give it a try, then Douglas Boyd and the Orchestre the Chambre de Paris could be the perfect advocates for it.

As performed this evening, The Seasons had very little coziness in it, but rather vital tempi, excitingly articulate divisions by the violins and readiness of attack. Although sentimentality was avoided, Mr. Boyd and his soloists did not shy from feeling and dealt with the akward libretto with respect. Accentus offered animated choral singing and, if the excellent group of sopranos seemed to overshadow the other voices, this seems to be a side-effect of the acoustics of the Philharmonie. Mari Eriksmoen’s soprano veers towards the soubrettish, but she sang with absolute purity of tone and sense of style. Toby Spence has all the advantages of an English tenor, but avoids the usual drawback: his tenor has heft and color enough for the more outspoken passages. It was a spirited, musicianly performance. Daniel Schmutzhard sang with great sensitivity and firmness of tone, but his voice lacks depth in both ends of his range and may stray from true pitch when things get too low or too high.

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Nina Stemme’s Elektra has become something of a classic of our days. As in her performances at the Met, it is an unconventially vulnerable take on the role, built on velvetiness of tone, cleanliness of phrasing and restraint rather than flashiness. In the favorable acoustics of the Philharmonie de Paris, it is even more cherishable. The warmth of her low register is more immediately felt, she does not have to force and the clarity of the text is not lost. To make things better, she was in excellent voice, at moments even reminiscent of that of Astrid Varnay so focused and clear it sounded this evening. She has to brace for the extreme high notes (as she did at the Met), but they all sounded big. This was a musicianly and sensitive accounf of this difficult role, even if one is entitled to find it un-Elektra-ish in its soft core. The contrast to Gun-Brit Barkmin’s bright- and metallic-toned Chrysothemis was this performance’s Schwerpunkt. Even if one can find a hint of a flutter in some of her singing, this was the most compelling performance of this role in my experience. First, her voice rides the big orchestra effortlessly. Second, her crispy diction and understanding of the dramatic situations are exemplary. Most important of all: this evening, a role that tends to fall in the background was shown in its full scale. In Ms. Barkmin’s interpretation, the part is particularly touching in an approach in which one clearly seas that Chrysothemis is not the younger sister as usually shown, but the other sister, the one who has not understood that it is too late for her. I have written a great about Waltraud Meier’s Klytaemnestra and I will only add that, if her voice is showing the singer’s age, it did sound more comfortable with the tessitura than ever. Norbert Ernst was a reliable Aegysth, but Mathias Goerne sounded ill in the role of Orest, failing to project in the auditorium as he should. Minor roles were very well cast, particularly Lauren Michelle as a fruity-toned Fourth Maid and Valentine Lemercier’s incisive Third Maid.

Mikko Franck’s controle over his forces is truly praiseworthy. The balance achieved both between the orchestral sections and with the soloists could be used as a lesson for many conductors. Not only did it allowed for absolute transparency but this also gave singers enough leeway to make music. I am not sure if his attempt to produce a permanent crescendo in intensity is the safest plan for this score. In order to make it happen, the first part of the opera was kept really low in excitement and the result could be undramatic in the gentleness of attack and ponderousness of tempo. Klytaemnestra was the main victim of this approach. The whole scene lacked tension and one could hear the space between one note and the next. It is hard to blame Waltraud Meier for trying to push things ahead and ending up one bar earlier than the conductor. From the next scene on, the proceedings reacher optimal leven and the Recognition Scene was admirably subtle and large-scaled at once. After Aegysth’s death, things turned up overcooked and, for once in the evening, the orchestra had its lound and unsubtle moments. In any case, this was a smal price to pay in an evening rich in new insights and perspectives.

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