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Adolphe Adam’s claim to fame is the ballet Giselle, but for a while he was also known – in France and in Germany – as the composer of the tenor aria with a written high d  from an opera called Le Postillon de Lonjumeau. It has been famously recorded by Nicolai Gedda, but also by Helge Rosvaenge and Joseph Schmidt. However, the opera itself has very rarely been performed. Curiously, the occasional stagings would appear even in Germany but not in the venue of its première, the Opéra-Comique, where it was last heard in 1894 before today’s performance.

Of course, this opera’s raison d’être is the tenor, and the long-standing relation between the Salle Favart and American tenor Michael Spyres explains this long due revival, and all involved are to be thanked for unearthing this hidden gem. To say that the plot is convoluted in an understatement. Chapelou is a coachman in the town of Lonjumeau who is too proud of his personal charm and his singing voice. It is the day of his wedding with the beautiful innkeeper Madeleine, a scout from the Royal Opera happens to hear him and promises fame and success in Paris. He does not think twice and abandons his wife before the honeymoon. Ten years later, they would meet again in court. She has received an inheritance and is now a glamorous socialite with whom he falls in love without realizing he is already married to her. Shocked by his complete oblivion of her, Madeleine decides to encourage him and, when he proposes, she accepts it as part of her revenge. When he is about to be taken by the police for bigamy, she decides that the whole thing has gone too far and reveals herself. He is overwhelmed by his own luck, but she reminds him that he had left her for the theatre before . His answer is “and now I am leaving the theatre for you”.

The score does not loose time with pretentiousness – everything is glittery, catchy and endearingly quaint. The second act has its best music, with wonderfully witty parodies of grand opéra for both tenor and soprano.

This is the first time I hear Michael Spyres live and it could not be a more relevant occasion. Mr. Spyres has made his name singing impossibly florid music and for his supernatural ease with in alts. Although his high extension is based on a very well connected falsettone stretching roughly from a high b flat to a high f above tenor’s high c, the main part of his voice is rich and warm, and his low register is surprisingly solid. In this moment of his career (he has recently sung operas like Carmen and Fidelio), he still can shift to his special-effect lighter and brighter high notes, but one feels that his “regular” voice is dying to blossom. This evening, he sang his aria’s high d without flinching and offered all kind of optional high notes, even higher than that, but one or other high c seemed to fall in the wrong slot and grated a bit. When I write this, I mean no criticism – it was a fabulous performance – but as a promising sign of development in his repertoire. Mr. Spyres is an extremely musical singer, with crystal-clear diction, sense of style, perfect trills and the sense of vocal narcissism so rare these days. He spoke his lines in good French and proved to have sense of humor too.

The role of Madeleine may sound secondary, but it is actually as difficult as the tenor one. It requires a high coloratura soprano, and the most recent complete recording features no one less than June Anderson. I was not able to find a copy before the performance and got acquainted with the work in Jules Gressier’s CD with Janine Micheau. Canadian soprano Florie Valiquette cannot compete with the famous French lyric soprano in creaminess and roundness. Hers is a very high voice, almost soubrettish and it simply lacked tone in its middle register, but her fioriture are more nimble and exciting than her predecessor’s. She managed very well to show the difference between Madeleine the innkeeper and Madeleine the heiress in purely musical terms too.

Under the expert baton of conductor Sébastien Rouland, the chorus Accentus and the orchestra of Opéra de Rouen Normandie were entirely at home in this music, and Michel Fau’s supercolorful pseudo-baroque staging was funny without making fun of the text and the music.

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The first time I have ever heard Aleksandra Kurzak, it was a broadcast of Rossini’s Tancredi in which she dispatched fioriture very close to the speed of light. Then I saw her as Donna Anna and thought that the role was too heavy for her. The first time I have ever seen Roberto Alagna was in the video of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in which he wowed the world with the naturalness of his delivery and his round Italianate high notes. After that, I have always seen him in purely lyric tenor roles, in which – truth be said – his voice sounded increasingly too heavy. Finally, the Opéra de Paris announced that they would sing together the leading roles in Verdi’s Otello. Believe it or not, I had no preconceived notions about what I was going to hear this evening. I have seen people like Gregory Kunde and Soile Isokoski as Otello and Desdemona (not in the same evening) and both had their moments.

Before I say anything, I must admit that I have learned this opera in Herbert von Karajan’s recording with Mirella Freni, Jon Vickers and the Berlin Philharmonic, and although it is unreasonable to use it as reference, well, at least I am being honest about that. Kurzak is no Freni, but she holds her own as Desdemona quite commendably. Her voice has grown in size but still sounds clear and pure enough. When I last saw her as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, her high notes often sounded breathy and glassy, but – in this lyric emploi – this never happened, what makes me believe that the change in repertoire makes sense. Here she phrased with great affection, showed almost idiomatic Italian and offered breathtaking floated pianissimi hard to rival these days. Her very sound is spontaneity itself and at times makes one think of Freni, but differently from the famous Italian diva, she cannot shift to the fifth gear when things get really high and loud. Then she sounds more reminiscent of another Polish Desdemona, Teresa Zylis-Gara, whose slightly veiled acuti would span and soar on stage rather than flash in the auditorium.

Roberto Alagna is no Vickers, but there are advantages here. First of all, Alagna’s voice is warmer, his Italian sounds like the Italian language and he is not afraid of high notes. In terms of volume, at this point in his career, he has no problem with being heard. As his Desdemona, the problem is shifting to fifth gear. Although Otello is an intense character, his intensity is not a line parallel to the x axis in the graph, but rather a peaky one with acute angles all over. He snaps and acquires an explosive ferocity in less than a second. And when he does that, the effect is scary. He drives away all soloists and chorus off stage with just one sentence – and he does not need to repeat it. In order to portray that danger, than almost uncontrolled menace, the tenor really needs an edge in his voice that Roberto Alagna does not really have. His Otello was surprisingly smoothly sung, but smoothness was the bottom line here. The fact that he was the shortest man on stage did not help him to compensate for that in terms of scenic presence either. But let’s not talk about the staging yet.

Giorgio Ganidze is hardly the world’s most exciting Verdian baritone. He has a voice big enough and can snarl all right when he needs, but his punch comes from the outside rather than from inside. I have to be fair: I had never seem him as dramatically engaged as this evening, but still this is comparing him to himself. In this context , this has not spoilt the fun in any way. On the contrary, he felt at home in a performance that belonged into the realm of the well-behaved and bureaucratic. Yes, the house orchestra is no Berliner Philharmoniker, and conductor Bertrand de Billy had to cope with lighter voices and he did balance well the almost opposite demands of clarity and violence in the opening scene, but strings simply lacked volume throughout. In ensembles, the brassy sound picture was rather band-like and, as much as his soloists, he has no edge. One could count to ten before he cued his musicians to strike the kind of orchestral chord Verdi would use to mark an abrupt shift in the dramatic action.

And then there is Andrei Serban’s lazy, lazy staging. We’re in Cyprus, so there is a palm tree. We’re in war, so we have barbed wire near the beach etc etc. The anachronistic sets are unimaginative and lack atmosphere, but that is not unforgivable. This is the 43rd performance since the première and I would like to believe that much of the original Personenregie has been lost since the director itself worked on it, for what I saw today was truly amateurish. Blocking was nonsensical and one often had the impression that singers were standing there just waiting to do the next thing they were told to do. I’ll give to examples:

a) Otello grabs Desdemona’s wrist, calls her a whore than leaves by the next door. The horrified lady is so scared that she rans away TO THE VERY PLACE WHERE HE IS. When he sees that she is coming his way, he goes back inside before they bump into each other.
b) Desdemona is depressed because she feels something horrible is going to happen. Emilia looks concerned and tries to be nice to her. She carefully folds her lady’s dress and leaves the room with this expensive piece of clothing that she just tosses away on the floor. OK, let’s pretend that the audience is supposed to believe that the floor is the “wardrobe”. Then Desdemona asks for her wedding gown. Emilia passes by the red dress, crosses an archway and comes back with the white dress. If the wardrobe is inside, why didn’t she just cross the same archway two minutes before that to throw away the red dress in the floor somewhere where the audience could not see it? Seriously…

Among Richard Strauss’s operas, it is probably Ariadne auf Naxos the one that gave the composer more trouble to complete. First of all, there was the unpractical idea of having it as the divertissement in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, what made for one of the longest nights in the theatre in one’s lifetime. Then there was Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s tug of war with the libretto, which the composer felt as obscure and nonsensical, while the librettist insisted that even his servants could follow its neoclassical, proto-psychologic imagery. And finally there was the problem of rewriting it to extricate it from the Molière by devidong a prologue that theoretically would propose the musical motives already developed in the opera inside the opera.

Director Katie Mitchell is right when she affirms that the work in its final form has a flaw: the first part does not go seamlessly in the second. The Composer and Zerbinetta’s duet hints at something that never happens, her quick appearance in the last scene seems like an afterthought, not to mention that the mise-en-abyme feels like a torso if we don’t have something like a final scene, even if it were a relatively short ensemble as in the finale ultimo of Don Giovanni: the tenor is happy he got the last scene, the soprano promises never working with the composer again, but he does not care for he has discovered new possibilities in Zerbinetta’s “talents”. She has probably already set her thoughts on someone else, the richest man in Vienna perhaps. Who knows?

That is exactly what Ms. Mitchell tries to do here – not only we have a glimpse of what happens after the end of the opera, but also we are able to witness what goes on in the audience while it is being performed. The Composer is trying to conduct a score edited in haste and is desperate with the intrusions of the buffo actors. My admiration for the director’s many interesting ideas – most of all, Zerbinetta disguised as a doctor (and later as an intellectual), as one would see in any -etta role, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes in the highly distracting and very ineffective decision of including the cross dressing lord and lady of the house in the story, interfering with the action in ways that could be described as all the variations of silliness. I will not call it the staging’s worst idea, for there was the fact that members of the “audience” would speak as loudly as they could over Richard Strauss’s music in a way nobody would have in real life, ruining some beautiful and expressive pages of this score. That is the moment when Ms. Mitchell should have followed the advice of a man who understood everything about structure: Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more”.

Until this evening, Jérémie Rhorer was a Mozart conductor with noteworthy sense of rhythm and drama. The fact that his Straussian credentials were unknown to me have an explanation: this is the first time he conducts an opera by Richard Strauss. It is, therefore, more puzzling that in this most Mozartian among the Bavarian composer’s operas Mr. Rhorer’s instincts have proved to be so wrong. As heard  this evening, the score sounded at its most square, unvaried, unclear and devoid of theatricality. Karl Böhm would marvel that Strauss could make a relatively small group of musicians could alternately sound as a the continuo of baroque opera and as a full Romantic orchestra. Not this evening – even when the music demanded impetuosity and richness, the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris insisted in dwelling within a very restricted sound palette.

Camilla Nylund started the opera with the wrong foot. The lower tessitura did not flatter her rather colorless middle register (the extreme low notes themselves were actually very good) and her lack of slancio made Es gibt ein Reich sound quite dull. She would fare really better in the final duet, where her long breath and pellucid pianissimo gave an elegant if still cold impression. For a change, she did not need to fear the competition from Olga Pudova’s unsubtle, metallic Zerbinetta. The Russian soprano is not familiar with the style, the German language and what she sang in some moments is not really what Strauss wrote. It has been a while since Roberto Saccà included the part of Bacchus in his repertoire and he still sounds healthy and secure in it, but the voice has become even grainier and more glaring than it used to be. In any case, it was refreshing to hear a voice that could pierce through the orchestra without much ado.

Kate Lindsey’s extra-light mezzo soprano had reserves of colors I did not know. Although the part requires everything she has to offer, she makes little of her own limits. Her singing this evening was secure, expressive and beautiful. Her ease with high mezza voce made her get away with very difficult passages and gather her strengths to the exposed high notes in the end of the prologue (when one was forced to recognize that a little bit more volume would make all the difference in the world). Even sailing through a rocky shore, she still found the opportunity to show off exemplary breath control and let go breath pauses that normally stand between almost every other singer and asphyxia. Brava.

Among minor roles, Huw Montague Randall displayed a firm and warm baritone as the harlequin and Lucie Roche super dark low notes in the part of the dryad sounded really promising.

Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin is my lucky opera. That is why I did not need to think twice when I saw it was being staged by The Atlanta Opera with a group almost entirely made of names unknown to me when I happened to be in town. Although the company does not rank into America’s big operatic outfits, it is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary season. Judging by this afternoon’s performance, I could bet that “prudence” must be the secret of their success. What I witnessed today was budget carefully and judiciously used in a way that makes its subscribers happy. For instance, this was an Onegin for first-timers. The audience reacted to the plot in almost interactive way. The “go, girl!” applause when Tatyana turns Onegin down in act 3 shows an involvement with the proceedings not always seen in Paris, London or MIlan, even when high-profile directors are racking

Although the company does not rank into America’s big operatic outfits, it is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary season. Judging by this afternoon’s performance, I could bet that “prudence” must be the secret of their success. What I witnessed today was budget carefully and judiciously used in a way that makes its subscribers happy. For instance, this was an Onegin for first-timers. The audience reacted to the plot in almost interactive way. The “go, girl!” applause when Tatyana turns Onegin down in act 3 shows an involvement with the proceedings not always seen in Paris, London or MIlan, even when high-profile directors are racking their brains to show them unheard-of angles of Pushkin’s masterpiece.

According to the interview in the program, director Tomer Zvulun is a veteran in staging Evgeny Onegin, but I wouldn’t have guessed it. Even if he is just telling the story, the level of attention to detail in his Personenregie adds some perspective to a production the Schwerpunkt of which is its unpretentiousness. Costumes and sets are harmlessly pleasant to the eyes, but there is room for the director’s personal view. His sympathy for Onegin is clear – one can see that he is almost as disappointed as Tatyana that he can reciprocate her feelings in act 1 and how desperate he is by the turn of events around the duel with Lensky. In the last act, he is almost a vampire. He has already died and is just trying to suck some life into his body. Tatyana, on the other hand, shows here more Schadenfreude than usual. She is almost provocative when she says that an affair with her would make Onegin’s reputation as a seducer. One can almost hear her thinking “a reputation as anything other than a spoilsport”. I have to say that this approach made the closing scene less dramatic, but it is always interesting to discover a new perspective of something one believed to have investigated thoroughly.

Conductor Ari Pelto’s contribution too turned around unpretentiousness. His orchestra lacks the density of sound this score cries for, and the decision of keeping things moving is the wise one in these circumstances, even if it did not brought about any sense of excitement. Raquel González’s shimmering creamy soprano could stand in the dictionary’s entry for “lyric soprano”. The sound is lovely and she phrases with affection and musicianship. Her singing is disarmingly beautiful and one almost overlooks the fact that it lacks a bit of slancio for the most outspoken scenes. The only singer I previously knew in the cast is tenor William Burden, who offered a spontaneous and vocally unproblematic take of the role of Lensky. The undemonstrative, almost Lieder-like manner he sang his aria was one of the highlights of this performance.

David Adam Moore acted and looked just like Evgeny Onegin, but his voice is too soft-grained and also slightly unfocused for this part. As a result, the performance was short of a torso. Önay Köse, the only non-American singer in the cast, offered an unusually unemotional account of his aria. His bass is extremely soft on the ear and produced with utmost spontaneity, but his main purpose seemed to ennunciate the text with utmost clarity in a – truth be said – very hearable mezza voce, Among the low voice female singers, Meredith Arwady (Filipevna) takes pride of place for her spacious rock-solid low register. I am unable to comment on these singer’s pronunciation of the Russian language.

The Theatro Municipal de São Paulo seemed to have regained its footing, especially after Roberto Minczuk was appointed general musical director, when a press release informed that there would not be an announcement of this year’s season due to uncertain funding. Therefore, the management has decided to play safe and announce each item in the opera season as soon as the money to pay for it is guaranteed.

Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia is not my favorite opera, rather the opposite. And yet I couldn’t help supporting a company that is really struggling to offer its very best. I could overhear today a 20-year-old girl explaining her friend that since she saw Tosca in the Theatro Municipal she has become a subscriber and has insisted that her friends come along. “At first they are convinced it’s going to be boring, but when they’re here, they realize it is a experience like nothing else”. The taxpayers in the state of São Paulo can rest assured: their money is here – if almost nowhere else – being put to good use.
Maestro Minczuk’s ability to make the best of the forces available is a lesson to every conductor. On every occasion I see him  in São Paulo, I cannot cease to marvel at how he finds the exact balance between doing justice to the score and respecting his musicians’ limitations. This evening, for instance, Mr. Minczuk took profit of the house band’s lean orchestral sound to produce a quicksilvery aural picture  that proved to be ideal to ensure clarity in Rossinian ensembles. Also, as his strings are not the nec plus ultra in passagework, he made sure that his beat was buoyant but not hectic. That also helped his singers to sound “happy” while dealing with impossibly difficult coloratura. I can only imagine that this must be helpful when you’re singing an opera buffa.
Luisa Francesconi has all the elements of a perfect Rosina: the tone is distinctively fruity, her low register is firm and bright, the passaggio is 100% smooth, she masters the art of mezza voce, her diction is crystalline, her fioriture are clear and she is charming and acts with naturalness. At this point in her career, her extreme high notes can have a touch of vinegar, but once the voice is warm one hardly notices that. Her Almaviva was American tenor Jack Swanson, whose dulcet tenor can acquire a pronounced nasality when things turn high and fast. He too gained in strength during the performance and wowed the audience with the rarely sung Cessa di più resistere in the end of the opera. Michel de Souza offered a Mozartian Figaro à la Hermann Prey, whose congeniality he evokes too. His baritone has a hint of throatiness that is not really bothersome, but his vowels are more Brazilian than Italian. That is a problem this evening’s Doctor Bartolo, Savio Sperandio, has as well. He made a fair stab at the role, dealing with the patter commendably. I was going to say that there were moments when his voice was all over the place, but that is something I could say of most Bartolos I saw on stage. Carlos Eduardo Marcos was a light, firm-toned Basílio, and Vítor Mascarenhas showed a promising baritone in the small role of Fiorello.
Cleber Papa’s staging brings nothing new to Rossini’s most performed comedy, but what he offered was solid and dependable. The slapstick approach was perfectly timed, every singer was comfortable on stage and their acting was so well integrated that one couldn’t help but calling them all good actors. The sets seemed to have been bought in the supermarket shelf for “Productions of The Barber of Seville”, but costumes were a bit inconsistent. I don’t understand why Rosina was made to look unattractive in unbecoming gowns and wigs.

 

For his only opera, Beethoven took no easy options and gave his musicians – either on stage and in the pit – no easy job. It is a work of extremes, it is a cry for freedom, it must be an overwhelming experience for all involved, the artists and the audience. Of course, for the musicians it is also another day at work. I.e.: although the idea that they would give their all in one performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio is very romantic, there are other performances in the run and even other work assignments. This must sound an overstatement, but those who have read Christa Ludwig’s biography know the temptation of giving too much in this of all operas and having to face the consequences later. In any case, almost everybody involved in this evening’s performance in the Staatsoper Unter den Linded need not to fear. This was a job almost entirely done on the safe side. Another day at the office, task completed. One can hardly blame their musicians for his or her own expectation of catharsis.

As my eight of nine readers might have guessed, this means I left the theatre frustrated. Believe it or not, this was my first Fidelio in Germany. It is a bit unfair that my last Fidelio, in the Vienna State Opera, fulfilled all my expectations and the “homecoming” to the Lindenoper after so many years in the Schiller-Theater made me wish for something unforgettable too. If someone has a great share of responsibility in my disappointment this would be Karl-Heinz Steffens. His conducting this evening could appear in the dictionary as the example of the bad meaning of the word kapellmeister. Not only his traffic cop duties were performed with little affection, but considering the high level of false entries his beat must be a bit difficult to follow. There was also a problematic approach to phrasing, as if the idea were to emulate Herbert von Karajan’s “smoothness” , what came across as simply as smudgy. The blunders with the French horns in Leonore’s big aria were just a symbol of everything that was not working properly this evening. Fortunately, the chorus was willing to give more and, when finally allowed to let loose, they showed how this performance should have been. Unfortunately these were the last five minutes of the opera.

It did not help either that the Leonore 2 was preferred to the Fidelio overture. Always when that happens, I can’t help thinking that Beethoven must have given a great deal of thought when he finally decided how this opera should begin. The fact that we had Marzelline aria before the duet with Jacquino, however, does not mean that this was an early version of the opera. Other than two noted differences, the regular final version of Fidelio seemed to have been adopted.

Harry Kupfer’s 2016 production for the Staatsoper actually has a great share of the low level of drama this evening. The director himself explains that it is a mistake to see Fidelio as a work that begins as a Spieloper, develops into a heroic opera until it finally settles as an oratorio, but curiously this is exactly how he stages it. After the overture, we see the chorus and the soloists as musicians in the Musikverein hall. Suddenly, the backdrop falls and they are in a prison. In the first finale, the prisoners shed their prisoner uniform and appear as themselves. The second act first shows Florestan as a tenor with the score of Fidelio. He then chains himself and “becomes” Florestan. The finale ultimo is performed again as a concert performance in the Musikverein, Don Fernando as the conductor and everybody reading from their scores. If you ask me if these directorial choices boost any theatricality, the answer is “no”. It drains Fidelio of its dramatic force, straitjackets the cast and denies Fidelio of its triumphant climax. This is the second time this week I have been denied the “triumph of goodness” and, if directors go on like that, I will have to resort to Walt Disney to find solace from the prevailing idiocracy in this world.

Simone Schneider’s rich, lyric soprano, rock-solid in bottom notes is judiciously used by a singer who knows her voice well and is fully prepared for a difficult task. She confidently sailed through Abscheulicher! without ever putting herself in danger, but this was a performance about the mechanics. Her voice lacks a cutting edge and act II showed her rather well-behaved and small-scaled. At some point, she sounded also a bit tired. In the end, one has to acknowledge her professionalism, but the character envisaged by Beethoven has little to do with what we heard tonight at the theatre. Curiously, Mandy Fredrich, who made a career as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, sounded similarly dispirited as Marzelline, rather unfocused in her high notes, even if she did not seem to find any problem in producing them. In the short but important role of Don Fernando, Arttu Katajan too sounded small-scale and lacking nobility.

Fortunately, the remaining singers in the cast inhabited a whole different universe. I am surprised by Klaus Florian Vogt’s fully committed incursion in the difficult role of Florestan. His was a rather Mozartian approach to the part, albeit one sung in a naturally voluminous voice and fully informed by the text. Even if his singing lacked powerful heroic top notes, this seemed coherent to his almost instrumental approach to the usually unsingable stretta of his aria. Actually, the unheroic quality of his singing scored many points in terms of theatre. This was rather the voice of a prisoner almost starved to death and kept alive by the dream of seeing his beloved wife once more time. This also made more sense in his pairing to Ms. Schneider’s also rather Mozartian Leonore. Moreover, one could bet that what Beethoven might have heard is closer to what we hard tonight than to what Klemperer offers in his recording (namely Christa Ludwig and Jon Vickers). Finding Falk Struckmann in firm voice after all those years of heavy use and was a very good surprise. His Pizarro was powerfully sung and he has no problem with sounding really nasty. In that sense, he was extremely well contrasted to René Pape’s utterly likable Rocco. Mr. Pape’s singing was predictably one of this evening’s greatest assets. Last but not least, Florian Hoffmann was a light-toned, vulnerable and congenial Jacquino.

The fact that Handel is no longer a rarity in the repertoire has made opera houses curious about what is still there to be explored in terms of baroque opera. The Berlin Staatsoper has been particularly serious in its intent of venturing in the most unusual corners of the XVIIIth and XVIIth centuries by programing works of composers such as Telemann and Graun, but it might sound hard to believe that Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie is having its Berlin première (in the 1757 version plus borrowed scenes from previous editions) in 2018. Actually, it is not hard to explain. French tragédie lyrique is a genre that never travelled well until France took a prominent position in the movement of historically informed performances. Many French musicians (or foreign artists who have made France their home such as William Christie) found a mission in performing and recording the pillars of French music, such as the works of Charpentier, Lully and Rameau. With them, a generation of singers made their names singing French baroque music. We could quote Véronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Mireille Delunsch. Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie has pride of place in terms of popularity. Since the now legendary performances in Aix-en-Province under John Eliot Gardiner with Jessye Norman and José van Dam, it has been recorded in studio by William Christie (with Lorraine Hunt) and Marc Minkowski (with Gens and Bernarda Fink) and live in the theatre on video, most notably in the Palais Garnier in a spectacular production by Ivan Alexandre conducted by Emanuelle Haïm with Sarah Connolly and Stéphane Degout (both singers would appear again in a video from Glyndebourne conducted by Christie).

Normally, a performance like this in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden would be conducted by René Jacobs, but this time the former principal director of the Berliner Philharmoniker was the driving force behind this project. He had already conducted Rameau’s Les Boréades decades ago and found in it an opportunity for both him and his wife, Magdalena Kozena, to perform an opera considered by both particularly innovative at the time in its dramatic potentials. However, the peculiarities of staging an opera with so many dance numbers made him carefully choose his creative team. After some years of negotiation, he finally had choreographer Aletta Collins as director and Ólafur Eliasson as designer. Whereas Sir Simon has opted for a period instrument orchestra in the Freiburg Barockorchester, Ms. Collins and Mr. Eliasson had decided to recreate the impact of baroque theatre not by being faithful to the letter, but by recreating the experience of integration between stage and auditorium and the use of all kind of theatrical effects to dazzle the audience. Even if one must concede that the staging tended to be static and short in drama, the light effects that flooded the hall in color were simply otherworldly. The dance numbers were very effective, creative and well-integrated in the concept as a while. I am not so convinced about the unbecoming and sometimes awkward costumes for both leading ladies, though.

I won’t lie. Rameau works for me better in small doses rather than in a whole bottle. Although something like Les Indes Galantes is intrinsically problematic in terms of story (basically, it has none), it is far more varied than Hyppolite et Aricie, whose melodic numbers tend to sound like one another. None of them is as catchy as Forêts paisibles or exquisite as Tendre amour. The conductor seems to be aware of this and offered a hearty, vigorous performance, more German in its sheer energy than French in its poised and spirited suppleness. This is not a problem per se, but that meant that the orchestra – in the renovated Lindenoper’s warm acoustic – was loud and a group of accordingly louder singers would have done all the difference in the world.

Let’s talk first of the two singers who were, as the French say, bien dans leur peau, those in the title roles. This is not Anna Prohaska’s first staged Rameau and, being a specialist in baroque music, she proves to be comfortable with the style and the language. Moreover, her silvery soprano is an unusual choice in a role taken by creamier-toned singers, a choice that pays off in its young-sounding and bell-toned impression. Aricie is a role that tends to the faceless, and an edgier sound gives it some character. Reinoud Van Mechelen’s haute-contre has more substance in his high notes than what is one used to hear. As Hyppolite is usually referred to as “the hero” , a little bit testosterone is welcome. This does not mean that Mr Van Mechelen does not float his high notes in head tones as he is supposed to, only that he manages to do that without sounding disincarnate. Elsa Dreisig too was very well cast as Diane, her lyric soprano homogenous, round and spontaneous.

I am not so sure about the royal couple, good as both singers are. Magdalena Kozena does not lack intensity in the role of Phèdre, but her voice does lack amplitude for it, especially in her lower register. We have heard it with the above mentioned Norman, Hunt, Fink and Connolly, all of them richer in sound and darker in tone. In comparison with these ladies’ tragical grandeur, Ms. Kozena sounded just annoyed. Gyula Orerndt too sang with vehemence and engagement, but he shares with his Phèdre the small scale. Some small roles were very well sung (and danced): the sweet-toned Slavka Zamecnikova and Serena Saenz Molinero offered praiseworthy performances. The Staatsoper chorus does not usually sings French baroque music, but acquitted itself quite commendably too.